Caden McDonald belongs in the Aztec Hall of Fame

Caden McDonald lines up against UNLV. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Caden McDonald with his family on his second senior night. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Since the 1950s and with no end in sight, statistics have played a central role in decision-making for the government and big business.

Sports, due mostly to developing first as a hobby, has always utilized a narrative-based approach that depends on the personal expertise of scouts or coaches who were usually former players. As money has flowed into the industry, the role of numbers has grown and is now threatening to become the prominent method used in managing teams. It may already have that place.

The ongoing debate between the proper use of quantitative and qualitative data in sports is best seen in the recent discussions surrounding players in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For a decade, Fred McGriff failed to garner enough votes from baseball’s writers, arguably due to the fact he did not reach any of the needed statistical benchmarks – 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 60 Career WAR, etc. Over the weekend, McGriff was unanimously elected for enshrinement by the 16-member Contemporary Era Committee. 

With no personal connection to evaluate McGriff, the writers depended on his stats. The Committee, in contrast, drew from their experience with him. One group found him decidedly lacking, the other an obvious selection. 

Caden McDonald holds a school record, playing in 60 straight games. (Don De Mars/EVT)

In a few years, a similar conversation will take place surrounding SDSU linebacker Caden McDonald. Short of finding fame in his professional career, as time goes on, McDonald’s resume will increasingly be defined by the numbers he put up. With no committee to rescue his case should the decision-makers base his body of work on where he ranks on the all-time statistics lists, it is necessary to state before he plays his final game at SDSU: Caden McDonald belongs in the Aztec Hall of Fame.

“Oh, that’s definitely a blessing that I’m even thought about in the same category as the guys that are in it because the guys that are in the Aztec Hall of Fame are absolutely legends that walked through this campus and through the doors of the athletic facility,” McDonald told EVT this week. “They are truly outstanding men that have played outstanding football. There aren’t words to be said to be put in the same category as them.”

McDonald burst onto the conference radar in 2020. He was a First Team All-Mountain West selection after finishing third in the conference in tackles for loss and eighth in sacks. Despite not ranking inside of the top 20 in any major statistic the following two years, the coaches and media placed him on the conference’s first team in 2021 and 2022.

He joined 2014 Aztec Hall of Fame Inductee Kirk Morrison as the only linebackers in the history of the Mountain West to be named first-team all-conference in three consecutive seasons. 

“It’s all to my teammates, my coaches, and God on all this,” McDonald said. “It’s none of my doing. It’s a blessing to be put in the same category as Kirk Morrison, being one of two people to get it from here at SDSU because coming in, I looked up to Kirk Morrison, (Calvin) Munson, Miles Burris, Kyahva (Tezino), all those guys. So it is truly an amazing blessing for me.”

Five years from now will be the first time McDonald is eligible to join the Aztec Hall of Fame. Over the next half-decade, there is a danger that his inclusion in the most fabled Hall of Montezuma will come down to where he ranks on the school’s all-time lists in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks. Judging from box scores, he does not place in the top 10 in any of those statistical categories. Without an acute memory, the voters might forget his impact on the Aztecs.

Beginning the fifth week of the 2019 season until the end of 2021, McDonald started every game at outside linebacker. In those 31 contests, the Aztecs’ defense recorded 82 sacks (2.7 per game) and 211 tackles for loss (6.8). For the first half of 2022, McDonald lined up at middle linebacker, and SDSU’s potent pass rush disappeared. In those six games, the Aztecs had 8 sacks (1.3) and only 29 TFLs (4.8).

Caden McDonald leads the Aztecs into Snapdragon Stadium. (Don De Mars/EVT)

During the bye week, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix moved him back to the position where he made his name, and the Aztecs’ defense was reborn. Over the final six contests, they dropped the QB 21 times (3.5) and brought down a defender in the backfield 48 times (8).

McDonald credited his teammates for the increase in production, but it is difficult not to notice the similarities in previous seasons with McDonald at OLB and what SDSU did at the end of this season. Is it just a coincidence that the play of the defense elevated so much when Mattix switched McDonald’s position? More important to the discussion of his worthiness for inclusion in the school’s Hall of Fame, is there a way to understand how crucial he was to the Aztecs’ success when his numbers do not stand out among his peers?

The answer to these questions lies in how the coaches and veteran media thought of him during his time on the Mesa. In many ways, the voters for the conference’s postseason awards served the same function for McDonald that the Contemporary Era Committee did for McGriff. They informed anyone paying attention that the Texas native’s impact on the field goes far beyond the box score.

“What is not seen in a statistic is my intelligence with the game,” McDonald explained. “I think my football IQ is extremely high, and I can diagnose a play before it even happens by listening to the calls and such. That is one big thing. And then, my study time that I put in before the game and try to share that with other players to help them be successful as well. I think that’s another big portion of it.” 

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“But, other than that, at the end of day, it’s just coaches and reporters voting, and they may see something that maybe statistics don’t see. I, honestly, don’t know what that is either, but it’s truly awesome to be thought about and regarded in that high category at the end of each season.”

Among the keys to the opposition’s game plan the past three years was containing #54. When McDonald played at outside linebacker, he faced multiple blockers on most snaps, which gave one-on-one matchups for his teammates. Playing McDonald at middle linebacker at the start of 2022 allowed teams to use their running backs and tight ends to double other players at the line of scrimmage. Once he moved back to OLB, he attracted a lot of attention once again and opened up opportunities for the rest of the defensive front.  

This dynamic was not lost on those SDSU lined up against this fall. It is one of the reasons opposing coaching staffs awarded McDonald with the top spot on the all-conference team and not someone with better statistics. 

Two school records that McDonald does hold are number of games played and number of consecutive games played. Both are active streaks of 60. Led by McDonald and their defense, the Aztecs are 40-20 in those contests.

While his play on the field is enough for the school to award him its highest athletic honor, McDonald also is one of the best Aztecs off it. A team captain a year ago, three anecdotes suffice to sum up the player and teammate he is.

With the game out of hand in Utah State’s favor, SDSU scored its only touchdown of the 2021 Mountain West Championship. Following the extra point, McDonald was the only player to come out on the field to congratulate the kicking team. He was met by Billy Dunkle, who was visibly sulking as he approached the sideline. McDonald embraced the giant offensive lineman, put both hands on Dunkle’s helmet, and lifted his teammate’s head.

Caden McDonald celebrates a goal line stand against Air Force. (Don De Mars/EVT)

At the end of a particularly hot and grueling practice at the start of this season, McDonald burst into a high-pitch laugh reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Yelling to no one in particular, he expounded on his love for this part of practice because it was here where he could improve the most. Skipping around like a madman from position group to position group, he willed his team to compete. They responded and finished the practice with renewed vigor.

Following the final game against Air Force, head coach Brady Hoke was asked about the leadership the seniors showed in guiding the team through the challenges at the start of the year. Aside from the four team captains, Hoke mentioned only one other player by name in his response. “Caden McDonald, he is as good as it gets.” 

Hoke does not speak in hyperbole. He is an expert in football players, and as a teammate, player, and leader, it does not get any better than McDonald.

“After my six years here, it’s truly been a blessing to be around those guys and to work with them. … ,” McDonald said, fighting back tears at a weekly press conference before SDSU’s contest against New Mexico. “In my career here, I wanted to be first-team all-conference. That was a goal. My freshman year, I saw Nick Bawden carrying out the shield, and I like, ‘I’ve got to do that. That’s something I want to do before I leave here.’ I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been able to accomplish my goals. It’s truly been a blessing of a career here at San Diego State. I really take pride in wearing the Aztec logo on my chest. I’ll definitely be an ‘Aztec for Life’ for sure.” 

Five years is the earliest McDonald can be inducted, but it usually takes longer for a player to be considered. It would be unfortunate if time or statistics clouded the clear truth: Caden McDonald belongs in the Aztec Hall of Fame. 

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