In 2022, SDSU’s passing game has generated 29 completions, 230 yards (76.67 per game), and three touchdowns.
To put these numbers into perspective, it is only the third time since 2013 that the Aztecs have failed to average 90 passing yards over a three-game span. From 10/21/2017 to 11/14/2017, they had 22 receptions, 267 yards (89 per game), and two scores. A year earlier, from 10/28/2016 to 11/12/2016, SDSU totaled 23 receptions, 257 yards (85.67 per game), and six touchdowns. Considering the differences in offensive philosophies and the 5-1 record in the 2016 and 2017 games, the first three weeks of this year are the worst stretch for the passing offense in at least a decade.
With conference play around the corner and a very good Toledo team coming to town on Saturday, SDSU players and their staff have little time to figure out how to turn around the dreadful start. Below are five ways the Aztecs can begin moving in the right direction.
Ownership and Accountability
No excuse changes where SDSU’s offense is. The first step to growth is, to be honest with where you are. The Aztecs’ offense, particularly their passing game, has been bad. It is a fact, and denying it does nothing to remedy the situation.
Acceptance allows for a fair evaluation and a plan to work towards improvement. Following practice on Tuesday, SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski spoke to the gathered media. He admitted not expecting to be back to the same struggles but took complete ownership of the situation and is working tirelessly to address it. In a results-oriented profession, nothing he could say will dissuade the people who have given up on him. Results are what matters and the first step in getting them is accepting responsibility.
“Look, I am the offensive coordinator,” Hecklinski explained. “The biggest part of my job is to bear the entire responsibility for the performance on the field. That is me and I take that responsibility. It’s nobody else. It is my job to get it fixed and to get it squared away with our staff working together with our players and I will do that.”
The downfall of accepting responsibility is it can ruin confidence. While admitting he and his family see what fans say about him on social media, Hecklinski has decades of experience being a quality mentor and coach. Nothing, and certainly not three underperforming games, is going to dissuade him.
His players could be another story. If the Aztecs are going to respond and become the offense they need to win football games this season, they cannot lose their belief in themselves as they honestly evaluate their present performance.
Ultimately, only those inside the program can discover where to find the swagger the Aztecs are known for, but usually, in the most challenging moments, it is the star players who can guide their less-established teammates. Jesse Matthews, Jordan Byrd, Alama Uluave, Patrick McMorris, Caden McDonald, and Michael Shawcroft have had enough success at this level to know who they are. The rest of the team would do well to listen to them and tune out all the external noise.
When asked about the confidence of his offense, Hecklinski explained that the players read what the media and the fans write about them too and said, “our players since I’ve been here have been through a lot. You think of Covid. You think of all the road games. You think of everything we have been through. We are a resilient bunch. That’s a part of our DNA. That’s part of how we’re built. We’ll get through it. We’ll fight through it. The way that we do it is together and to be physically tough and, regardless of what happens, staying together throughout the course of a 60-minute game. That’s part of what we’re learning right now. “
Finding the easy pass
The easiest way to regain confidence is to succeed. Unlike most teams in the country, nothing in the passing game has been easy for the Aztecs. Hecklinski and the offensive staff would do well to find simple completions to build the confidence of their team. The backside of their RPO offense has a route they call the “gift” because it matches up a receiver one-on-one with a corner on a quick route that should favor the offense. Hitting a few of these could allow the passing game to build some rhythm.
Other options might include taking advantage of Burmeister’s mobility and rolling him out to give a great route runner like Jesse Matthews a chance at a double move. They could also max protect and only send three into the route, try to clear out a safety, and see if Tyrell Shavers or Brionne Penny can win a ball in the air. Any of these types of plays that takes the pressure off the QB to read multiple places on the field could help invigorate the offense.
“We did not perform well (at Utah),” Hecklinski said. “In fact, at times, it was downright ugly. I get that. I understand it. I see it. I’m saying the same thing everyone else is saying. We’re trying to get back to that consistency of playing every down as hard as we can to produce positive yards and get the ball into the guys’ hands to allow them to go make plays. … Some of it is simplifying it down. Some of it is just hammering guys and pushing guys through. I can list a number of things, but those are just excuses. None of those things changes who we are right now. I bear the responsibility for and I am going to work hard with our staff because we have a great staff, we’ve got amazing players, we’ve got an amazing set of seniors that deserve everything and we’re all going to work together to get it right.”
Return to the basics
SDSU has made no secret that they would like to be more balanced than they were under Rocky Long. The major caveat to that aim is the Aztecs want balance without losing the identity that has made them successful since 2010. Their brand of football is still built on toughness and wearing down the opposition. This characteristic has been lacking from the 2022 team on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, it means getting back to the power run game, setting the tone early that playing SDSU is going to be the most physically demanding contest of the year. Every player on the roster chose to be an Aztec because this ethic fits their personality. A return to this style will not take long.
“I go back to our games where we were really productive since I’ve been here,” Hecklinski explained, where he looks for models of what he wants the offense to be. “That’s not running the ball 70 times. That’s finding a balance between running and passing and really building off of an established mentality that was already here. The mentality is, ‘we are tougher. We are stronger, and we are going to outlast you.’ Now, I have to get us back to being able to do that while still balancing out the offense. Look at the bowl game. We were tougher than UTSA in that moment. We outlasted them. We were stronger than them, but yet we were still balanced.”
Over 40% of starting QBs in college football in 2022 arrived at their schools as transfers. As more programs find success dipping into the portal, this trend will likely grow. For better or for worse, teams are used to adding and subtracting players all the time. This fact notwithstanding, Will Haskell’s departure from SDSU could hold a different meaning.
Haskell was the media darling with viral highlight tapes on Sportscenter. Fan interest drove undue attention to his development from the local media. With older QBs struggling for much of last season, Aztec Nation wanted to see the player hyped as the future of the position on the field.
When Haskell was removed after only three plays because the coaching staff saw in that short time what they had been seeing in practice, the fan base erupted, making distraction a possibility. If the team is to change their fortunes in 2022, they cannot allow anyone no longer with the team to impact their performance.
“In our day and age, it’s bigger on the outside than it is on the inside,” Hecklinski said. “I think we’re used to this in the transfer portal. … The public and everyone wants to know (why Haskell transferred), and that’s the world we live in. But, in the world (the football) team lives in, this is a very common thing that happens to us, and it will continue to happen to us, and it will continue to happen everywhere around the country. Because when decisions are made and as players develop and depth charts start to change, that’s the direction that we go in.”