It all started with a lost television remote.
In the endless Cincinnati winter, Bengals’ offensive lineman Mike Goff was searching for something, anything to do. Without a convenient way to change the channel, the Food Network got extended play one night, and Goff discovered a passion. Emeril Lagasse’s presentation so enticed the young lineman, he wrote down all of the needed ingredients on the side of a crossword puzzle and braved the 10° weather to buy what he needed for Lagasse’s culinary masterpiece at the local Kroger grocery store.
With little attention to detail, Goff haphazardly threw together the various items and completely butchered the recipe. Undeterred, he applied himself and researched where he went wrong. Ready for another try, Goff headed back out to Kroger in the Cincinnati winter, this time at 10 pm. When he returned with a second batch of the ingredients, he carefully crafted and cooked the ensemble, producing a symphony of flavor.
Springing from that wintertide, Goff became an artist, mastering the culinary arts and earning the appreciative nickname “Chef” by those fortunate enough to partake in his bountiful banquets.
As SDSU embarks on the 100th football season in school history, Goff is presented with his biggest challenge as a coach. How does he take the ingredients of a young but talented group of offensive linemen and craft them into a recipe of success for the Aztecs?
With no more additions to the roster, SDSU projects to have 14 offensive linemen on their fall roster. 11 are currently enrolled, with three true freshmen joining them in the summer. Since 2012, the Aztecs have averaged nearly 18 players at the position. The 2022 group is not only small in number, but they are also short on experience. The unit is expected to be composed of one senior, two juniors, four sophomores, four redshirt freshmen, and three true freshmen.
In the past decade, the line that most closely resembles the makeup of this year’s group is the 2018 unit. That year, Rocky Long filled his team with 13 linemen – one senior, two juniors, four sophomores, and six freshmen. In 2018, the Aztecs finished 7-6. It was the only time in the past six, non-Covid seasons, the team failed to win ten games.
As part of episode nine of The SDSU Football Podcast, Goff provided amazing insight into the players on the roster and where they are competing at the start of spring ball. Goff emphasized that this is only the beginning of the process. His linemen will likely move around as the competition plays out. But, the team must start somewhere, and here is where they will start on Monday as they open camp. The quotes from coach Goff are a small portion of a terrific interview that will be available on the podcast in the next few days.
“I am so excited for these young men to take the reins and develop their own sense of style,” Goff said when asked about the 2022 offensive line. “When you look at the youth of this unit, it’s their chance to (choose) whatever identity they want to be known as amongst their peers and amongst the Mountain West and amongst the opponents that we face out of conference. It’s their chance to develop that really from the ground up.”
SDSU loses six of their top eight linemen from a year ago. The group will have a different personality than in years past, as Goff’s quote above suggests. If there is any hope for the unit to play at as high of a level as last year, it is because Alama Uluave decided to return for a second senior season. The Aztecs lost three All-Americans early to the NFL draft, but Uluave’s return brings more value to the team than if any of the departing juniors had returned.
In the heart of the chaos of underclassmen with the inevitable missed assignments and unpolished technique, the Aztecs have an anchor in Uluave. In 2018, Uluave was a true freshman and saw firsthand the challenges that group faced. If he can use that experience to teach the players this season, history will not repeat itself. His presence will be calming for his teammates, as the center position naturally lends itself to a coach on the field and in the trenches.
Not only will he be invaluable to the team in 2022, but his presence ensures the position is in steady hands when he leaves. Backing him up is Tommy Mirabella, who only started snapping last season. Allowing Mirabella another year to learn and hone his craft means the center of the Aztecs’ offense will have a stalwart in 2023 and beyond.
#72 Alama Uluave Senior 6-2 305
Goff’s Comment: “When he decided to come back, he’s that guy who needed to go ahead and fill that spot that is so valuable when it comes down to it. …It doesn’t matter what league you are or what level you are, the center position is one of those spots, we got to have someone who has a complete understanding of what they’re doing, complete understanding of the system, complete understanding of the concepts, he has to know everything that’s happening behind him. When you get a chance to have someone who comes back, who has that understanding, you could put a price on it, I guess. It would be a high price.”
#68 Tommy Mirabella Sophomore 6-4 305
Goff’s Comment: “Tommy’s having a hell of a winter. Tommy is busting his butt, and it is awesome. … At the end of the day, you have to groom someone because we can’t keep Alama forever. The opportunity for (Mirabella) is he’s so young, and he’s learning from a seasoned veteran. It can only help him.”
Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) begins 2022, where he played the entire 2021 season, as the starting right tackle. Last year, Zach Thomas seamlessly moved to the left side of the line, but the plan for BCD is to remain on the right side because he is still a relatively inexperienced player. With all the newness on the line, allowing BCD to establish himself at a position where he is already comfortable is the staff’s aim. BCD performed better than hoped for in 2021. He mostly flew under the radar because he did his job without the glaring mishaps that often brings the worst kind of attention for linemen.
BCD enters camp as the presumed starter, but he needs to continue to play at a high level to keep his job, which Goff said is often more challenging to accomplish than earning the job to start with. Pushing BCD will be Joshua Simmons. Simmons is a local product and the star of the 2021 recruiting class. Goff including him at right tackle is telling because it means Simmons has a way to go before truly being a threat to compete for a starting job. Spring camp would be the perfect time for the ultra-talented player to force his way into the conversation for playing time for 2022.
#61 Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson Junior 6-6 320
Goff’s Comment: “Right now, I think Brandon has the chance to be an unbelievable right tackle and stronghold in that spot. … With what we have on the line, there’s going to be a new tackle regardless, and why not have Brandon go where (he is comfortable). … to set him up for success.”
#77 Joshua Simmons RS-Freshmen 6-6 330
Goff’s Comment: “Josh might be one of the most athletic people I have ever been around. Just how he moves his feet and how he operates, it’s freakish how can move. So, now, our job…is to get that athletic body moving in a direction that will help benefit him. … his footwork is unbelievable. Now we need to get it more polished.”
Ourlads projects senior Justin Dedich, a converted center with only three career starts, as the starter at right guard for USC. If Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli and Joey Wright had made different decisions in the recruiting process, they would be competing with Dedich in Los Angeles. Instead, virtually an identical position battle is going to be waged over the next few weeks on the Mesa.
There is no better indication of the growth in SDSU’s recruiting stature than the two players vying to lineup between Uluave and Crenshaw-Dickson. Both rejected overtures from the Trojans, but only one can be the starter against Arizona in the fall. Handicapping the battle is challenging because neither has played many snaps.
At the end of last season, Ulugalu-Maseuli played with the second unit, so he appears to have a slight edge. On the other hand, Wright is entering his third year in the program, and typically, this is when linemen make significant jumps in production. Spring camp is the perfect place for the competition to unfold. The two guards will make each other and the Aztecs better over the next month.
#63 Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli RS-Freshmen 6-4 340
Goff’s Comment: The thing about Ross is he has that natural instinct as a football player. One of the things you can’t coach is natural instinct. … Even though he didn’t get much playing time until the end, you could just see how he moves, that he loves the game. When you have someone who loves the game, you automatically can expect great things to come from him.”
#79 Joey Wright Sophomore 6-6 330
Goff’s Comment: “Right now, I see him competing for the right guard spot. … This is a big spring for Joey. This will be our second year together. It’s time for him to start to make his mark because the time is now. Sometimes, younger players take longer because they know they are not going to be relied on at that point. Now, there is not ‘at some point.’ Now, is the point. We are all young, with the exception of Alama (Uluavae). If you want to make your mark, now is the time.”
With Crenshaw-Dickson penciled in at right tackle, a player with zero career starts will be protecting the QBs’ blindside in 2022. This position battle nearly mirrors the one described above at right guard. A coveted member of the 2020 class, local product Jonathan Harrison, squares off against a star of the 2021 class, Zavier Leonard. While this competition lacks the recruiting resume of those at guard, it is arguably more important.
As the player furthest away from the help of the veteran players on the line, whoever wins the competition will become the focal point of opposing defenses during the non-conference slate. That the assumed weakness of the line will come from the quarterback’s blind side is a cause for concern until Harrison or Leonard prove that they can handle all that will be thrown at them.
Harrison played snaps with the second unit early in the season and has been listed as the backup at tackle for three seasons. Like Wright at guard, he is entering into his prime with the program. On the other hand, he did not factor in much last year when there was an opening at right tackle.
Leonard took Harrison’s place with the second unit at the end of the year. Goff raves about his work ethic and love of football. Will it be enough to win the job over a player with one more year of development? Spring camp should give Aztec Nation a good indication.
The third player listed here appears to be more in the project phase of his career. The interview with Goff is worth giving a listen to if only to hear him speak about Christian Jones. Undoubtedly, Jones will be a favor by all who hear it. Jones is 6’9” and “not anywhere near” his listed 350 pounds. As he reworks his body and continues to develop, the sky is the limit on his potential.
#62 Jonathan Harrison Sophomore 6-5 320
Goff’s Comment: “He falls under the same ‘Joey Wright mold.’ You’ve been in the system now for a while. Things are expected of you. It’s time for you to make your mark if you truly want to earn that spot. What I love about it is, right now, I have him competing with Zavier Leonard. They’re both not that far (apart) in age. They both know they are competing against someone their own age.”
#71 Zavier Leonard RS-Freshmen 6-4 315
Goff’s Comment: “Right now, coming into the spring, I see him competing for that left tackle spot. … It will be a competition between him and Jonathan Harrison. Zavier is of that same kind of mold as Christian Jones. He’s just a good person to have in the room. … He wants to be a good football player, so when you coach him, he says, ‘Yes, sir’ and then tries to get it done.”
#70 Christian Jones RS-Freshmen 6-9 350
Goff’s Comment: “He is one of the nicest human beings on the planet. If the planet were made of more people like him, it wouldn’t be the hot mess that it sometimes can be. Just his positivity and his being is an attribute to the room. When you are his height, what you see is the potential in him. … He is willing to work. (Football) is important to him.”
Goff only mentioned one player at left guard, transfer Cade Bennett. Bennett was brought to SDSU to compete for an interior line spot. Who his primary competition remains to be seen. Kyle Trombley is listed here for convenience. He is the only upperclassman on the roster without a clear position. If any of the position groups fail to live up to their potential and expectations in spring, expect Trombley to be inserted there to shore it up.
There were many reasons Goff extended Bennett an offer. Chief among them is the report he got from Oklahoma State’s Charlie Dickey. In short, the Cowboys did not want to lose Bennett and was sorry to see him go.
After the defections of Chris Martinez and Joey Capra via the transfer market, the Aztecs needed someone with more experience to enter the mix on the inside of their line. Enter Bennett, who told EVT when he first committed that he chose the Aztecs over offers from Penn State and most of the PAC-12.
#60 Cade Bennett Sophomore 6-3 315
Goff’s Comment: “He’s a guy you want in the room because you want to surround yourself with people who football is important to them. You don’t have to be the best football player in the world, but if it’s important to you, you’re going to make a contributing factor somehow. Cade Bennett, right now, I have competing at the left guard spot.”
#67 Kyle Trombley Junior 6-5 315
Goff’s Comment: “Right now, I look at him as my Swiss-Army Knife. Last spring, I moved him to every single position, and he was able to get things done at all those positions. The main thing with Kyle is to get him out on the field and see where he best fits. … When you have an upperclassman, someone who’s been around the program for a while, he understands what to expect, and he’s that guy you can count on to be able to fill in really at all five positions. That’s a very valuable asset to have.”
The SDSU Football Podcast
Listen to the full conversation with Mike Goff here: