When underdogs win, they do it by changing the dynamics of the encounter. In the biblical narrative, David defeated Goliath by taking the giant out of his comfort zone. In favor of armor, he chose the quickness of his shepherd’s garb. Instead of the tactics of swordplay, he wielded a sling. The young Israelite sprinted at the Philistine, forcing his lumbering enemy to fight at an unfamiliar pace. The result, now mythological, is David defeated Goliath.
San Diego State, like all members of the Group of Five, are underdogs in the world of college football. The resources needed to compete in the same manner as USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington eliminates a school like SDSU from the competition before the teams even reach the field. The Aztecs have found success because, like Princeton in college basketball, or the Service Academies in football, they have changed the playing field, forcing the favorites to play a different game than they are accustomed to.
Off the field, recruits have decided to attend SDSU over Power 5 schools, including USC, Oregon, et al, not because the coaching staff has figured out a way to be better salesmen. On the contrary, they have doubled down on honesty and authenticity, which highlights the insincerity of the upper echelon of college football.
“It’s the reason why I committed,” incoming recruit Max Garrison told EVT when asked about the authenticity of the coaches. “Coach Kyle Hoke, the safeties coach, … the whole time, he never rushed me … He was like, ‘Look, you make the best decision for yourself, and if that’s us, then I’d want you, but you make the best decision for yourself.’ After that, he just won me over. They were the most honest school that recruited me … I was like, ‘there’s no way I don’t want to come and play for these coaches.’”
They have also forgone the shortcuts modern technology or facilities can bring to workout regimens. SDSU has chosen instead to present a nearly unmatched challenge to their players in the offseason. Coach Hall arrives on campus three to four hours before to set up for 6 AM runs because there is not a football-only facility where they could keep it out the night before. Multiple players decided not to come back for their second senior season in part because they were not sure they had the motivation to face another grueling offseason. Those who have what it takes to be an Aztec are rewarded by learning to get more out of themselves than they thought possible.
On the field, they value effort more than anything else. Offensively, they have favored a power running game and clock management over the en vogue up-tempo, pass-happy game employed elsewhere. Defensively, they run the 3-3-5, which gives them flexibility in how they line up against spread formations, and it also gives them another decided advantage.
The 3-3-5 allows exceptional football players who do not fit the mold needed to thrive in other defensive styles to flourish. SDSU is able to emphasize production more than size or build because their defense is malleable to fit specific players, especially when it is run by wizards like Rocky Long and Kurt Mattix.
“The coaching staff didn’t worry about what a lot of other schools worried about with my size or my weight,” Joshua Hunter told EVT when asked why he chose SDSU. “They said, ‘We think you’re perfect for our school. We think you can play this, this and that.’ That was something that was a big deal for me, knowing that all I need is a job. I feel like once I get a job, I can focus on that and get the job done for the team.”
Hunter and Garrison are both undersized defensive backs who, despite legitimate offers from brand name institutions, were not prioritized by those schools as much as other players with greater stature. Neither they nor SDSU cares about the disrespect. They will continue working, competing, and succeeding, while making all the Goliaths uncomfortable along the way.
“We are without question going to try and find the five best players,” defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix told EVT when asked about how the staff will select the starting secondary in 2022. “That’s where it’s going to start. It started in our 2020 season when we sat here and said, ‘Tayler Hawkins is one of the four best safeties … those four players need to find a way to get on the field.’ … We start out trying to say, ‘who are the five best defensive backs?’”
The Aztecs need to replace two players, Trenton Thompson and Tayler Hawkins, who played a lot of snaps in their careers. In 2020, Hawkins was converted to corner because the four best defensive backs on the roster were all safeties, and Mattix found a way to play them all together by moving Hawkins to the boundary corner.
Mattix, cornerbacks coach Demetrius Sumler, and safeties coach Kyle Hoke will try to figure out who the five best defensive backs on the roster are between now and September 3. Below are three questions about the secondary on the eve of Spring Camp. Answering them over the next 15 practices will go a long way to help the staff find their starters in 2022.
1. Can the veterans take the next step in their development?
In a previous article detailing the offensive line, Mike Goff reminded Aztec Nation how young, and relatively inexperienced Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson is on the offensive line. BCD has only seen significant snaps in one season. The same is true for nearly every returning player in the secondary.
As good as he was in 2021, Patrick McMorris was only in his first year starting at the Aztec safety position. Cornerbacks Dallas Branch, Noah Tumblin, Noah Avinger, and safety CJ Baskerville all saw action last season for the first time. Among the defensive backs, only Cedarious Barfield has spent time on the field in more than one season.
All of the inexperienced players should be better in 2022. The question that needs to be answered is how much they will be compared to a year ago. Everything these players do should be impacted by their success a season ago. From their diets to workouts, film study, and even their time in the classroom, the players should bring a confidence only game experience can produce to all of their activities.
The exciting part for Aztec fans is wondering how much better these players can be. McMorris could turn himself into an All-American candidate if he makes the next leap following a first-team all-conference season. With his size and speed, Baskerville could find himself squarely on the NFL roster if he can build off his end to the 2021 season. Barfield could settle into the role vacated by Thompson and thrive as the nickel defensive back covering the opponent’s best player in the slot. All three of the cornerbacks could join the ranks of Hawkins, Darren Hall, and Luq Barcoo of players with the potential to continue playing after time on the Mesa ends.
2. Who walks through the open door?
On paper, the five best defensive backs are set and will be chosen among the six Aztecs detailed above. However, Spring Camp has offered a clear opportunity for players down the roster to make their mark. During his press conference Thursday, coach Hoke mentioned that Branch and Avinger are non-contact players for spring ball due to offseason surgeries.
Hoke downplayed the significance of the aspects the players would miss, but anytime they are not on the field, someone else is. Seizing that opportunity could be huge for Noah Tumblin and those further down the depth chart. Players mentioned by name by the coaching staff include Kyron White, Isaiah McElvane, New Zealand Williams, DJ Bryant, Cassius Savage, Jaiden Brown, Dezjhon Malone, and Adonis Brown.
Branch and Avinger will be full participants in all drills that do not involve contact, according to Hoke, so the odds of one of the players jumping them on the roster is not high. SDSU, though, is a program of underdogs, so there is little doubt the competition will be fierce over the next 15 practices.
3. What will the personality of the secondary be?
Not only will spring camp offer the first opportunities to replace Hawkins and Thompson’s production on the field, but it will also allow for the character of the group to form. The graduated seniors brought the personalities to the unit. Which players will fill that void for the Aztecs in 2022?
The Achilles’ heel of the defense in 2022 was giving up the big play. During the season, Hoke spoke about the young defensive backs needing to step up their competitiveness on 50/50 balls. Too often, he said, they were so afraid of making a mistake or getting called for a penalty that they did not go after the ball when it was in the air. That timidity cost the Aztecs too often last season.
Another way of expressing the same idea is to say the cornerbacks played without the proper edge. The vague notion of “playing with an edge” is something Aztec coaches have spoken about for a decade. Despite its nature that defies measurement, whether quantitative or qualitative, “edge” is an important ingredient for SDSU when the most valued quality of an Aztec is effort.
The coaching staff’s starting point is the five best defensive backs, but their evaluation of who will compose the best defensive backfield does not end there. If those five are unable to play with the correct swagger or if they are unable to communicate on and off the field effectively, the leader who can bring this valuable commodity will see the field even if he is not among the top five individual performers.
The SDSU Football Podcast, Episode 10
If you would like to listen to the entire conversations with Kurt Mattix, Max Garrison, and Joshua Hunter, subscribe to The SDSU Football Podcast at any of the links, and you will be notified immediately when those episodes are released.
Listen to the Episode 10 of the SDSU Podcast below: