Predicting which SDSU true freshmen play in 2024

Isaiah Buxton (left), Danny O'Neil (center), and Tayten Beyer (right) enrolled early to see time right away as freshmen. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Danny O’Neil attempts a pass at SDSU’s Spring Game. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The ripples of NIL and unlimited transfers are still forming across the sport. One area impacted by the new paradigm is freshmen making an immediate impact on the gridiron.

Over the next five years, a different normal will be established and the industry will recalibrate its expectations for first-year players accordingly. Until then, arguments can be made for all sides of the question of how the changes will impact SDSU

Unlimited transfers might mean fewer true freshmen see time because the Aztecs can effectively cut underperforming players and bring in veterans to replace them. This would mean freshmen would have a tougher time seeing the field because the competition would be better and more experienced. 

On the other hand, fewer athletes are receiving scholarships out of high school, pushing more higher-level talent to SDSU. Due to the portal, these more developed freshmen are competing against older players with less experience in the program. 

In years past, true freshmen had about the same talent as their older teammates but a serious deficit in knowledge. Now, they might have a higher athletic ceiling plus a similar learning curve since they are all coming to The Mesa at the same time. 

Finally, a compelling case can be made that freshmen competing right away will not be impacted. Over the past three years, about three Aztecs per season played enough as freshmen to lose their redshirt season. On average, two impacted the offensive or defensive side of the ball, and one was a special teams’ stalwart. 

Three of the 23 freshmen from the Class of 2021, S CJ Baskerville, CB Noah Avinger, and LB Brady Anderson, competed in more than four games. A trio of defensive backs out of 16 total freshmen, Chris Johnson, Max Garrison, and Eric Butler, did the same in 2022. Last year, four of the 14 true freshmen, S Marcus Ratcliffe, DL Brady Nassar, FB Leo Kemp, and WR Baylin Brooks, crossed the threshold.   

Three of those players, Baskerville (Texas Tech), Ratcliffe (Texas A&M), and Kemp (UCLA), transferred to Power 4 schools. Avinger is now at New Mexico. The rest are still with SDSU. 

With fewer high schoolers making up recruiting classes, there is little reason to expect more freshmen to produce moving forward. The leveling of the opportunity due to the influx of new players should also prevent the number of impact freshmen from tapering off. 

From the Class of 2024, Tayten Beyer, Isaiah Buxton, Anthony McMillian, and Danny O’Neil enrolled early at SDSU. McMillian transferred after spring camp. The rest of the class is expected to be on campus this summer. Some are already working out with the team. 

Below is an evaluation of the incoming freshmen and their likelihood of earning enough playing time to burn their redshirts in 2024. 

WR Will Cianfrini     Chances of Playing: High

Predicting anyone’s chance of playing comes down to what they have to offer that others do not. Will Cianfrini, whose dunks for Open Division Champion Carlsbad High got a measure of notoriety, brings a jump ball skill set that was missing during spring camp. Listed at six-foot-four, he is SDSU’s tallest wideout. If he can utilize his height and leaping ability to win 50/50 balls in practice, there should be a spot for him in the WR rotation. 

DB Jason Mitchell     Chances of Playing: High

Rated narrowly ahead of O’Neil as the consensus top prospect in the Aztecs’ Class of 2024, Jason Mitchell came to SDSU to play. Expect Mitchell to help on special teams, but do not be surprised if defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt carves out a unique way to get Mitchell onto the field. He comes to SDSU as a corner and will compete for time there. Mitchell has the versatility to play any of the five defensive back positions, but with the options at safety, it would be surprising for him to make an impact there.

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DT Kodi Cornelius     Chances of Playing: High

Usually, the closer to the ball, the less likely a freshman has to play. Brady Nassar bucked that trend last year, and Kodi Cornelius could, too, in 2024. Looking at the Aztecs roster, no defensive tackle is listed as weighing more than 275 pounds. Brandon McElroy was brought in to add size but was asked to transfer after spring camp. If the Aztecs cannot hold up against the run, expect them to see if Cornelius’ size can clog up the middle. 

CB Isaiah Buxton     Chances of Playing: Medium

The only real knock on Isaish Buxton in high school was his size, but college weight training or a growth spurt appears to have done him well. He looked the part in spring camp. Helping on special teams could push his playing time beyond four games. Depending on his development since spring, Buxton could also force his way into the cornerback rotation.  

Danny O’Neil comes out for practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

QB Danny O’Neil     Chances of Playing: Medium

After spring camp, head coach Sean Lewis said Danny O’Neil and AJ Duffy were ahead in the QB competition. Lewis went away from his original plan of naming a starter because he thought making that decision with so much of the offense new to the QBs was an unfair evaluation. That choice could help O’Neil win the job outright.

Even if he is the backup, O’Neil would be just one snap away from seeing the field. With the emphasis on the QB run game in Lewis’ offense, injuries are always possible. 

WR Heath McRee     Chances of Playing: Medium

Speed is Heath McRee’s calling card and throughout spring camp, Lewis’ main critique in the passing game was the absence of a deep threat. McRee certainly adds that potential, but unlike Cianfrini’s jump ball ability, there are older players in the room who bring that, too. Louis Brown IV, Jordan Napier, and Jerry McClure can also stretch the field. With the tempo of Lewis’ offense, however, the rotation at wide receiver could be deep.

DB Prince Williams     Chances of Playing: Medium

Two of the past three seasons, a young defensive back has found a way into the starting lineup over veteran players. Could Prince Williams be the third? He has elite speed and plays with physicality. A lack of those two characteristics is usually why younger players redshirt. Athletic defenders play on special teams, and Williams might be too valuable in that role to limit his playing time. 

TE Ryan Wolfer     Chances of Playing: Medium

SDSU has two tight ends, Jude Wolfe (250 lbs) and Gabe Garretson (240 lbs), with the right size for jumbo formations. Logan Tanner is too small for that distinction. With Wolfe’s injury history, or if more size is needed, Lewis might turn to Ryan Wolfer. Tackle could be in Wolfer’s future if he keeps growing. No matter his future position, a good primer for his career could be as a blocking tight end in 2024. 

No. 13 Tayten Beyer knocks down a pass. (Don De Mars/EVT)

DB Tayten Beyer     Chances of Playing: Low

Tayten Beyer enrolled early to compete for playing time. His familiarity with the system and competitiveness could earn him that time. In the end, wisdom should prevail; reserving an extra year of eligibility should help his development. Adding weight in 2024 would have him primed for competition next season.

RB Cincere Rhaney     Chances of Playing: Low

When Cincere Rhaney signed, his film suggested playing time as a true freshman. He has size, speed, and vision to compete right away. The likelihood of seeing time, however, diminished with the transfer of Marquez Cooper to the program. Cooper has rushed for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons. Between Cooper, Kenan Christon, Jaylon Armstead, Cam Davis, and Lucky Sutton, there likely won’t be enough carries to burn Rhaney’s redshirt.

LB Danny Niu     Chances of Playing: Low

There is always room somewhere on the film for an athlete who can get downhill fast. Danny Niu has that ability, so special teams could be possible. His weight, however, suggests he is at least a year away from making an impact. 

OL Kai Holec     Chances of Playing: Low

Size matters and Kai Holec has tons of it at six-foot-eight and 305 lbs. As large as he is, there are Aztecs at his position even bigger. It took years for Christian Jones and Joe Borjon to develop, and Holec likely has a similar career arc. 

TE Arthur Ban     Chances of Playing: Low

Lewis has a history with tall, hybrid TE/WRs. Last season, Michael Harrison caught 31 passes and scored five touchdowns at Colorado in his offense. Arthur Ban could have a similar role right away for the Aztecs, but Harrison transferred to SDSU after Lewis took over as head coach. Ban’s future looks bright, but the lights might not turn on until 2025. 

DE Ryan Gaea     Chances of Playing: Low

At the end of spring camp, Lewis said four to six EDGE rushers was an ideal number for the team. SDSU appeared to have three quality athletes there at the time, which could have opened a door at the end of the rotation for Gaea. During the transfer window, SDSU added Ezekiel Larry (Yale) and Jared Badie (Illinois) to play EDGE. In addition, junior college linemen Malik Gucake and Krishna Clay could also factor into the equation. These numbers likely mean Gaea redshirts in 2024.

WR Ben Scolari     Chances of Playing: Low

Like everything else in college football, how teams organize their roster is currently in flux, so roster balance might not be as important as it once was.  SDSU’s wide receiving room does not have a lot of younger wide receivers. Preserving at least one or two of the freshman wideout’s redshirts makes sense from the perspective of evening out the roster. Ben Scolari is the most likely of the trio to redshirt because WRs Mekhi Shaw, Nate Bennett, and Baylin Brooks bring similar styles to the game. 

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