The biggest surprise at the start of San Diego State’s Spring Camp in February was the decision by quarterback Jalen Mayden to switch positions to safety heading into his final two years of eligibility as a collegiate athlete.
With the arrival of transfer Braxton Burmeister, the return of highly touted Will Haskell, and the infusion of two true freshman early enrollees, Liu Aumavae and Kyle Crum, Mayden saw his shot to see the field in his remaining time on the Mesa at a different position.
“He definitely made some beginner mistakes, but he’s adjusting really well,” junior cornerback Noah Tumblin said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast when asked about Mayden’s transition into the secondary. “He got a lot of interceptions…in the position he plays. He has the ability to free-range, so that helps out as well coming from (being a) quarterback.”
Tumblin knows all too well the transition Mayden is currently making. As a dual-threat quarterback at nearby Mira Mesa High School, he threw for 4,589 yards and 40 touchdowns and rushed for 1,891 yards and 23 touchdowns, earning a 3-star rating from 247sports.
“I was the best Mira Mesa quarterback hands down,” Tumblin said when asked to compare his resume against Aztec great J.R. Tolver, who also played QB with the Marauders. “I made more electric plays… (but) he’s a close second, though.”
Tumblin’s recruiting at quarterback did not take off despite his gaudy high school numbers. BYU was the only major school that offered him as a quarterback. San Diego State wanted him to play defensive back despite him not playing one down on defense in high school.
“(The Aztecs) were upfront with me when I went on my visit,” said Tumblin. “They only had a scholarship open for me at corner. The only other offer I had was BYU, but I love San Diego too much, so it was BYU or stay home and play DB.” Every San Diegan would agree that Tumblin made the right choice.
Tumblin recalled that the most difficult part of the transition from offense to defense was learning the technique of playing cornerback. “I didn’t know how to backpedal, to press, and I didn’t really know what Cover 2 or Cover 4 was from a defensive position,” he said. “I had to work really hard in the offseason to learn the fundamentals.”
“For me, it took a couple of seasons, but for (Mayden), it looked like he’d been in the position a long time (towards the end of spring camp).”
The 6-2, 180lb cornerback had to wait his turn at San Diego State. He redshirted his first year in 2019. As a redshirt freshman in 2020, he only appeared on special teams and collected two tackles on the season.
As a sophomore, 2021 presented a major opportunity for him. With the departure of Darren Hall to the NFL and Cedarious Barfield’s transition to safety, a giant opportunity was available for a young corner to play opposite super senior Taylor Hawkins at cornerback.
A broken hand for junior Dallas Branch at the start of the fall season provided the opening Tumblin needed. Battling with true freshman Noah Avinger, Tumblin received a large amount of the playing time to start the season and carried it through the entire schedule.
Remarkably, Tumblin played in all 14 games, starting eight of them, in his first real action as a defensive player in high school or college. Overall, he collected 32 tackles and seven pass breakups.
Statistically, his best performance was in the opening game against New Mexico State, collecting eight tackles and scoring a 75.2 defensive grade per Pro Football Focus (PFF).
While he scored a 68.9 PFF defensive grade or higher in four of the next seven games, his final six games of the season saw a dramatic drop in grade and total snaps. Overall for the 2021 season, he played 365 snaps in coverage, giving up 40 receptions on 63 targets against (63.5%) for 499 yards and seven touchdowns and an overall defensive grade of 59.4.
“I thought I did some good things, did some poor things as well, leading me with a lot of room to grow for next season,” said Tumblin when asked to assess his 2021 performance.
Tumblin credits his roommate for the 2021 season, Taylor Hawkins, who he calls “an older brother,” with teaching him how to mentally prepare for games. “He changed me as a player (and) gave me a dog mentality because that’s how he plays.”
If there is one major area Tumblin is focused on heading into 2022 is corralling interceptions. He was unable to pick off any passes in 2021, recalling several missed opportunities. “I can think of two plays where I just dropped picks,” he said. “I kinda hesitate a little out of my breaks because I don’t want to over pursue the play. I think about it too much, so it’s more of a mental thing and less about my fundamentals. I am always in good position but haven’t made enough plays on the ball.”
With Hawkins’s departure to the NFL, Tumblin’s opportunity to become a bigger part of the secondary and a permanent starter on one side is there for the taking.
Here is a quick look at the other three cornerbacks listed on the post-spring two-deep who will vie for the two starting positions in the fall.
Noah Avinger, Sophomore (Boundary Cornerback)
Career: 15 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovered, 1 interception, 2 pass breakups
PFF Advanced Stats: 67.2 defensive grade allowing 15 receptions on 36 targets against (41.7%) for 312 yards and two touchdowns on 172 coverage snaps.
By starting in his first collegiate game as a true freshman against New Mexico State last year, Avinger joined Leon McFadden and Tariq Thompson as the only SDSU true freshmen to start on defense since 2009 (teammate CJ Baskerville joined him on the list later in the season.) With the return of Dallas Branch from injury midway through the season and the rotation with Tumblin, Avinger’s snap count dramatically dropped once conference play started in the fifth game of the season against New Mexico. Avinger had offseason shoulder surgery and missed most of Spring Camp but is expected to be a full participant once Fall Camp arrives.
Tumblin: “He is really bouncy, has good speed, and is very athletic like me.”
Aztec true freshmen to start on defense since 2009 (Brady Hoke's first stint as Aztec HC):
– CB Leon McFadden (three-time first-team all-MW) in 2009
– S Tariq Thompson (four-time all-MW) in 2017
– CB Noah Avinger in 2021 (3 GS)
– S CJ Baskerville in 2021 (1st start tonight)
— Jamie McConeghy (@McConeghySDSU) November 20, 2021
Dallas Branch, Senior (Field Cornerback)
Career: 27 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 2 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
PFF Advanced Stats: 76.0 defensive grade (including an impressive 77.9 coverage grade), allowing 23 receptions on 43 targets against (53.5%) for 234 yards and two touchdowns on 239 coverage snaps.
Branch is the most experienced cornerback on the team heading into 2022, having played two seasons at the position. After missing the four non-conference games last season with an injury, he returned against New Mexico and inserted himself into the rotation, eventually becoming the starter and main cornerback opposite Hawkins throughout the second half of the season. Like Avinger, Branch underwent offseason shoulder surgery and missed most of Spring Camp but is expected to be fully healthy for Fall Camp.
Tumblin: “Out of all of us, he has the best footwork. He is very technical and has very good breaks. He is the fastest cornerback besides me.”
Dezjhon Malone, Sophomore (Field Cornerback)
With the injuries to Avinger and Branch, Malone stepped in as the starter opposite Tumblin during Spring Camp and impressed the coaches enough to be listed as a starter post-spring. Malone has yet to see any action on defense through his first two years in college, primarily contributing on special teams, but is expected to compete for playing time at cornerback.
Tumblin: “He had a really good spring and made a lot of plays. He is very disciplined and has good footwork. He’s very fundamentally sound and makes really good plays on the ball.”