Tomorrow at 6 pm, SDSU is hosting its annual Fan Fest. Parking lots open at 4 pm, and the gates at 5 pm.
Arguably the most critical practice during fall camp, the scrimmage will be the closest approximation to game-like conditions. Pre-game rituals will be rehearsed, and the players will get to feel the adrenaline rush of playing in front of thousands of fans.
It will give the coaching staff its best look as they evaluate their own players in preparation for the season opener against Ohio. Following Monday’s practice, head coach Brady Hoke said the depth chart for the first game should be set by this upcoming Wednesday.
Below are five ongoing position battles. Each has an underclassman pressing for time. If these inexperienced Aztecs show even the slightest hint of timidity under the lights at Snapdragon Stadium, it will be a sign that they are too young to play a central role on August 26.
Replacing 2022 starters Michael Shawcroft and Caden McDonald at linebacker has been a top priority for the program since the end of last year. It is the reason the staff brought in New Mexico transfer Cody Moon. Heading into spring camp, conventional wisdom had some combination of Moon, returners Cooper McDonald, Zyrus Fiaseu, Vai Kaho, and converted safety Kyron White holding down the three linebacker positions.
Underclassmen Trey White and Brady Anderson turned convention on its head. The duo has been the talk of camp, forcing their way into the rotation at linebacker. Saturday’s scrimmage will be their first game-like action since Fan Fest in 2022.
Their ascension could not have come at a better time. K. White moved back to safety at the conclusion of spring camp. Fiaseu has an undisclosed injury. He was not at practice last Saturday or this past Monday.
Late in the last weekend’s scrimmage, the first-team defense had McDonald at MIKE linebacker and T. White at SAM. They had not been seen on the field together previously. If SDSU is without Fiaseu for an extended period, this lineup would be a unique way to replace him.
Heading into fall camp, the DBs were expected to lead the defense. The group returned numerous skilled and experienced athletes. SDSU’s secondary has more than lived up to the prediction. Surprisingly, though, the veterans are not the only ones who have paced the defense. The young DBs have been spectacular as well.
With Dez Malone held out of last Saturday’s scrimmage, Sophomore CB Chris Johnson started opposite Dallas Branch. During Monday’s practice, Malone and Johnson ran with the first team. Branch competed with the second unit along with Noah Tumblin. If the staff evaluated the film and believe Johnson is better than Branch, a returning all-conference performer, it is a significant development.
History has shown that cornerback coach Demetrius Sumler’s depth chart is very fluid. Branch, Tumblin, and Noah Avinger are great competitors. Watching to see if Johnson still has the starting job for Fan Fest and how he performs with the lights on is a storyline to follow.
Johnson is not the only underclassman DB to shake up the two-deep. After returning an interception for a touchdown in last Saturday’s scrimmage, Josh Hunter was elevated to first string on Monday. Eric Butler spelled Hunter. 2022 starter, Davaughn Celestine, backed up Cedarious Barfield.
Despite his small frame, Hunter is an elite open-field tackler. Add in next-level instincts and a great feel for the game, and his inclusion in the warrior safety rotation comes into focus. Butler also brings an exciting skill set. He has a physicality unmatched by his teammates in the two-deep. SDSU looks good coming off the bus, and players like Butler are the reason why.
At aztec safety, true freshman Marcus Racliffe and sophomore Max Garrison have yet to see significant game action. They have been the primary competitors to replace Patrick McMorris. Third-string aztec Jatavious Magee had an athletic interception last weekend. It will be worth checking to see if that springboards him into the hunt for playing time. McMorris’ backup last year, Kyron White, looked like a savvy vet early in camp, but an undisclosed injury has prevented him from earning playing time.
Before camp, the prospect of three new starters in the secondary would have been viewed as a disaster. That these underclassmen have played well enough to take time away from upperclassmen with actual game experience speaks volumes about the progress of the younger Aztecs.
Depending on the extent of Fiaseu’s injury, every starter on the front six could be new for SDSU. There are risks to adding three secondary members to that number. But, if these are truly the Aztecs’ best players, allowing them to get their feet wet against Ohio and Idaho State should have them ready to compete against UCLA, Oregon State, Boise State, and Air Force.
True freshman Baylin Brooks created the most buzz on the first two days of practice. Hoke singled out the 6-foot-2, 195-pound wide receiver as a younger player who had impressed the staff. Brooks certainly looked the part in drills until an injury sidelined him for a week.
Per NCAA rules, Brooks was not allowed to participate in the team’s first scrimmage because he needed to make it through a few non-contact practices before competing in full-contact activities. Tomorrow represents Brooks’ best chance to get into the mix at wideout.
With the Aztecs expecting to use multiple tight ends for the majority of their offensive snaps, the wide receivers will have fewer opportunities. A quality performance at Fan Fest would go a long way to ensuring Brooks receives some of the limited playing time.
Sophomore WR Phillippe Wesley’s place in the rotation is secured. He has been arguably the best receiver in camp. His chemistry with QB Jalen Mayden has been evident throughout.
On Monday, with the focus on the two-minute offense, Mayden led two of the four drives. Both ended with scores, the first on a Jack Browning field goal. The second was a touchdown pass to Wesley. Displaying the feel they have for each other, Mayden adlibbed, bought time, and Wesley found an opening in the end zone.
Still, Wesley is a young player. When he takes the field against Ohio, it will only be the third time he lines up inside Snapdragon Stadium. Saturday will be the second. A good showing can only help Wesley’s confidence.
Before camp, offensive line coach Mike Goff spoke about his group working in unison. That chemistry comes best by playing together. In practices open to the media, the staff has not allowed two-year starter Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) to maximize playing with the projected starters because he’s primarily run with the second team.
Based on reps, BCD looks like the swing backup tackle, with redshirt freshman Drew Azzopardi and sophomore Christian Jones as the starting right and left tackles, respectively. If BCD has been playing both roles because the staff is undecided on who is better between Azzopardi and Jones, Fan Fest would be a good time to make a decision and allow BCD to fully acclimate to his teammates. If the staff still needs to see how the underclassmen compete in game-like conditions, Saturday will offer that as well.
At times in camp, BCD has looked like the third-best tackle. If the competition is more about him stepping up than it is about Jones or Azzopardi, Fan Fest should be where BCD’s experience is most evident.
Last season, the first glimpse of the issues that would plague the line for much of the year occurred during Fan Fest. This year, the event could serve the opposite purpose. Should the line compete well against the defense, protect the QBs, and get to the second level in the run game, it would show the improvement from Goff’s unit that fans are clamoring to see.
Five young defensive linemen are in the mix for time. Redshirt freshman Ryan Henderson started last weekend for injured DE Garret Fountain. Hoke praised Henderson as someone who stood out on film. Underclassmen made up the second unit for the defensive line at the first scrimmage. Sophomore Keion Mitchell and true freshman Brady Nassar played defensive end with sophomore Darrion Daulton inside. Nassar rotated with sophomore Dom Oliver.
Watching how they compete at Fan Fest will help the staff know how many quality snaps these inexperienced players are capable of giving them.
Last year, SDSU’s opponents averaged about 65 snaps a game. Health depending, Fountain will be given 40 to 50 snaps, DT Tupu Alualu around 30 to 40 snaps, and DE Wyatt Draeger could be in line for the same amount. These numbers would leave 30 snaps at one DE, 15 at the other, and 30 plays inside.
An educated guess is Mitchell, Oliver, and Henderson will spell Fountain and Draeger enough to allow Nassar to redshirt. Daulton and Oklahoma State transfer Samuela Tuihalamaka will split the remaining tackle role depending on how consistent Daulton can be in the game. Senior Daniel Okpoko is a wild card in these calculations.
Saturday is the best audition left for the rest of the defensive line room to earn snaps against Ohio. It will also be another chance for Nassar to prove his play this season warrants forgoing a fifth year down the road.
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.