Christmas came early for the Aztecs! Seniors Caden McDonald, Chance Bell, and Jordan Byrd announced their intention to return to SDSU for an extra senior season. McDonald’s return brought with it a couple of additional gifts. Cooper McDonald, Caden’s younger brother, decided to transfer to the Mesa from Washington. The younger McDonald brought his former Huskies’ teammate tight end Mark Redman to San Diego as well. Fresh off a 12 win season, the news of these five players playing the inaugural season in Snapdragon Stadium is a gift that keeps on giving. Below is an early look at how these players could impact the Aztecs in 2021.
Any time a First Team All-Conference player returns, he becomes one of the favorites to win the conference player of the year. While McDonald certainly can win the MW Defensive Player of the Year Award, his greatest impact on the team is his leadership. 2022 will be the second year in a row the team will return a Team Captain from the previous season. McDonald already approaches his craft like a pro. His consistent presence in Winter Conditioning, Spring Camp, and summer workouts will continue to teach the younger players in the Aztec Way program.
The front six for SDSU’s defense, the team’s strength a year ago, will lose a significant number of players from one of the best defenses in program history. If the Aztecs are going to be as stout up front, they will need McDonald to make another leap in his game. The 2022 season opener is expected to be the 49th game of McDonald’s Hall of Fame career. His presence on the team is another in a long list of reasons next year promises to be one of the most memorable in program history.
A First Team All-Conference player a year ago as a kick returner, Byrd also led the Mountain West in punt return yards. With his return, SDSU should have one of the most dynamic return games in the nation. Coming into 2021, Byrd was still relatively new to each role. He had 35 kick returns and 22 punt returns prior to this season. This year he brought back 22 kickoffs and 27 punts. Now, as a seasoned veteran, who fully understands all the nuances of Special Teams’ coach Doug Deakin’s scheme, the sky’s the limit for the New Mexico native.
Offensively, Byrd has yet to reach his full potential in Jeff Hecklinski’s offense. He was utilized frequently in two-back sets but still had his biggest impact running the ball from the backfield. Of his 37 carries, he took three of them over 40 yards. Finding ways to unleash more big plays from Byrd will continue to be one of Hecklinski’s chief aims. Conversely, preventing him from making explosive plays will be the opposition’s focus.
Bell enters 2021 as the favorite to be RB1 for the Red and Black. His decision means the Aztecs will have a steady, talented, featured back yet again. He returns to the Mesa with 1,187 career yards, ranking 36th in school history. With 813 yards next season, he can become only the 17th back in program history to have 2,000 career rushing yards. The most carries Bell has had in a season was 89 in 2019. What could he do as the feature back with 200 carries? He returned in 2022 to find out.
However, more than anything he does on the field, Bell belongs to a special running back room led by Associate Head Coach Jeff Horton. Other institutions have players transfer in mass exoduses. SDSU has had fewer players leave for numerous reasons, but chief among them is the example set by the running back room. Every back in Horton’s posse can play, yet they have accepted reduced roles than they could have received elsewhere and embraced the brotherhood that defines the Aztecs. Not only did Bell not transfer at any point the past four seasons, but he also chose to come back to a unit that promises to be every bit as competitive in 2022 as it has been since Rashaad Penny left for the NFL.
— Cooper McDonald ✞ (@coopmcdonald44) December 10, 2021
Though McDonald started 10 games this past season for Washington, his place in the starting lineup at SDSU is far from determined. On the one hand, McDonald played outside linebacker for the Huskies, the position his older brother currently holds down for the Aztecs. On the other, SDSU returns a number of productive players that are more seasoned in the 3-3-5 than McDonald. McDonald might be fourth on the depth chart at outside linebacker heading into spring camp behind Caden, Garret Fountain, and Vai Kaho.
The first thing that jumps out about McDonald on tape is his size. He looks all of his listed 245 pounds. For comparison, SDSU defensive lineman Keshawn Banks is listed at 265. McDonald was at his best attacking the line of scrimmage. He showed a good burst off the line and a similar motor to his older brother. His experience should put him in the rotation next season, but in what role will be one of the storylines of spring camp. It will be interesting to see how Defensive Coordinator Kurt Mattix utilizes a very deep and experienced linebacker group.
Like McDonald, Redman’s size jumps out when watching his film at Washington. He truly is an imposing presence. He also possesses elite straight-line speed for someone as large as he is. It is easy to see why Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, etc., all sought his services out of high school. Redman settled on the Huskies and played in every contest for them the past two years. An early enrollee for the class of 2020, he will participate in the third spring camp of his college career.
Redman enters a talented but very young tight end group led by Jay Rudolph. How tight-end coach Savai’i Eselu develops the group will be essential to the success of the 2022 team. Redman is a willing blocker, though. With his height, he might be too tall to play the fullback role in SDSU’s offense that Rudolph occupied this past season. Replacing Team Captain Daniel Bellinger will likely be done by committee with Redman squarely in the mix.