Five storylines for Phase One of SDSU’s football season
San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke breaks the football calendar into four phases. Phase One is winter conditioning, Phase Two is spring camp, Phase Three is the work between the end of spring and the start of fall camp, and Phase Four is the season. Among the quartet, the first Phase is the least known.
“I’m a pretty simple guy,” Associate Athletic Director of Strength & Conditioning Adam Hall said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast. “I don’t have social media. I don’t do a lot of stuff socially, so I take that approach with the team. Notice, you’ll never see us post anything from the weight room or our team runs online to any twitter to any handles. That’s because what we do is ours.”
More than just reflecting the personality of the person leading it, the secretive nature of the Aztecs’ offseason conditioning program teaches one of life’s important lessons. Growth only occurs in private, away from the public eye.
Phase One of the 2023 season began last week. With Phase Two set to begin on February 20, leaving Hall has only a few weeks to get his players ready. Below are five storylines for the Aztecs during winter conditioning.
Dealing with the seismic shifts outside of the program
According to multiple sources, conference realignment has been an important topic internally since at least the summer. Long before the public declarations, becoming a Power Five institution was held up as motivation for players inside the program and as an enticement for recruits outside of it. Should everything go according to plan, 2023 will be the Aztecs’ final season in the Mountain West. Aligning with a new conference is a once-in-a-generation shift, but it comes at the heels of an even rarer feat.
“Snapdragon is a beautiful stadium,” Hall said. “It’s probably the nicest stadium I’ve ever been in, and the fact that it was built on time in this city is absolutely an amazing testament to JD (Wicker) and our administration, all the people in the community that helped with it. But football’s football, and there will never be an excuse for us not playing our best football. And the fact that we were playing in a beautiful state-of-the-art stadium, we could be playing out in the sandlot, we should still play our best football, and we didn’t.”
Hall said the team’s unacceptable results in 2022 were not due to being distracted by the outside noise of Snapdragon and the celebration of the 100th season. The experience, though, should serve them well because there will be ample opportunity to focus on off-the-field issues in 2023. If they get an invite to the Pac-12, that will be talked about all year. Should the winds of conference realignment shift again and the Aztecs are left out, that will make even bigger headlines.
In any scenario, Hall’s work this offseason is to keep SDSU rooted in its identity. The Aztecs built their program on the backs of men who had something to prove. Can that underdog mentality continue to exist in the comforts of one of the best stadiums in college football?
“I think the 2022 season, we left a lot out there that we could have had, and there are no excuses for it,” Hall explained. “It is what it is. But the whole point in this January coming back, we will mention last year. But right now, all we’re trying to do is get better for this year. Last year wasn’t good enough, which we all know, and the goal every January is to reset the foundation and move forward.”
Building the 2023 team from scratch
Hall’s approach may be simple, but it is not unsophisticated. He is a reservoir of knowledge about his profession. His method emphasizes the newness of each season. Star players are not given preferential treatment. Walk-ons are fully invited into the team.
This true-to-life philosophy is player, not program driven. It gives maximum responsibility to the seniors to build a team in their own image. The brilliance of the approach for a place like San Diego State is apparent.
Universities like Alabama can demand adaptation to their way because if one five-star recruit does not conform, there is another to replace him. SDSU can only compete at the highest levels through elite effort. Hoke and Hall’s yearly reset reminds their players of this fact.
“Every year, you inherit a brand new football team,” Hall explained. “Yes, some guys will have played a lot of football, but the two thousand twenty-two team was last year. We had some great players that graduated. They’re going to go try their hand at the NFL. Every single January, you start from scratch. You build your own identity as the football team. Not every team was going to have the same personalities. So winter conditioning is basically to build your foundation moving into spring practice, build it in spring training, get it to the peak over summer conditioning, and then head into fall camp.”
Acclimating the newest Aztecs
Upwards of a dozen new Aztecs are participating in their first winter conditioning under Hall. Some schools group the newcomers together and slowly bring them along until the staff knows them well enough to allow them to work out with the entire team. SDSU does it differently.
New players wear white t-shirts to stand out from the returners, who are dressed in black. Hall has spent so much time with the veterans that he knows their limits and how to keep them safe while they grow mentally and physically. Having those he is less familiar with stand out by wearing different attire allows them to participate fully with their teammates in a supportive environment.
“We do ours in a very safe way in communication constantly with athletic medicine and our head athletic trainer, but these guys are coming in to compete for a spot,” Hall said. “Last year, we didn’t play good enough. These guys are coming in here because we want them to play. That’s why they’re coming in as mid-years. So yes, I monitor them because I don’t know them like I know the other guys, … I know some of these other guys like the back of my hand because I’ve been working with them for a long time. Those guys are putting on a white shirt because I want to see how they respond to things in different ways. But at the same time, I have to get them ready to compete in spring practice.”
SDSU brought in upperclassmen at defensive line, linebacker, safety, offensive line, and wide receiver with the expectation that they would play in 2023 or that, through competition, the players returning would up their game. Hall has found a unique and effective way to balance the team’s needs with the well-being of the players.
Improving the team’s discipline
Only 13 teams in college football were penalized more than SDSU last year. While its 92 infractions were high compared to the rest of the country, it was in line with the number called over the previous decade. Last year’s total ranked as only the fourth highest for the program since 2013.
The total number might not be an issue, but the type of penalties called a season ago was a problem. SDSU’s offense committed 37 false starts. That was more than its opponents accepted against the Aztecs’ entire defense and special teams combined.
“That’s something you address on a program-wide level, and that was addressed our very first run of winter conditioning,” Hall said. “I made sure we stressed that point, and coach Hoke was aware of that as well. We started hitting on that right off the bat. It’s just discipline. It’s unforced errors.”
“You can understand a physical error on the football field. Everybody makes them. When you’re playing as hard as you can, you can make a mistake. The unforced errors are inexcusable, and the amount that we were penalized last year, that cannot happen again. We are definitely addressing that almost on a daily basis right now in the winter.”
Every day in training, the players are stretched to the limits. It is at the moment of fatigue and exhaustion that Hall emphasizes attention to detail and focus. Anyone is able to think clearly when they are at their best, but the penalties pop up when players are at their worst.
Jalen Mayden takes the helm
Another of Hall’s benchmarks is the players at every position do very similar programs. There are some tweaks between groups, but overall, his goal is for everyone on the team to feel the same at the end of each day. This common experience builds camaraderie and creates the desired culture.
As Jalen Mayden enters 2023 as the unquestioned face of the program, his training regimen will not be vastly different than what he went through a season ago. Mayden’s growth as a QB will not come through special workouts that increase muscle in his arms so he can throw further. It will come because the only way to get better at throwing a football is by throwing. Mayden did not attempt a pass for eight months before stepping into the starting QB role last season. This year, he will have an entire offseason to polish his craft.
Mayden will be separated from his teammates in the spring by a green jersey, but it serves the team well that there is no difference between him and his teammates in winter conditioning. Stated as simply as Hall is himself, Mayden is the perfect Aztec. He is the embodiment of everything the coaches want in their players.
“Jalen has worked hard since he’s been here,” Hall explained. “He would tell you it was an enormous change for him coming from where he was to where he is now about how we did things. But I’ll tell you what, that guy has done every single thing right since he’s been here. He’s fun to coach. He’s a team guy, which isn’t very common at that position, the quarterback position, these days. But he’s about the team. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
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“I don’t usually talk about individual players, but what he did last year was pretty damn special. It shows he’s very consistent. He’s extremely consistent in his work ethic. He’s incredibly unselfish. Things were very hard for him, like I said, when he got here. But what he does is he just keeps working. One of my old coaches used to say just keeps chopping, just keeps going forward. And that’s what he did. He has absolutely earned everything he’s received. He’s fun to coach.”
SDSU finished 7-6 a year ago, but there were multiple opportunities for a much better season that the Aztecs did not take advantage of. Hope for significant improvement begins with Mayden. Winter conditioning would be the perfect time for the southpaw QB to take control of the team.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.