Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztec Grades: Snapdragon Stadium
The 2022 season is here, and with it, the return of Mr. Garrison’s SDSU Aztecs grades.
On a historic day for San Diego and the university that has been its partner since 1897, it would only be appropriate to begin this year’s report cards with a look at Snapdragon Stadium itself.
“There have been a lot of Aztecs that built this stadium that came before us,” SDSU head coach Brady Hoke said postgame. “A lot of coaches who helped build this stadium. The community is not going to embrace a bad football team to build a new stadium. I really think what coach Long did, what we did when we first got here, I think that’s all part of it.”
For an event that was intentionally limited in scale, the buzz in the parking lot was palpable. SDSU averaged 10,675 fans last season in Carson. More fans attended Saturday, and the party started in the orange and yellow lots hours prior to the gates opening.
One change from the way tailgates worked in the past is attendants in the parking lot individually directed cars to their spots. They left ample room between the rows of cars with enough space for two pop-up canopies between vehicles. This approach gave the added benefit of making the lot more secure. Once the adjoining spots were filled, with the exception of a few outliers, there was no reason for cars to drive past. The dust from incoming vehicles looked ominous from a distance, but the way the cars were parked helped mitigate some of its negative impact.
Pro Tip: The future of tailgating in San Diego involves finding a meet-up spot at a nearby staging area so parties can caravan to Snapdragon and have a section of relatively undisturbed real estate together.
Warrior Walk: A
One of the marquee pre-game traditions is back in San Diego. The Warrior Walk is a great way for players to interact with their family, friends, and fans before the game. Around 3 pm yesterday, the team buses rolled down the main entrance, which is massively improved compared to the Friars road entry during the Jack Murphy Stadium era. At the old stadium, the buses did not use the main entrance. They had more of a center of attention entry than in years past.
“I really like the locker rooms,” Jonah Tavai said postgame when asked what his favorite part of the stadium is. “They were a big upgrade from the last ones, but more than that, I’m excited to do the Warrior Walk this year. We haven’t had it for a couple of years, and I know, especially the players from San Diego, are going to have a lot of family out there. I’m excited because my family is going to drive down. Just to see everybody, all of our fans, meet the band, being able to walk through is going to be real good for us this year.”
Pro Tip: The Warrior Walk occurs about two hours prior to kickoff. A brisk walk from either lot should give ample time to catch the players once the buses first arrive at the stadium.
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As promised, the entry into the stadium was fantastic. Long-time SDSU fans will appreciate that the stairs and concrete are intact, unlike the landmines that frequented entry into the old stadium. Passing through the Opengate system was as easy as promised. There were no trays to collect cellphones and keys. The ticketless experience was fast.
Once inside, the layout was like entering a resort on the beachfront in San Diego. Open aired bars, food trucks, and a host of other delicacy options sat around the edge of an open concourse. Smiles from ear to ear could be seen from Aztec supporters as they craned their necks to see the university’s handiwork. EVT writer Andre Haghverdian said it best during The SDSU Football Podcast’s live post-game show, “All that was missing was the ocean.”
Pro Tip: For a faster entry, fans can download their tickets into Apple Pay or Google Pay from home, which gives them access to their tickets without having to load them again as they enter the stadium.
Site lines: A
Every seat was promised as a premium offering, and like so much of Snapdragon Stadium’s soft-opening, SDSU delivered on its pledge. Views from the concourse are as good as views from the seats. The Sycuan Piers was an attraction. People filled them throughout. San Diego football fans will also enjoy the nostalgia of looking to the surrounding hills and seeing the same vistas they have had for decades. As much as Snapdragon is a new era, the line back to the generations of football played in Mission Valley was clearly seen.
Pro Tip: Loitering inside the stadium is not a bad way to end an evening. Even after the post-scrimmage press conference was over, fans were still enjoying the new stadium.
Braxton Burmeister played the opening series and then took his place with the rest of the San Diegans as an interested spectator. The highlight of the opening drive that ended in a missed field goal was a deep pass where Burmeister hit Jesse Matthews on a fade down the east sideline. He also made a Houdini-esque escape from the rush on his final play of the evening. Rolling to his left, Burmeister raced to the outside, turned, and fired a shot that was just out of Matthews’ reach.
Behind Burmeister, the QBs did what they did not do at the last scrimmage. They took care of the football. There were no interceptions, with the only turnover being a fumble by Kyle Crum that likely would have been ruled an incompletion had it been reviewed. Will Haskell only had 22 yards on 5 of 9 passing, but he showed the moxie of a confident player. Crum (7-10-87) and Liu Aumavae (11-15-97) combined for 18-25 passing with 184 yards and three touchdowns – two by Crum and one by Aumavae. Aumavae stood out among the three back-ups. His feel and rhythm to run the RPO offense is ahead of Haskell and Crum.
Running Backs: B
The backs had a fine night with 25 carries for 130 yards, which was good for a 5.2 average. Cam Davis led the group with six carries for 45 yards and had one explosive run. Martin Blake showed the low center of gravity that makes him hard to tackle. Jaylon Armstead had a pair of carries with one long gain.
The two highlights from the backs came from Blake, who caught a swing pass for ten yards but made a few defenders miss before getting laid out by Vai Kaho, and Kenan Christon, who flashed his special talent for the first time publically. On one of his two carries on the night, a defender came in as he received the handoff. He side-stepped to his left and exploded for a nice gain. It was a nice move where Christon showed good explosion.
Wide Receivers: A
The QBs threw 25 completions. 22 of them went to wideouts. Last scrimmage, the running backs were featured a lot in the attack, and while getting them involved is important, at best, the RBs should only be compliments to what the receivers do in the passing game.
Phillippe Wesley had another good scrimmage and looks to have a bright future. Over the two scrimmages, he flashed every aspect a receiver could have. He caught passes in traffic, clutch receptions on third down, made defenders miss in the open field, and caught the ball at various levels. On the night, Wesley caught five passes for 79 yards. Jesse Matthews chipped in four receptions and sixty-four yards. Brionne Penny was the star with two touchdowns.
Tight Ends: C-
With the team favoring the pass over the run, the lack of production from the tight end lowers their grade considerably. Only three TEs caught passes, though, they did not have a lot of opportunities. The tight ends’ mark could not increase because the offense had trouble blocking the defensive front. There were bright spots. Cameron Harpole had a very nice trap block where he pulled across the formation, sealed the edge, and left a nice gap for the ball carrier. He has elite speed from that position. If he can develop into a complete player, the sky is the limit.
Offensive Line: D
Officially, SDSU had 39 passes and 39 rushing attempts during the scrimmage, but looking closer shows that 13 of the runs were by QBs, including an eye-popping six carries for -27 yards from Aumavae. Few, if any of those 13, were designed QB runs, so a more proper term would have been sacks or scrambles. The consistency with which the protection broke down and the continued struggle with snapping as the team looks to find a third center was noticeable. For the second scrimmage in a row, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson lined up at left tackle with Josh Simmons and Jonathan Harrison splitting time at right tackle. The only reason the line did not earn the lowest grade is that they were effective when they blocked someone. The RBs averaged 5 yards a carry. The receivers caught a lot of footballs, suggesting that consistency, not ability, maybe the issue.
“They’ve become a good side for us,” Tavai said. “They’re going to do big things for us. Everything is coming together for us. We play all day, every day. Sometimes before practice, sometimes after practice, just trying to get in and out. All of it to get better. So far, even today throughout the game, their ability has definitely shown, whether it’s just the ones in or the twos, they’re working on getting better.”
Defensive Line: A
Like the starters throughout the roster, the trio of Keshawn Banks, Jonah Tavai, and Justus Tavai only played a few snaps. This gave an opportunity to work on depth, and the line responded. They combined four sacks. The story of the second scrimmage was that Dominic Oliver switched from linebacker to defensive line.
Playing in a three-point stance, the redshirt freshman was second on the team with five tackles. Listed at 230 lbs, Oliver was able to take on the blocks of the offensive line and still provide some disruption for the defense.
“I think he’s exactly where he needs to be,” Hoke said when asked about Oliver. “We’re a little lighter on the defensive line when you look at youth there – they’re going to be real good players – but we’re a little bit heavy at linebacker, which is a good problem to have. Dom’s been with the d-line now, I think, three days and putting his hand in the dirt, and he made some plays. I think he’s found a home. Let me put it that way.”
Provided they can stay healthy. The linebackers appear to be the deepest position on the defense. Starters Cooper McDonald, Caden McDonald, and Michael Shawcroft are ticketed for at least an NFL training camp invite. On Saturday, their understudies played well. New Zealand Williams had five tackles, Kaho had four, and DJ Herman played the attacking, sideline-to-sideline style SDSU LBs are known for.
“I really like that,” Hoke responded when asked about his defense having multiple players flying to the football. “I get excited when I see that, believe me, because that’s what we’re all about. That’s what this defense has been about. We do pursuit drills, defensively, at least twice a week, so it’s always foremost. It’s part of what we want, getting 11 hats to the ball … that’s one of our goals on defense. I think Kurt (Mattix) and the staff have done a great job.”
“(True freshman) Trey White made a heck of a play today and came out of nowhere. Part of that is he’s a pretty good football player, a good athlete, but part of that is, he’s watched Caden McDonald, he’s watched those guys, Michael Shawcroft, go get the football, so it’s part of learning that’s real important for us.”
The youth movement in the defensive backfield was apparent during the scrimmage. Josh Hunter played with the second team and made plays all over the field. He had four solo tackles on the evening, including a play where he stopped RB Sheldon Canley near the line of scrimmage. Fellow freshman Max Garrison led the team in tackles with six, and another true freshman, Eric Butler, chipped in with three. The safeties had some trouble tackling quicker receivers on screens but effectively stopped the tight ends from impacting the game. Butler did allow one touchdown in red zone drills.
Allowing a pair of touchdowns on the outside to Penny is not anything to be ashamed of, but it shows one of the pressure points of the 3-3-5 defense. The corners need to be able to win more than half of the 50/50 balls for the defense to be elite. Noah Avinger and Dallas Branch started again with Noah Tumblin and Dez Malone, the starters coming out of spring camp, running with the second team. True freshman Chris Johnson played a lot at left corner.
Special Teams: C
The talent at returner was evident. Jordan Byrd had a nice punt and kickoff return. His patience and maturity were apparent, and he looks poised to live up to the preseason prediction that he will be the conference’s special teams player of the year. The first two units of kickoff coverage were filled with a lot of veteran players, and they will be needed more than in the years past. The huge negative was Jack Browning. He missed two kicks. With David Delgado hitting his two tries, pressure is certainly on Browning as the team turns their attention to Arizona beginning on Tuesday.
“It’s all so surreal,” Jesse Matthews said postgame. “I was talking to some other guys, and I said that I can’t believe that we’re actually back here in this community as well. Just to be back home and see the fans here and the atmosphere. This is a beautiful stadium that we have. It’s really exciting.”
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.
How will my seats be? 329: Row 13, Seats 23 & 24