When Patrick McMorris, CJ Baskerville, and Josh Simmons left SDSU following the 2022 season, it was still unclear what the market would be for Aztecs transferring out of the program. While that trio landed at Power 5 institutions, it could have been argued at the time that they were unique, and other SDSU players leaving The Mesa might find themselves without a home.
This offseason has left no doubt. Most athletes, who receive significant playing time at SDSU, will be welcomed with open arms in conferences across America.
“No, I didn’t really know how much (interest there would be), but I was willing to bet on myself because I believe I’m Power 5,” former SDSU DB Marcus Ratcliffe told EVT. Ratcliffe announced his intent to transfer on December 1.
Ratcliffe admitted to being surprised by the volume of interest in his services. He will be the final Aztec transferring out of the program, taken aback by the wealth of options available after leaving America’s Finest City.
Fellow starters Cade Bennett, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson, Drew Azzopardi, Mark Redman, Cameron Harpole, Zyrus Fiaseu, Cooper McDonald, and Dez Malone have joined Ratcliffe in the portal. Individuals among this group have garnered interest and offers from across the country, including Oklahoma, Washington, and TCU. It would be surprising if every player on that list is not competing in a bigger conference in 2024.
More than just scholarships, sources indicate NIL money has also flowed in the departing Aztecs direction. Any current or future starter at SDSU will not have to guess what will await them if they transfer. They will have a soft landing somewhere.
Now that Pandora’s Box is open, head coach Sean Lewis will have to shut it. If they are unable to do so, SDSU will be at a severe disadvantage moving forward. The program’s recruiting advantages mean the top high school players who missed out on lucrative NIL deals or spots in the Power 5 will continue to fill SDSU’s roster.
Forward-thinking athletes might see what has unfolded this month and decide playing early at SDSU is a better path to a large payday than sitting on the bench at a more prestigious football institution. Like Ratcliffe, they could use their time on The Mesa to launch themselves to bigger opportunities.
“I wanted to compete at a higher level and have better resources,” Ratcliffe said.
His approach is not unlike Lewis’, who left a head coaching job at Kent State for an offensive coordinator role at Colorado, to get a better head coaching job in the future. Having succeeded in his plan by landing his current role, Lewis inherited the unenviable task of preventing SDSU from turning into a de facto minor league team for the Power 5.
Shutting the Box
Like Ratcliffe, SDSU must bet on itself that it can address several shortcomings that make it ripe for poaching prospects.
“We’re going to grow from within, and then we got to do a great job with those bonds and that relationship and being able to retain them because when they become all-conference players, everyone else is going to want them,” Lewis explained on the day SDSU announced his hire. “So, having all the resources in place that we need to be able to do that.”
“But again, to me, it comes down to the people. Having those relationships and then, even as we tap into the portal, we need to do our great due diligence in vetting out why those young men are in the portal and what it is that they’re looking for so that’s a good marriage on both sides and it’s not just a one-way street.”
Lewis’ task begins with finding high schoolers who are less entrepreneurial than others. In all walks of life, some people love the thrill of chasing the Almighty Dollar, while others are content with the stability and comfort of a salary. For some, money is a necessity; for others, it is a luxury. Doing the work to know the personality and circumstances of the person they are recruiting is important to retaining the players SDSU develops.
While discerning if the desired athletes are compatible with where the program is at, Lewis has to go about raising the program’s profile locally. If Hoke had stayed, 2024 could have been a rebound year. Most of the players listed above would likely have returned, so the Aztecs’ starters would have been P5 quality. Keeping them in America’s Finest City would have been great for the team, but losing them is a fair price to pay for galvanizing the city.
Hoke’s tenure proved his style of play would not capture San Diego’s imagination. Even during the highly successful 2021 season or inside a brand-new stadium, fans did not flock to see the Aztecs. With low interest on game day, Aztec Link faced an uphill battle in creating an NIL network.
Even if Lewis is not more successful on the scoreboard, his style of football should win at the turnstiles, help build SDSU’s brand, and convince a discontent fan base to take a more active approach in supporting the team via NIL.
The long-rumored seismic shift in college football that will make the recent movement in conference realignment seem like a foreshock is here. NCAA president Charlie Baker introduced a proposal last week to separate the FBS into separate divisions. Estimates put the number of schools included in the highest level as low as 30 and as high as 100. The timing of Lewis’ hire should allow the university to put its best foot forward for inclusion.
Considering the defections, SDSU’s 2024 two-deep is not in as bad of shape as one might think. There are returning Aztecs with starting experience at RB, OL, WR, TE, DL, LB, CB, S, and K. What the team lacks is depth and impact players. If Lewis can add these to complement the returners, SDSU could surprise next year.
“In terms of roster management, I think everyone has a different style and a different perspective on that,” Lewis said last week. “There’s going to be a time and a place where you need to go to the portal, and you need to be able to supplement your roster in different areas so that you can maximize that because that is one of the talent acquisition buckets that’s available along (with) junior colleges and obviously, high school.”
However the roster shakes out, there is no longer any question; starters transferring from SDSU will find good and possibly lucrative landing spots. One measurement proving Hoke and his staff’s skill in recruiting and development is the number of Power 5 schools clamoring to add their former players.
Pandora’s box has opened. Can SDSU shut it?
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.