Preview of SDSU Spring Camp – Offense

Mekhi Shaw leaves the field after warmups. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Spread the love
Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

“2022 was not the season we wanted,” said head coach Brady Hoke at the start of his media availability on Monday.

This coming Monday, SDSU will have its first practice of 2023 to apply the lessons learned from a disappointing 7-6 season and move forward to a more productive year.  

Over the next five weeks of Spring Camp, which culminates in the Spring Game on March 23, the Aztecs will look to answer several key questions on the offensive side that will be critical heading into the fall.


1. What will the offense look like under new coordinator Ryan Lindley?


Since being promoted to offensive coordinator, Lindley has been asked in several interviews what his offensive philosophy and style will be. Each time he’s joked about not wanting to give away all the details to remain a mystery to opposing teams on the 2023 schedule.

Lucky Sutton working in drills during fall camp in 2022. (Don De Mars/EVT)

One constant has emerged from his eventual responses. “We’re going to do what our players do well,” he said, adding that they will “put the guys in the right spots and give them the ball.”

In his senior year at SDSU, Lindley played quarterback under offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and later served as an offensive analyst at Utah under Ludwig. It would not have been a surprise to see Lindley adopt frequent tendencies from Ludwig’s arsenal. Last Monday, Hoke confirmed it. 

“From an offensive standpoint, we will do a little bit of two back schemes, and 12 personnel looks … a little bit more like Utah,” Hoke said. “A little bit more under center,” he added. 

While the running back room returns three players who received at least 46 carries last year, the staff is excited about Lucky Sutton and Sheldon Canley, two Class of 2022 players, that will be added to the mix in 2023. 

They are two really talented guys from my perspective,” Lindley said about the redshirt freshmen. “But you even hear coach Mattix and coach Hoke rave about (them) and how they were on scout team for us (last year). Two really talented cats. Obviously lacking in experience, but that’s what spring ball is for.”

One of the three returners is Jaylon Armstead, whose 6.0ypc easily led all SDSU running backs last season but was a distant third in carries. After returning from an ankle injury and receiving 14 and 15 carries against UNLV and San Jose State, Armstead oddly received only five total carries in the final three games of the season.

Lindley provided some context potentially to the lack of carries at the end of the season, saying, “we’d like (Armstead) to be a little bit more consistent” when discussing the various returning guys.   

Some of those two-back sets could include Martin Blake, who filled a fullback role in the offense once Jeff Horton took over as offensive coordinator mid-season. Hoke and Lindley both have also spoken about utilizing the backs more as receivers moving forward as well. Kenan Christon, the fastest player on the team, caught nine passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns last year. 

It’s unclear if the RPO, the staple for the SDSU offense the last three years under offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinsi, will stay in the playbook at all or in limited settings. Spring practice should provide an answer in that regard.


2. How will Jalen Mayden respond after finishing the season with two poor performances?


Jalen Mayden has been one of the best QB in the country the past five weeks. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

In Mayden’s first six starts at quarterback, he completed 65% (106/163) of his passes for 1,533 yards, ten touchdowns, and five interceptions en route to a 5-1 record. In his last two starts, he completed 47% (35/74) for 497 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions as the Aztecs lost both games to finish out the season. Mayden threw at least one interception in each of the final six games of the season.

The immediate notion at the end of the season was that the initial hype and magic of Mayden’s story of returning to quarterback after playing safety for eight months wore off, and the Mayden, who was fourth on the depth chart in 2021, finally emerged. Some argued that defenses figured out Mayden and interim OC Jeff Horton’s offense and shut it down.

Lindley offered an alternative explanation two weeks ago.  

“We asked (Mayden) to do some things that weren’t necessarily in his comfort zone, and he had been playing quarterback for (only) two months at that point,” said Lindley. “Some of those mistakes (Mayden) made, I was pushing him to be a little less conservative than he had been in the past. To me, it was a little bit of a development plan. Did it hurt us a little bit? Probably and that’s where I take it on my shoulders to get him to a place where he is comfortable in that spot.

Getting comfortable in that spot could come with the work put in during spring camp, something Mayden did not have as a quarterback last year. 

The Aztecs were officially eliminated from conference championship contention leading up to the last regular season game against Air Force, which, coupled with the pass-to-run playcalling discrepancy in the final two games, adds further credibility to Lindley’s assertion that the final two games were used for developmental purposes towards 2023.

The true answer to the question of whether Mayden’s 2023 season will be more like the first six games than the final two won’t be revealed until the fall, but the foundation will be laid in the spring. 

SDSU’s offensive line in the red zone. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT


3. How will the offensive line replace the leadership and consistency of First Team All-Conference center Alama Uluave?


Heading into last year’s spring camp, the Aztecs had to fill three starting spots along the offensive line. With Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson’s move from right to left tackle by the time the season began, the only returning starter at the same position from the prior year was Uluave. As the lone senior in the entire offensive line room, Uluave had the difficult duty of bringing along a group of redshirt freshmen and sophomores and forging a cohesive unit by the time the games began in the fall. 

While the unit did not reach its ceiling in 2022, Uluave made sure it did not drop to its floor either. Finding a replacement for Uluave’s accurate snapping, protection call-outs, and leadership will be one of the primary storylines of spring camp. 

As of two weeks ago, as shown by the unwillingness to bring in an experienced center via the transfer portal, the coaching staff felt very comfortable with the starters at the other four positions returning one year more experienced and allowing Tommy Mirabella and Dean Abdullah to compete at center. Mirabella played six of his 335 snaps at center in 2022, while Abdullah did not see any time there out of his 143 snaps.

Josh Simmons’ decision to transfer opened up another starting spot, making spring camp even more crucial. With a left-handed starting quarterback, the staff may opt to move Crenshaw-Dickson back to right tackle (where he started in 2021) to protect Mayden’s blind side, opening up competition at left tackle. 

Where does Kyle Stanback, the lone incoming offensive line transfer, fit into the competition? The undersized (265lbs.) tackle from Ventura College will need to show out in spring camp immediately if he wants to fight for a starting position at either tackle spot. 

Kyle Trombley practices last spring. He medically retired at the end of the 2022. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Junior Joey Wright (21 snaps at LT, LG, and RT) and sophomore Christian Jones (4 snaps at LT) provided depth last year at multiple positions across the line but were never able to crack the rotation. The three linemen from the Class of 2022 who redshirted last year (Drew Azzopardi, Rambo Mageo, and Laakea Kapoi) enter the competition and will likely need to exit spring camp on the two-deep depth chart if they want to have a shot at playing in 2023. 

Hoke emphasized that with at least two scholarships currently open and more potentially freeing up after spring camp, the second transfer portal window from May 1 through 15 will give the staff the opportunity to supplement the roster in areas of need. 

“(We) have another chance after spring ball to fill (our) team,” Hoke emphasized. Based on how the offensive line performs in the spring, those open scholarships could all be needed within this positional group. 

One player SDSU will not have back from last year is Kyle Trombley. He medically retired from football at the end of last season. Trombley told EVT that he broke his foot last year and needed surgery. The local anesthesia used during the operation caused nerve damage weakening his muscles from his knee down, leaving him unable to run or do athletic activities. With therapy, Trombley expects to recover but is another story of the sacrifices young men make to play Aztec football.  


4. Who will step up to replace the receiving production lost from Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers?


 “We need to become more efficient and explosive in the passing game … we need to figure out who is going to be our playmakers,” said Lindley two weeks ago. 

In 2022, Matthews and Shavers accounted for 83 receptions for 1,151 yards and six touchdowns. The rest of the team combined caught only 103 passes for 1,209 yards and nine touchdowns. 

If SDSU wants to make Lindley’s offensive vision come to life in 2023, it will need players to make giant leaps from last season. The positive for SDSU is that the four players with more than 100 total receiving yards in 2022, not named Matthews or Shavers, return in 2023. 

Mekhi Shaw enters the end zone for his first career touchdown. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Leading the way is Mekhi Shaw (29 rec, 349 yds, 3 TDs), whose breakout performances in the second half of the season with Mayden under center earned him a scholarship and the right to be first in line at the wide receiver position in spring camp. Much of Shaw’s production came as the No. 3 WR lined up in the slot with the defense’s attention directed outside to Matthews and Shavers. If Shaw is moved outside this year and defended by better cornerbacks, can he still replicate his late-season production? 

Brionne Penny (12 rec, 166 yds) is the only other returning wide receiver with more than four catches last season. The potential Penny came to SDSU with and the promise for a breakout 2022 season after three touchdowns in the spring game last March dissipated once the season began. Outside of an impressive 16-yard catch at the end of the Hawai’i game to set up Jack Brownings game-winning 26-yard field goal and a 40-yard reception against Air Force, Penny was mostly absent from the team’s offense, especially after Shaw’s emergence. Heading into his senior season, Penny will have ample opportunity once again in the spring to show he can be relied on when the games count. 

SDSU added FCS transfer Raphael Williams, Jr., as part of its signing class. The 5-foot-10, 165 lbs. receiver caught 120 passes for 1,617 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons at Western Carolina. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams lined up in the slot on 95.6% of his 972 snaps at Western Carolina and will likely take over that role in SDSU’s offense. 

Josh Nicholson, Darius De Los Reyes, and Phillippe Wesley are returning players who will look to step up into more playing time this year after very brief appearances so far in their time on the Mesa. Two redshirt freshmen, Hassan Mahasin, and Jacoby Kelly, will aim to leapfrog the trio on the depth chart in their first attempts at earning playing time. Mahasin was recovering from a torn ACL in his senior year of high school, and his practice and scrimmage time was limited in 2022. He brings an explosiveness that the Aztecs’ offense has lacked in its offense for several years and could become one of the playmakers Lindley covets. 

The current group potentially complements Mayden’s strengths better than Matthews or Shavers. The graduating seniors lacked the speed on crossing routes to take full advantage of Mayden’s accuracy. This year’s wideouts will try to make up for what they lack in experience with speed. 

Jay Rudolph runs after the catch against San Jose State. (Don De Mars/EVT)


5. Will a second tight end emerge as a receiving threat?


Tight end Mark Redman (21 rec, 233 yds, 2 TDs) earned Second Team All-Conference in his first year at SDSU and is expected to receive more than the 45 targets he saw last year under Lindley’s new offense.

Jay Rudolph (1 rec, 9 yds) and Aaron Greene (1 rec, 5 yds) were the only tight ends other than Redman to receive targets in 2022 (five combined). Gus McGee had a terrific spring in 2022 before injuries caused a setback to his season. By the end of the year, Cameron Harpole earned time as the third tight end. Given SDSU’s inexperience at receiver, expect production from multiple tight ends to increase dramatically in 2023.

[wpedon id=”49075″ align=”right”]

“There are five guys (that) have a specific skill set and have skills that need to be on the field,” Hoke said last Monday when discussing the tight ends’ impact on the new offense. 

Redshirt freshman Logan Tanner came to SDSU with a receiving pedigree out of high school. While Tanner was an early enrollee and partook in some of spring camp in 2022, he was forced to return to Texas during camp to take care of some credit issues, according to Hoke. That circumstance likely forced him down the depth chart and eventual redshirt season. It did not stop him from showing his receiving abilities in the Spring Game by catching a beautifully thrown pass by Liu Aumavae down the middle of the field for a 45-yard reception. 

Utah not only utilized extensive 12 personnel with Dalton Kincaid and Brant Kuithe but often had both TEs run routes on plays, something SDSU’s offense rarely did under coaches Hecklinski and Horton. Spring camp is the perfect time to see if someone can emerge as the Kuithe to Redman’s Kincaid.

1 thought on “Preview of SDSU Spring Camp – Offense

  1. Always enjoy reading your content. Not only is it insightful, but intelligent as well. Seem like all you get with the local news is superficial news with little or no deep insight. Keep up the good work, this inside information is valued by all Aztec supporters.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *