Mike Schmidt – You Can’t Go Home Again

Credit: SDSU Athletics

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Mike Schmidt works out the offensive line at SDSU’s practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Thomas Wolfe, in the classic novel You Can’t Go Home Again, shares the insight that certain experiences influence a person or place so profoundly, it leaves them forever changed.

“‘Conditions are fundamentally sound,’ they said–by which they meant to reassure themselves that nothing now was really changed, that things were as they always had been, and as they always would be, forever and ever, amen.”

“But they were wrong. They did not know that you can’t go home again.”

In the excerpt above, Wolfe describes how America could never return to its way of life prior to the Great Depression in 1929. Like a cicada emerging from its shell, the United States was wholly different than what it was and no declarations to the contrary can change that.

As much as Aztec fans would like OL coach Mike Schmidt’s second tenure on The Mesa to be a return to the dominating groups upfront during his first stint at SDSU, Schmidt’s three seasons away from San Diego make that impossible. He can’t go home again.

Schmidt and the situation he left following the 2020 season are too different for much continuity. To be successful again, he will need to forge a new identity as if this were his first time in town. Judging from his track record at SDSU, Syracuse, and Mississippi State, the Aztecs will be better in the trenches than in the past two years.

“It’s home for him, so I’ve probably learned more about the university from him than vice-versa,” head coach Sean Lewis said during Spring Camp. “He’s got knowledge within the system, so there wasn’t a whole lot of uptake in that regard. His diverse background, coming from a two-back set and kind of blending some ideas and doing different things that he’s comfortable with and fitting it into the system of play that we’re going to do to make it uniquely our own here so that we can stay constantly evolving, has been really fun to go through that process with him.”

“He’s an elite coach. He challenges the guys the right way, loves on them hard, and generally cares for his guys at a really high level.”

Mike Schmidt’s resume

Aztec Nation cannot be blamed for wishing Schmidt could go home again. His first tenure from 2012-2020 was among the most successful in program history. Including 2022 draftee Zachary Thomas, whom Schmidt recruited and developed for three seasons, four Aztec offensive linemen were drafted from 2015-2022. SDSU had one player selected from the room over the previous decade.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Fifteen of Schmidt’s pupils made all-conference teams. Most of those moved onto the NFL in some capacity. With the big boys dominating up front, SDSU became known as Running Back U with Adam Muema, Ronnie Hillman, Donnel Pumphrey, and Rashaad Penny starring for the team.

“Just like we’ve had in the past here – the previous nine years I was o-line coach here – it’s getting those guys that you feel like you can really develop with potential and then believing in the program to get that potential out of them,” Schmidt said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast.

From 2021-2022, Schmidt coached at Syracuse. His impact was seen in the development of RB Sean Tucker, who went from a solid back in 2020 to a Doak Walker Award Semifinalist and consensus All-American in Schmidt’s first year. Syracuse promoted Schmidt to run game coordinator for his second season.

His time in upstate New York went so well that it played an important part in Lewis hiring him at SDSU. Lewis also has roots at Syracuse. Schmidt said their mutual colleagues vouching for him raised his status in Lewis’ eyes.

Last year, Schmidt took over as the run game coordinator at Mississippi State. Keeping his trend of immediate positive impact going, the Bulldogs improved in overall yards (2016-1366), attempts (401-295), yards per carry (4.4-3.6), and yards per game (146.8-81.7). Most impressively, despite having 106 more rushing attempts in 2023, Schmidt’s ground attack lost 49 fewer yards than MSU did in 2022.

“We got let go from Mississippi State, kind of an unfortunate situation there,” Schmidt explained about coming to SDSU. “Right when this job opened up, Coach Lewis got it, and I was in talks with him and knew what could happen. Everything played out and it’s just an unbelievable opportunity to come back and work for my first offensive coach, which is a step in my career as well. I’ve been working with defensive guys my whole career, so it just worked out perfect. Get to get my family back home. Everything’s been great.”

Schmidt’s Four Fs

In 2012, former SDSU offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig walked into then-head coach Rocky Long’s office and declared that Schmidt, a grad assistant, was ready to be the Aztecs’ offensive line coach. Just 24 years old and only four years after graduating college, the Madison High Alum stepped into his first job as an assistant coach.

“Mike is a great ball coach,” Ludwig said this week. “His work ethic, intelligence, and toughness add tremendous value to a football program. He is an excellent teacher. His players are always well prepared to play with great tenacity and fundamentals.”

Among numerous influences, Schmidt singled out Ludwig as a mentor who has helped him in the profession. To this day, Utah’s offensive coordinator continues to pour into him. Schmidt noted Ludwig’s generosity in making himself available when Schmidt has questions about the game.

Beginning in the profession at such a tender age, Schmidt learned on the job. His initial approach was disjointed and lacked fine-tuning. Challenged and aided by Ludwig, he developed a system to organize his efforts. They are known succinctly as “The Four Fs.” Schmidt develops linemen with the right frame, feet, flexibility, and finish.

This framework helps him to grade recruits and works as a tool for the rest of SDSU’s staff to find athletes that fit Schmidt’s aims. The Aztecs’ coaches are presently combing the country, looking for the next wave of talent. Schmidt has made it simple for them to evaluate offensive linemen.

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One key to success for anyone is shortening the processing gap between acquiring information and putting it into practice. Schmidt’s “Four Fs” aid his players in developing and applying the techniques taught in film study and practice. It’s shorthand for teaching them how to approach their craft.

“(Lewis’ system) gets labeled as an uptempo, spread offense, and that is what we are, but the unique thing about this spread offense is you’re not dropping back 70 times a game,” Schmidt added. “Everything that they’re asking the guys to do on Sundays, we are asking them to do here. They are being trained with the same fundamentals and techniques that are going to translate to the next level, so really all the schemes you see at the next level … are going to be highlighted in this offense.”

As a former walk-on defensive lineman who changed positions and worked his way to being a team captain as a senior, Schmidt emphasizes one trait above all others.

“Most importantly, what we’re going to teach in this room is ‘intent over everything,” Schmidt said. “How are you getting that job done? Everybody is going through the same installs as us across college football. They’re installing inside zone probably very similar to how we install inside zone. They’re installing the counter play very similar, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is how you’re doing that activity.”

“Just like when our guys work out in the weight room. Everybody gets so many hours to work out every year. That ain’t going to separate you going in there and working out. It’s how you’re doing an activity. I can take that personally as a coach, too. It’s not what I go talk about, it’s how I get that done, how I get that translated to the young men, so they can go out there and put their best foot forward.”

You Can’t Come Home Again

During Schmidt’s first nine seasons as offensive line coach, SDSU’s running backs averaged 4.72 yards per carry. Over the past three years, it dropped to 4.13. The difference boils down to a lack of explosive plays due in part to the offensive line failing to get to the second level to open up large enough holes to allow the running backs to work in space.

“I really believe that getting back to running the football with great efficiency at San Diego State is going to be a huge key because it is going to be hard in this league to drop back all those times with the rushers that we have to go against,” Schmidt said. “So, being able to be a balanced attack, and that all starts with being able to threaten defenses with the run. Being able to run is going to be key to creating matchups on the outside. That’s the number one thing. Obviously, we’re putting good emphasis on protecting the passer too, but being able to run the football, coming off with the right pad level, being able to drive our knees on contact, create space, and give the backs a little more air than what they’re used to.”

During Lewis’ Kent State days, the Golden Flashes averaged 4.Lewis’sds per carry. Lewis’s skill as an offensive play-caller and Schmidt’s proven record of developing elite rushing attacks should give opposing defenses fits.

When Schmidt left SDSU following the 2020 season, the Aztecs were all he knew. He returns as a different person with experience in the ACC and SEC. Schmidt can’t go home again, and that’s a good thing. The second time around should be even better.

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