Help Wanted: SDSU’s defense needs transfers from the portal

Tupu Alualu buries the head of Boise State OT Kage Casey in the ground. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

JD Coffey (33) celebrates a play against Boise State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

On Tuesday, EVT looked at the current makeup of the offense and potential transfer needs. 

Below is an analysis of the current makeup of the defense. Only players listed on the rosters provided by SDSU were assessed. Each position is graded according to the need to add more players from the transfer portal. Social media commitments did not suffice for inclusion in the grading but were mentioned if relevant. 

With the switch from a 3-3-5 to a 4-2-5 defensive formation under new defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt, three main assumptions were made for the purposes of this article but can change once the new staff is fully in place ahead of spring camp. First, the current defensive linemen are bucketed into interior (DT) and exterior (DE) based on their past playing experience and size profiles. Second, despite head coach Sean Lewis inferring during his press conference on December 20th that some linebackers may be better suited to move to DE, all returning linebackers remain included under the position they were listed last year. Third, the fifth defensive back remains a safety in lieu of a cornerback. 

Defensive Tackles

Projected Two Deep: Darrion Dalton, Tupu Alualu, Ryan Henderson, and Keion Mitchell 

Transfer need: High

Darrion Dalton before a snap against Boise State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Darrion Dalton (6-3, 275) and Tupu Alualu (6-1, 275) were atop the depth chart at nose tackle heading into the fall season under Kurt Mattix’s 3-3-5 system. As Dalton’s season was hampered by injury with only 114 snaps, Alualu kept the starting spot throughout the season and tallied 28 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 3 sacks. In 490 snaps, Alualu did not earn a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade higher than 57.0 in any of the five main categories. 

Ryan Henderson (6-3, 255) and Keion Mitchell (6-4, 260) played DE in the 3-3-5 system, but in a 4-2-5, they may be better suited to play inside in a 3-technique role opposed to an edge rusher. Mitchell, a walk-on, turned heads in fall camp, continually beating scholarship offensive linemen in one-on-one drills, and earned snaps during the season. 

Kodi Cornelius (6-1, 290), an incoming freshman, is an intriguing prospect for the 2024 season. While it is typically difficult for true freshmen to come into D1 college football and start right away in the trenches, Cornelius has the size to step in. At 290 lbs., he would be the heaviest DL when he joins the team in the summer, given the current roster. 

The coaching staff will search for DT’s in the portal that weigh closer to Cornelius than the others currently in the room, hoping to find players who can step in and eat up blocks and command double teams to free up edge rushers and blitzers.

If Wyatt Draeger (6-4, 270) returns for a super senior season, he could add more size and experience to the rotation but limited upside as a sixth-year player. In a response to a tweet about potential returning super seniors, Draeger hinted he would be an Aztec in 2024. Since a return would need to be mutual between the player and staff, returning DL coach Bojay Filimoeatu clearly believes Draeger is worth a scholarship spot if he returns. 

Defensive Ends

Projected Two Deep: Marlem Louis, Brady Nassar, Dominic Oliver, and Talib Salahuddin

Transfer need: High

Dom Oliver (30), Cody Moon (58), and Josh Hunter (24) take the field. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Marlem Louis (6-3 250) transfers in after playing 1,693 snaps in four years at FCS Richmond. The 2023 season was his best, earning PFF grades of 77.0 defense, 74.6 run defense, and 77.7 pass rush. His worst grade came in tackling (48.5) but was skewed down by three poor performances out of 13 in that department. He led the Spiders with 12 TFLs and 7.5 sacks.

Brady Nassar (6-5 240) stepped in as a true freshman in 2023 and elevated himself onto the two-deep early in the year. After a full offseason, Nassar could be ready for a starting role after playing 132 snaps last year. 

Dominic Oliver (6-3, 250) came to SDSU as a LB, but moved to DE before the start of the 2022 season attempting to gain weight to man the position in a 3-man front. The coaching staff continually spoke about Oliver’s edge rushing ability and only utilized him on 3rd down-passing situations in 2023. Moving to DE in a 4-man front could be just what Oliver needs to unlock his full repertoire in 2024.

With the uncertainty of starting DE Garret Fountain’s (6-4, 260) return in 2024, the remainder of the room is largely unknown. Last year’s JUCO transfers, Talib Salahuddin (6-5, 245) and Kenneth Jiles (6-5, 235), only played five and zero snaps, respectively, in 2023. 

Sinn Brennan (6-5, 215) redshirted his first year on The Mesa as he worked to increase weight to fill a role on the DL and incoming freshman Ryan Gaea (6-4, 220) is likely headed for the same route in 2024. 

Linebackers

Projected Two Deep: Cody Moon, Trey White, New Zealand Williams, Brady Anderson

Transfer need: Medium

Brady Anderson (42) sheds a block against Boise State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

In the new 4-2-5 scheme, one less linebacker will be on the field in 2024 than 2023. The player from last year’s roster best suited to play LB in a 4-2-5, Zyrus Fiaseu, transferred to Arizona State. Fiaseu excelled as a sideline to sideline backer who was able to play the run, rush the passer and drop into coverage. Along with the departures of Cooper McDonald and Vai Kaho, the depth and experience in the room is severely lacking. 

Cody Moon (6-3, 210) played 488 snaps in his first year at SDSU after transferring from New Mexico. He primarily played at WILL LB and spent considerable time off the ball, which points to him as a front-runner to start at one of the two spots. The biggest downside to Moon is his lack of weight, something that was a priority to gain last year but will need to be even more a necessity in 2024. 

Trey White (6-1, 240) played the next-highest snaps from the returners (231), but most of those snaps were as a SAM LB or EDGE on the line. White’s talent and play-making ability points to him deserving to be on the two-deep in whatever capacity the coaching staff deems best. White, who starred at Eastlake High School as a defensive lineman, would be a leading LB candidate who would potentially drop to DE in the new system, as it would not be a huge deviation from his LB role in 2023.

New Zealand Williams (6-2, 205) and Brady Anderson (6-2, 230) played 93 and 102 snaps, respectively, in 2023. Williams, a converted safety, has the skills to drop back and play coverage for a LB, but is likely not big or physical enough to play one of the two roles in the new defense. Anderson showed promise coming out of spring camp last year but was unable to make much progress up the depth chart during the season. 

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DJ Herman (6-2, 230) and Darrell Masaniai (6-2, 225) enter their fourth and fifth years at SDSU, respectively, but without prior game experience on defense. With the players above them on the depth chart transferring, 2024 could find a role on the defense for either or both. 

Caleb Otlewski (6-4, 225) redshirted in 2023 and will look to enter the stage in 2024. Otlewski has the size to become an every-down backer but will have to work in spring camp to learn the playbook and get accustomed to the speed and physicality of college football. 

One possible reinforcement could be Tano Letuli (6-2, 240), a Cathedral Catholic High alum who entered the transfer portal after two years at Army and verbally committed to SDSU on social media this week. If Letuli makes his pledge official, look for him to compete for a starting spot. He only played 75 snaps at Army but received an 85 tackling grade and 65.3 defense grade. 

Cornerbacks

Projected Two Deep: Chris Johnson, Tayvion Beasley, Bryce Phillips, and Zach Morris

Transfer need: Low

Christ Johnson (21) celebrates a special teams tackle. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

Heading into the 2023 season, the cornerback unit was undoubtedly the most experienced and talented positional group on the entire roster. Five cornerbacks vied for extended playing time at the position. Four months later, only one of the five, Chris Johnson (6-0, 180), is still on the roster. 

With an injury sidelining Noah Avinger all season and Dallas Branch’s election to leave the team after four games to preserve a redshirt year before transferring, Johnson became the third CB and played 269 snaps in 2023. Per PFF, he graded out very well, boasting 75.4 defense and 71.3 coverage grades, second-best on the team behind only Noah Tumblin. Additionally, Johnson’s 82.7 tackling and 82.7 run defense grades were the best among any player that took a defensive snap for the Aztecs in 2023. 

The other promising returning player, Tayvion Beasley (5-11, 170), sat out 2023 after transferring twice in the last calendar year. Beasley played 195 snaps at Jackson State in 2022 before following Coach Prime to Colorado. After the spring 2023 semester, Beasley entered the transfer portal again and enrolled at SDSU. At Jackson State, Beasley earned 74.2 defense, 72.9 coverage, and 84.7 tackling grades while playing about 65% of his snaps in the slot.

With a heavily depleted room behind Johnson and Beasley, CBs coach Demetrius Sumler and the staff went to work in December, bringing in four players who will compete for playing time.

Transfers Bryce Phillips (Tennessee State, 6-1, 195) and Zach Morris (New Mexico, 6-1, 190) add experience playing predominantly as outside corners in their previous stops. 

In two FCS seasons, Phillips played a total of 647 snaps and earned 75.6 and 76.9 defensive grades and 77.5 and 79.4 coverage grades. He collected 68 tackles and 18 pass breakups. 

Morris played two years within the Mountain West Conference, starting all 12 games in 2023 and collecting 36 tackles and 11 pass breakups. In 596 snaps, he graded out at 63.0 (defense), 59.4 (coverage) and 69.9 (tackling). 

Two players that will be enrolling early as true freshmen, Tayten Beyer (5-11, 170) and Isaiah Buxton (6-0, 165), signed with SDSU with the expectation that they will be competing for a spot right away. Their talent level at the high school level backs up their desire.

Safeties

Projected Two Deep: JD Coffey, Deshawn McCuin, Josh Hunter, Eric Butler, William Nimmo, and Max Garrison

Transfer need: Low

Eric Butler (34) celebrates a tackle. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

The group returns four safeties that played between 133 and 268 snaps in either starting or reserve roles throughout last season. Josh Hunter (5-9, 180) and Eric Butler (6-1, 185) lead the group based on their two years in the program, while JD Coffey (6-0, 190) and Deshawn McCuin (6-0, 195) are heading into their second years at SDSU after transferring in from Texas and TCU, respectively. 

McCuin, Hunter, and Butler played warrior safety roles that included covering slot receivers in man coverage, while Coffey split time at aztec safety behind true freshman Marcus Ratcliffe, who transferred to UCLA in December. 

Max Garrison (5-10, 190), the third safety from the class of 2022 alongside Hunter and Butler, had a promising fall camp competing for the starting aztec safety spot before injuries derailed the start of his season and dropped him down the depth chart. Garrison, who played in four games on special teams to preserve his redshirt, will look to reemerge under the new defensive system. 

UCLA transfer William Nimmo (6-1, 200) brings Power 5 experience to finish out his sixth and final collegiate season at SDSU. After only playing 231 snaps in his first four years, Nimmo started and played 345 snaps in 2023, earning a 68.4 defense, 70.9 coverage, 59.2 tackling, and 61.2 run defense grades. 

Two incoming freshmen who are listed as DBs on the Early Signing Day roster, Jason Mitchell (6-3, 185) and Prince Williams (6-2, 175), have experience playing CB and can definitely be in the mix for playing time depending on how the defense utilizes the fifth defensive back.

Mitchell, SDSU’s first 4-star signee since Josh Simmons in 2021, comes with extreme upside, but injuries hampered his final high school year. 

Williams does not bring the recruiting resume and offer list that the other three incoming freshmen in the secondary do, but his senior season showed immense growth and performance that warrant a bump up in scouting grades. 

A final decision on whether Davaughn Celestine will return for a super senior season has not been announced, and therefore, he is not included in this projection.

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