Piecing together SDSU’s football roster

Marcus Ratcliffe lines up against Ohio. He started as a true freshman. (Don De Mars/EVT)

On April 28, 2021, the NCAA Board of Directors approved a rule change to make first-time transfers immediately eligible to play at their new schools instead of sitting out a year. 

Just two months later, on June 30, 2021, the NCAA Board of Directors adopted a rule change to allow Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) opportunities for collegiate athletes legally. 

College football has not been the same since. 

The intersection of these two changes led to the free movement of thousands of athletes across the country looking for increased playing time or bigger NIL opportunities elsewhere, or both. 

ESPN reported that more than 2,100 NCAA football players entered the portal in December 2022, the most of any month since the transfer portal was created in 2018. Experts predict the number to be higher this month.  

It has become common for Division I college football rosters to look drastically different from one year to another. Add in a head coaching change, and you are almost guaranteed to turn over more than half your roster before you step foot on the practice field for spring camp. 

Sean Lewis address the media (Paul Garrison/EVT)

San Diego State is embarking on that process currently. With the retirement of Brady Hoke and the hiring of Sean Lewis this past week, the roster churn has already materialized. 

SDSU finished the 2023 season with 102 players on the roster, 78 under scholarship.

At the time this article is written, the current roster for spring camp sits at 78 total players, 55 under scholarship (FBS rosters are allowed a maximum of 85 scholarship players). There will undoubtedly be more players transferring out in the coming days, which will continue to lower the total roster count and increase the amount of turnover the roster will have in 2024.  

The 23 scholarship players no longer on the roster since the final game against Fresno State are broken down as follows:

  • 5 super seniors with no further collegiate eligibility
    • QB Jalen Mayden
    • TE Dez Melton
    • S Cedarious Barfield
    • DE Daniel Okpoko
    • K/P Jack Browning
  • 10 players entering the transfer portal
    • WR Josh Nicholson
    • TE Mark Redman
    • TE Cameron Harpole
    • LG Cade Bennett
    • LT/RT Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson
    • C/RG Thomas Mirabella
    • LB Cooper McDonald
    • CB Noah Avinger
    • CB Dez Malone
    • S Marcus Ratcliffe
  • 8 seniors with one year of eligibility remaining without a public notice of return or transfer
    • RB Kenan Christon
    • WR Brionne Penny
    • DE Garret Fountain
    • DE/DT Wyatt Draeger
    • DT Samuela Tuihalamaka
    • LB Vai Kaho
    • CB Noah Tumblin
    • S Davaughn Celestine

While the players who have entered the portal could potentially be convinced by the new coaching staff to return to SDSU, that would appear unlikely. Very few players enter the transfer portal and end up returning to their original school, though it does happen. 

That leaves 30 scholarship spots for returning seniors, incoming transfers, and class of 2024 signings. 

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The return of any of the eight seniors will require a mutual decision between the player and the new coaching staff. While some of those players may wish to return to SDSU to play their final collegiate seasons in 2024, the new coaching staff may not feel they are a fit for the new schemes that will be run, and a parting of ways may be best. A few of those players may also want to move on to play football professionally or retire from the sport altogether. 

Deshawn McCuin, the TCU transfer from last season, is currently the only player listed on SDSU’s spring roster who was eligible to return. SDSU’s roster link on its website noted that players in this category would be added once a mutual decision to return was made. 

While the transfer portal is currently open for graduate transfers and players whose head coach was either fired or left the program, the official 30-day window for all transfers opens on Monday, December 4, 2023. The Aztecs will be very active in the portal to not only replace the departing talent pool but find players that better-fit coach Lewis’ vision and philosophy. 

So, where does that leave spots for high school seniors? Certainly, one of the major unintended consequences of the transfer portal has been the diminishing value and recruitment of high school players. Coaching staffs, who are expected to win right away, look for experienced replacements in the portal who can play right away over incoming freshmen who need a year or two of development before contributing. 

SDSU currently has 11 high school seniors with verbal commitments to the school under the old regime’s time. Two of the 11 told EVT that Hoke’s retirement announcement did not impact their decision, including San Diego star RB Anthony McMillian, Jr., who reiterated that sentiment during an interview on Episode 107 of The SDSU Podcast. 

“Going into my recruitment, I was always told ‘don’t commit to coaching, commit to the school,’” McMillian remarked when explaining why the coaching change had no impact on his decision. “I built great relationships with the coaches, but I also fell in love with the school … I’m committed to San Diego State for the school and the program.”

Lewis was part of a coaching staff at Colorado led by Deion Sanders, who did not honor the scholarship commitments to a majority of the high school seniors who had offers from the prior coaching staff they had accepted and were ready to exercise on early signing day. 

Both J.D. Wicker and Lewis pointed to that circumstance as purely a Sanders decision and not necessarily one the rest of the staff, including Lewis, orchestrated. 

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When asked about the 11 verbal commits who may wonder whether their scholarships are still available, Lewis spoke Wednesday about making contact with them as soon as he could to establish a relationship.  

“Change affects everyone in a different way, and I want to articulate to them a very clear vision of where we are going to go,” added Lewis. “I’m sure they are watching with great anticipation, and (I’m) looking forward to speaking with them.”

In response to a follow-up question about how those discussions would be handled, Lewis spoke more candidly, adding that while he wants to meet with all of them, ultimately, it would be in the best interest of both the player and school to make sure the commitment is what is best for both sides and not for the sake of honoring it. 

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“They chose San Diego State for a reason,” Lewis explained. “I chose San Diego State for a reason. As long as those reasons align and the things that are important to them and the boxes that they’re looking for to be checked are right, and there’s a great marriage between their families and us and our vision, then come on, let’s rock and roll.” 

“Make sure that we’re going into this with eyes wide open so that we can do great work together and that not in a year from now or a semester from now, they’re disgruntled or unhappy because they just wanted us to be loyal to a commitment through the previous regime and now things are different, but we kept their commitment, and now they’re in the portal a year later. This is too important a decision. I believe in transparency. I believe in honesty. We’re going to talk to those families so that they can make the best-informed decision for where they’re at and what they’re going through because I know it’s different, it’s unique for each one of those 11 commitments that we have right now.”

While the hiring of coach Lewis and the initial press conference was a home run for the program, the next measuring stick will come on December 23, 2023. By that time, the full coaching staff (possibly with the exception of one or two position coaches and analysts) should be in place and had the chance to bring in experienced replenishments with the transfer portal open for nearly three weeks. The Class of 2024 early signings would also be complete, and the roster count should be much closer to the 85 scholarship limit than it is at the current moment. 

A better assessment of Lewis as the next man to lead the program would come into focus.

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