Five things to watch at SDSU’s Spring Game

SDSU's offense erupts in celebration after scoring a touchdown on Monday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Former NFL head coach Norv Turner visits with Ryan Lindley at Monday’s practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

At 6 pm on Thursday, SDSU will play its annual Spring Game. Traditionally held at the practice facility on the main campus, this will be the first time Snapdragon Stadium has hosted the event. Dozens of recruits will be on hand, making the Aztecs’ home in the fall the perfect place to hold the game.

“We’re looking forward to Thursday night,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said at Tuesday’s media press conference. “We’ve had a good spring. I say that (but) we are a young team and still have a lot of things we’ve got to accomplish, we have to do, from the standpoint of getting better.”

Team Makeup

Before Thursday’s kickoff, the seniors on the team will get together and hold a draft to separate the team into “Team Aztec” and “Team Warrior.” The makeup of the two rosters is usually one of the more interesting aspects of the game. Here are the key players to keep an eye on.

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Jalen Mayden: The team’s starting QB will not be live on Thursday, limiting part of what makes him special. Nonetheless, whichever squad he plays on will have a decided advantage in the contest.

Mehki Shaw: Unquestionably the best receiver during practice when the media has been present, the hometown hero is able to make catches all over the field. In team drills,  the QB who looked best was the one usually the one who had 83 running routes.

Mark Redman: Redman has been the other go-to target in camp. The hulking tight end flashes receiving ability not seen from the position since the late Gavin Escobar. His ability to run away from smaller defenders is special.

Brionne Penny: Penny looks the part in practice and competes with a joy that is noticeable. He has been the star of the game the last two times the team has hosted a public scrimmage. Expect big things from No. 11.

Patrick McMorris: Last year’s Spring Game was lopsided. Whichever team did not have to line up against McMorris was able to throw the ball all over the field. The defense is expected to play base formations, so playmaking ability is key, and there are few better than McMorris. How much he sees the field, though, is a question, as the staff may want to give younger players snaps at the aztec position.

Dez Malone: Malone has had a great camp. He has clearly grown from last year, where at times, he looked like a safety playing corner. Now, he has the fluid movements, the turning of the hips that separates the secondary positions. Only a junior, it would not be a shock for this to be the last Spring Game of his Aztec career. He is big, fast, a terrific tackler, and in nearly every open practice, has created a turnover.

Garrett Fountain: There are eight to eleven players competing for time along the defensive front. Garrett Fountain and Dan Okopko are the only returnees from last year’s rotation. Okopoko has been limited in spring, meaning whichever team has Fountain on the DL will have an advantage.

New faces: Fans hoping to get their first look at Texas transfer JD Coffey III and Western Carolina transfer Raphael Williams Jr might have to wait. Williams worked on the side all of Monday’s practice. Coffey was taken off the field on a cart at the beginning of Monday’s activities. He rode in the front seat, suggesting it was not serious but also did not return to the field. Their status for Thursday is unknown. One player Aztec Nation will be excited to see is Hassan Mahasin. The four-star recruit spent a year rehabbing an injury and had a pair of nice grabs in traffic during practice this week.

Kyle Crum celebrates a touchdown he scored in red zone drills. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Will they score touchdowns?

Fairly or not, the baseline for the offense will be set on Thursday. If Ryan Lindley’s group hits some big plays and puts some points on the board, it will go a long way to impacting the tenor of the fans and media over the summer.

No matter what transpires, every comment or prediction based on the play at the Spring Game will start with, “it was only a scrimmage, but..” How the rest of that sentence will go will be decided on the field at Snapdragon.

The show on the field also matters because of the number of recruits who will be in attendance. Boring football is less memorable than exciting play. With the defense playing very vanilla, the offense should be able to move the ball.

“We just want to score some touchdowns,” SDSU OC Ryan Lindley said after practice on Monday. “That’s the number one thing for our guys. Finally, in this last scrimmage, we created some explosive plays. The biggest thing for us is as an offense; you’re always going to feel like whistles get blown dead during the thud period, we got some faith that Jaylon Armstead (for example) is going to get out an arm tackle.”

Playing their final game as Aztecs

A little more than five weeks after Thursday’s contest, the second transfer window will open. Any player who enters the portal during that time will be able to transfer without sitting out. Following the Spring Game, the staff will meet with all of its players and give them a full evaluation and let them know where they stand.

While the contents of those conversations will not be known publicly, the school will release a post-spring depth chart. It will be interesting to see how many players leave the program once the dust of the Phase Two competition settles. Athletes without much game tape are struggling to find landing spots.

“The Spring Game is more an opportunity to compete,” SDSU DC Kurt Mattix said on Monday. “Put them in Snapdragon Stadium, put them in an environment that could be welcoming, it could be unfriendly, depending on what’s going on if we’re not playing well. It’s the opportunity to get them the exposure of a game night.”

Mikey Welsh has shown the ability to get open and make tough grabs. Welsh finished this play with a reception. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Final, best audition before the transfer portal

The flip side of this discussion is the Aztecs are going to be active in the transfer portal. Head coach Brady Hoke said this week the program is looking for a WR, a C/G, and another pass rusher. Though it is just one of the 15 practices, the Spring Game is the most gamelike of the dress rehearsals.

SDSU’s staff patiently evaluates players. They withhold judgment until the process they created has played out. Lindley does not offer a QB until he has seen them throw in person. Hoke separates formative evaluation meant to help players grow from summative evaluations used to develop depth charts. Arguably, the most important of the 15 spring practices, the Spring Game will weigh heavily on the final player rankings and influence the number and type of athletes the program brings in to help in the fall.

“I think we’re in a spot where we’ve got to go find the best available players,” Lindley said. “With some positions, you’d say we are more youthful than some positions, and maybe you lean towards those. … so much of the transfer portal now is some sort of prior relationship.”

Mark Redman, blanked by Josh Hunter, scores a touchdown on Monday. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Separating from the pack

More than just showing that adding more transfers to a position is unnecessary, the players will have a final chance to separate themselves from their teammates in the competition for time in the fall. Some of the deeper positions on the team, RB, TE, and LB, have a pack of players in the mix for time.

While depth is important, it also suggests that no single player is ready to be elite. CB and S could be added to the groups above. They have legit players running with the third team. The difference with these positions is they also have stars at the top of the depth chart as well. Thursday’s setting could provide a glimpse at which of the good players has the potential to be great.

Here is a brief positional rundown.

Quarterback: As expected, no one seriously pushed Jalen Mayden this spring. SDSU’s starting signal caller needs as many reps as possible to raise his level to where the Aztecs need it to be in the fall. Behind Mayden, Kyle Crum, Liu Aumavae, and DJ Ralph are angling for the chance to be the backup and get the most reps during the year. Ralph, a left-hander, has earned rave reviews from the staff, especially with his ability to move the chains with his feet.

Running Back: Kenan Christon, Jaylon Armstead, and Cam Davis are the three leaders at RB. Each provides a unique skill set. Christon is a homerun threat waiting to happen. Armstead is a power back that moves the pile and can burst to the outside. Davis is elusive and has the most ability to find cutback lanes. Behind them is a host of younger players angling for time. Martin Blake, Sheldon Canley II, and Lucky Sutton are the next three in line. The staff wants someone’s play to separate from the pack.

Wide Receiver: At Monday’s practice, it was the WRs more than the QBs that made the offense look organized. Phillipe Wesley, Josh Nicholson, Mehki Shaw, and Brionne Penny can play. The rest are trying to reach that quartet’s level. No. 40 Mikey Welsh is someone to keep an eye on. Each practice, he has made plays, and his responsibilities have grown. He is in the mix at punt returner. Darius De Los Reyes was absent from Monday’s practice and posted on his Instagram account that he underwent surgery earlier this week.

Cameron Harpole has had a nice camp. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Tight End: The team is being very careful with Jay Rudolph. Throughout practice, he is in constant communication with the athletic trainers on what drills he can participate in. His absence has opened the door for Cameron Harpole to impress. He has run with the starters throughout camp. Gus McGee continues to catch passes downfield, Aaron Greene is a terrific blocker, and Logan Tanner might have the most receiver-like skills of the group. They are led by Mark Redman, who does not play as big or strong as his frame suggests is possible. If he can add more physicality in blocking and attacking the ball in the air, he will play professionally for a long time.

Offensive Line: Throughout camp, Drew Azzopardi and Christian Jones have proven to be capable. According to Hoke on Tuesday, their emergence might allow Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson to slide to right guard. Tommy Mirabella, Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli, and Dean Abdullah have been competing to replace Alama Uluave at center. The lack of depth at the line probably means the group will be playing on both sides on Thursday. The OL will walk out of Snapdragon as winners, but the Aztecs will only win in the fall if the OL play improves.

Cornerback: Dez Malone continues to lead the group. Dallas Branch has stood out repeatedly as well and looks to be playing at another level. The same could be said for Noah Tumblin and Noah Avinger. Chris Johnson has pushed all of them. Unlike previous seasons where the defense tried to hide its corners, they will be depended upon to lead the defense.

Safety: Patrick McMorris’ snaps might be limited on Thursday to prevent injury. Cedarious Barfield and Davaughn Celestine could be in the same boat because their standing with the team is known. Josh Hunter looks to be in the hunt for playing time. JD Coffey has also been in the mix as well. Max Garrison has played a physical and fast aztec safety. His future is bright. The staff has really challenged Eric Butler this spring, and he will be better for it. SDSU should be good on special teams because the players lower on the safety depth chart can play.

Linebacker: These players have defied expectations. They look poised to replace some of the best to ever line up at the position for the Aztecs. Cody Moon, Zyrus Fiaseau, Cooper McDonald, and Vai Kaho all look the part. Kyron White’s transition to the position has been smooth. He might not play a lot on Thursday because the staff knows what they have with him. Younger players like New Zealand Williams, Brady Anderson, and Trey White have improved. There are others who deserved mention. Local walkon Jayden Kendricks from Eastlake High School is being coached hard. On one drill on Monday, he made the wrong play, and Mattix said to him, “start running. I’ll tell you when to stop.” Kendricks did his lap and returned to make an assisted tackle for loss in team drills.

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Defensive Line: Darrion Dalton is not being talked about enough. He has looked terrific at nose tackle. Between him, Wyatt Draeger, and Samuela Tuihalamaka, the Aztecs could be better at DT than they were a year ago. Daniel Okpoko has not played much in spring, but his athleticism from the position jumps out. Garrett Fountain has emerged as a leader not just of the defense but the entire team. Behind them, Hoke has called Dominic Oliver “special.” All of the JC transfers have flashed this spring. On Monday, Joseph Hall blew into the backfield for a monster tackle for loss. Consistency is key moving forward, and Thursday is a great opportunity to end spring on a high note.

Daniel Bleske tells the person handling the jugs machine to launch the football while running Mark Redman through the drill. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Kicker/Punter: Punting and kicking in Snapdragon is one of the keys Hoke mentioned for the team. On Monday, the reigning MW Special Teams player of the year did not kick field goals. He was the primary holder for transfer Gabriel Plascencia and Zechariah Ramirez. Plascencia and Ramirez were perfect on Monday, with Plascencia looking really good. Allowing all of them to practice in the Aztecs’ home will be important.

Punt/Kick Returner/Upman: Throughout spring, the staff has used the jugs machine to allow players to practice catching the types of ball they will see on kickoffs. Anyone who could be out on the field has practiced the skill. On Monday, GA Daniel Bleske, who has been filling in as the running back coach, turned the more veteran players around to make the attempts even harder. Bleske lined up Christon and Redman with their backs to the machine. He would give a thumbs up, the ball would sail into the air, and the players would have to in order to make the reception.

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