Despite angst, transfer portal helps Aztecs reload

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke sounded off on the transfer portal during his Wednesday press conference with the media. 

“I hate it,” he said in reference to the recent NCAA changes that implemented a transfer portal and allowed Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) opportunities for student-athletes to be compensated. 

“There are some schools [where] the NIL’s are pretty damn good,” which Hoke says leads to further separation between Power 5 and non-Power 5 schools. “There’s negotiations now that have not happened in years before.”

“Everyone is probably as sick [about the current transfer system] as I am.”

Over 2000 players entered the NCAA transfer portal the past two months, an average of over 15 players per FBS team.

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

In 2020, the NCAA also lifted restrictions that required non-graduate transfers to sit out one year after transferring, which now allows first-time transfers the ability to switch schools and play right away. 

Additionally, most conferences, including the Mountain West, lifted additional restrictions which previously forced players who transferred within the conference to sit out one additional year. In 2019, a non-graduate transfer from San Diego State who decided to transfer to another Mountain West school would have to sit the following two seasons before playing for that school. Currently, that same player could transfer to another Mountain West school and play in 2022.     

With all that said, a deeper look into the additions and subtractions for the Aztecs via the transfer portal paints a much brighter story heading into 2022 than Hoke described.  

Since the Mountain West Conference Championship Game on December 4th, eleven San Diego State football players entered the portal looking to continue their collegiate careers elsewhere. This puts the Aztecs below the 15 player average compared to the rest of the country. Ten of the eleven players transferring out are on the offensive side of the ball. 

The players are:

QB Lucas Johnson

QB Jordon Brookshire

RB Kaegun Williams

WR BJ Busbee 

WR Kobe Smith

WR Koby Duru

LG Chris Martinez 

RG Joey Capra 

RT Desmond Bessent

OL Ilaisa Gonebure 

S Allan Mwata

On the surface, a fanbase reacts to players deciding to leave their football team as an act of dislike or disinterest to the team or school. But there are typically more circumstances in play than meets the eye that leads to a player to enter the transfer portal.

These could include a change in coaching staff or philosophy, which no longer makes the player a great fit, a lack of playing time, or family issues and homesickness.

One circumstance that is not talked about often when a player enters the transfer portal is the school forcing the player’s hand or pushing them to transfer. No offseason has this come to fruition more than this current one. 

Credit: Paul Garrison/EVT

Last year, the NCAA granted exemptions to all student-athletes due to COVID-19, essentially making the 2020 season not count against the maximum four seasons of playing eligibility. 

To ease the transition for schools that could see seniors elect to return for another season and take up scholarships that were already intended for incoming freshmen or transfers, the NCAA removed the 85 scholarship limit for schools for the 2021 season, allowing seniors to return without having to play musical chairs with scholarships.  

Heading into the 2022 season, the 85 scholarship limit is back in play which has likely led to every coaching staff in the country having difficult conversations with some of their beloved seniors. 

“That’s tough..there’s no doubt,” said coach Hoke when asked about those discussions. “When you get down to trying to get your numbers right [hitting 85 scholarship limit], and you got a guy that you would love to have back but just don’t have room for, you got to let them go.” 

Here’s a deeper look (by positional group) of the outgoing players.

Quarterback

The two starting quarterbacks for the 12-win San Diego State team in 2021 entered the transfer portal following the Frisco Bowl. Johnson announced his commitment to Montana via Twitter on January 6th, while Brookshire has yet to make a decision. Both players were seniors with one year of eligibility remaining. 

In Episode 1 of the SDSU Football Podcast, incoming freshman quarterback Kyle Crum said one of the reasons he made the decision to sign with San Diego State and enroll early for the spring semester was because he was told the two senior quarterbacks were leaving, and the competition for starter was open. 

“They made those decisions early,” said Hoke on Wednesday when asked why both quarterbacks are transferring. “We talked to each guy at the end of November and asked them what their plans were. [Johnson] had made a decision that he wanted to move on.” 

In response to a question about whether he would have liked to have both players back next year, Hoke said, “I don’t know.” 

In an interview for Episode 4 of The SDSU Football Podcast, Brookshire recalled it a bit differently, stating offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski told him at the end of the season that they would not be bringing him back for 2022. Brookshire added that he was not sure whether he wanted to continue playing football, but SDSU’s willingness to pay for his final semester so he could finish his Master’s Degree was a very nice gesture. He entered the portal recently to see what potential opportunities could be available for him football-wise. “If something catches my eye, I will take it,” he said.  

Whatever the circumstances of the discussions between the two quarterbacks and the coaching staff at the end of the season, it is evident that both sides decided that it was best to move on and look towards the future. While both quarterbacks were part of a historic season for SDSU, the passing offense was mostly held back throughout the season due to inconsistent play by both. 

Running Back

Three of the top four running backs this past season were eligible to return for super senior seasons. While Jordan Byrd and Chance Bell announced they were returning, Kaegun Williams entered the transfer portal. Williams rushed for 268 yards and two touchdowns in 2021. With Byrd and Bell returning and the addition of two incoming freshman running backs, Williams was likely the odd man out when it came to scholarships within the running back group.  

Wide Receiver

Duru did not play in his first two seasons at San Diego State and received very limited playing time in 2021. He did not catch a pass as an Aztec, and his decision is likely tied to his lack of playing time and opportunities. 

Credit: Go Aztecs

Busbee and Smith, both seniors with one year of eligibility remaining, received plenty of playing time in all four of their seasons at San Diego State. After collecting only 28 receptions for 294 yards and one touchdown in his first three seasons, Busbee nearly matched those statistics in 2021, collecting 23 receptions for 287 yards. After starting as a walk-on, he was awarded a scholarship at the start of the 2021 year. 

Smith’s senior season was marred by a car accident that limited him to only six games played. He finished the year with only three receptions for 53 yards. In the prior three seasons, Smith caught 80 passes for 926 yards and six touchdowns. 

While both may have wanted to return to San Diego State for one more year, their decisions to enter the transfer portal may be a sign that the coaching staff preferred to use their scholarships on other incoming players.

Offensive Line

Perhaps the biggest concern heading into 2022 for the Aztecs (with the exception of starting quarterback) will be the offensive line. In addition to losing two First Team All-Conference starters to graduation (Zach Thomas) and the NFL Draft (William Dunkle), three outgoing transfers add to the glaring hole with five of the eight most experienced players on the line in 2021 not returning in 2022.

Martinez, the starting left guard all season, elected to enter the transfer portal following the Mountain West Championship Game and did not play in the Frisco Bowl. Martinez committed to Arizona State via Twitter on January 17th. 

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Capra and Bessent were the primary backups on the right side of the offensive line all season, but neither received much playing time. Capra also did not play in the Frisco Bowl and committed to Nevada via Twitter on December 21st, meaning he will play against the Aztecs when the teams meet in Reno in 2022. 

Under first-year offensive line coach Mike Goff, the unit was inconsistent throughout the season. Whether the exodus of three linemen who figured to have opportunities to start next season is a result of the linemen not fitting with Goff’s scheme or desired attributes or the influx of young but highly recruited sophomores and freshmen pushing for playing time, experience will be a major concern heading into 2022. 

Safety

Mwata received very little playing time in his three years on the team. He participated mostly on special teams. With two years of eligibility remaining and the influx of young and talented players into the secondary, Mwata will be looking to transfer to a team where he can earn playing time and show off his skills. 

The Aztecs only signed five transfers at the start of the spring semester, but all five are poised to make the two-deep at the start of the season and fill holes opened by players departing for the NFL Draft. 

Here is a quick rundown of each of the five incoming players. 

Deven Lamp

The defensive lineman from Tulsa looks poised to step in for some of the departing defensive ends, such as All-American Cameron Thomas. Hoke described Lamp as a “good pash rusher, good edge guy, [has] long arms.”

During Episode 2 of The SDSU Football Podcast, former Aztec defensive lineman Sefo Mailangi said he checked out Lamp’s highlights and “he’s a straight dog” that should help keep the defensive line strong next year.  

Lamp has one year of eligibility remaining after playing four years at Tulsa. While not a starter at Tulsa, Lamp played in 38 games with decent production. This past season, Lamp played 288 snaps and recorded three sacks and ten quarterback hurries.  

Justus Tavai

The transfer from Hawaii comes to SDSU with one year of eligibility to play alongside younger brother Jonah Tavai in their last college football season. Hoke described Tavai as a bigger version of his brother, “physical, very tough,” while recalling that he used to joke with Jonah that his brother was the better player.  

Tavai started 12 games for Hawaii in 2021 and collected 37 tackles, and 18 quarterback hurries. While Tavai lined up 72% of his snaps at defensive tackle according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), his experience lining up at defensive end (the remaining 28%) should give Hoke and defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix the ability to mix and match their defensive fronts with multiple guys.      

Cooper McDonald

Caden McDonald’s younger brother started ten games at Washington this past season and brings Power 5 experience to an already strong and veteran linebacking unit. Playing mostly as an edge rusher from the outside linebacker position like his older brother, McDonald collected 31 tackles, two sacks, and three quarterback hurries in 2021. 

San Diego State Aztecs
Credit: Paul Garrison/ EVT Sports

Both McDonald and Tavai were recruited to San Diego State by their brothers once each decided to return for a super senior season on the Mesa. 

“That was huge,” said Hoke when asked about the impact of the brother’s decisions. “When Caden told us he wanted to come back and his brother was looking to leave Washington, we were very excited about it.” Hoke played with his brother at Ball State.

Mark Redman 

McDonald’s teammate at Washington also comes with three years of eligibility after playing two seasons at Washington. The Corona del Mar High tight end was highly recruited out of high school and ranked as the 7th best tight end in the Class of 2020 by Rivals. Hoke recalls recruiting the tight end out of high school when he was the defensive line coach in 2019 but responsible for the Orange County region in recruiting. 

Redman played sparingly at Washington, only catching one pass for five yards. His presence, along with incoming freshman Logan Tanner should help mitigate the loss of Daniel Bellinger to the NFL. 


Cade Bennett

The transfer from Oklahoma State, with three years of eligibility, looks to be a potential fill-in at either of the vacant starting guard positions. Despite having experience at a Power 5 school, Bennett only played 36 snaps in two games this past season, recording a 70.4 grade from PFF. He was highly recruited coming out of high school in Arizona and should help plug holes in the offensive line. 

The Aztecs have had additional discussions about bringing in a transfer quarterback as well, although no player has committed yet to San Diego State. Most of the circulating reports are regarding Braxton Burmeister, who played at La Jolla Country Day High School. While Hoke is not allowed to speak in public about specific recruits who have yet to officially join the team, he acknowledged that the Aztecs are currently waiting on a final decision from a transfer quarterback. 

While the Aztecs lost both starting quarterbacks, their starting left guard, and a couple of key contributors at running back and wide receiver, it is clear that the net benefit of the incoming versus outgoing transfers should yield major dividends for the team in 2022.  

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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America's Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.
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