Football is only a game
On the same day that the SDSU signed new players to National Letters of Intent or Grant-In-Aids, the Aztec family lost one of its own. Ronnie Hillman passed away at the age of 31 after a battle with liver cancer. He was instrumental in the turnaround of the football program. His accolades on the field earned him a place in the Aztec Hall of Fame in 2021.
Like all players SDSU signed on Wednesday, Hillman came at SDSU full of potential. A member of the 2009 recruiting class, he was a 5’10 175 lbs freshman when he arrived. Over a pair of seasons, he rushed for 3,243 yards and scored 38 touchdowns.
His untimely death is a sober reminder that more than anything these newest Aztecs bring to the playing field, they are people first and foremost. They will be known to fans by how they develop on the gridiron, but they are more than that. They are sons, brothers, teammates, and friends. Football is just a game.
SDSU’s QB stayed true to his commitment
Javance Tupouata-Johnson committed to the Aztecs in June when Jeff Hecklinski was still the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Most programs take one signal caller a year, so Tupouata-Johnson’s decision set SDSU up for the class of 2023. When head coach Brady Hoke relieved Hecklinski of his duties, a valid question emerged whether Tupouata-Johnson would want to play for the new coaches on staff.
His quiet approach to the recruiting process left some guessing if his future was still at SDSU. When he tweeted out a late offer from Tulane, it raised even more questions. Following the UNLV game in November, Ryan Lindley showed Tupouata-Johnson around Snapdragon, helping to solidify his commitment to the Aztecs. Wednesday, the Chaminade High School QB left no doubt and signed his letter of intent.
Keeping him in the fold was a win for the staff. Switching coordinators midseason invigorated the offense, but if it cost them Tupouata-Johnson, it could be argued the price was too high. He held offers from Oregon, Florida State, and Pittsburgh, among others. More schools jumped into the mix except he cut his recruitment short in June. Tupouata-Johnson is the crown jewel of the 2023 class and among the highest-rated QB recruits in program history.
Usually, the success of a class is not known until years down the road. For SDSU, they will need the newest Aztecs to pay dividends much faster. SDSU brought 18 new players into the program on Wednesday. Four are juniors and will be counted on to compete for time in 2023.
The quartet plays positions of need for the Aztecs. Tupu Alualu and Talib Salahuddin will bolster the defensive line. Kyle Stanback will be counted on to bring depth to the offensive line, and Raphael Williams Jr should be a great addition to the wide receiver core. On paper, Alualu and Salahuddin are likely the most critical to the team’s success next year.
SDSU wins with great defense, and next season’s defensive front looks to be the weakest position on that side of the ball after losing every starter from 2022. Junior college transfers often take time to adjust to Division I football. Jonah Tavai, who grew into an All-American, hardly saw the field initially for the Aztecs after transferring from El Camino College. The staff is counting on Alualu and Salahuddin to make an impact at arguably the team’s most important position.
With every recruiting cycle, special attention is paid to the San Diego County’s high school stars who will be playing at universities other than SDSU. 2023 will be no different, as terrific athletes will head all over the country to compete at the next level. As fans bemoan San Diegans leaving America’s Finest City for college, it should not diminish the success the Aztecs had keeping some of the best players home.
Madison High School’s Jonah Rodriguez, Cathedral Catholic’s Marcus Ratcliffe, and Lincoln’s Chris Fewell are among the top talent in San Diego. They come from winning programs and have been at the forefront of the resurgence in local high school football the past four years. The trio turned down offers from Power Five schools to play in front of their family and friends.
Could SDSU have done better in landing more of the top talent in the county? Yes. Did they do well in landing some of the best players in the city? Absolutely. The Class of 2023 would have had four local players except St. Augustine Offensive Lineman decommitted late in the process and will be playing at Vanderbilt instead.
Below is a first look at SDSU’s Class of 2023.
Jonah Rodriguez OL Madison HS San Diego, CA
Among the top offensive linemen on the West Coast, Jonah Rodriguez shows everything a player of his pedigree should have the high school level. In a phrase, he dominates. Playing left tackle for Madison, he respected anyone lined up opposite him by giving his all and punishing them play after play.
In the final game of the regular season, the Warhawks played Scripps Ranch. Rodriguez (6’4 275lbs) matched up with DE Matthew Ringenbach (6’2 190lbs). Ringenbach can play and earned tons of respect for how he competed against Rodriguez especially rushing the quarterback. But, when the Warhawks ran the football and Rodriguez attacked the smaller defender, one felt sorry for Ringenbach.
Jordan Napier S Jurupa Hills HS Fontana, CA
Jordan Napier had offers from Oregon, Texas A&M, and others, and it is not hard to see why he was such a coveted player. His Hudl lists him at 6’2 200 pounds, and he played a physical role for Jurupa. On offense, he lined up at wide receiver and showed great hands and the ability to catch the ball in the air.
Defensively, he played a read-and-react free safety like most DI defensive backs. He profiles well as either a safety or wideout at the next level. With a little more speed and flexibility in his hips, he could be even be utilized as a bigger corner like Taylor Hawkins and Dez Malone.
Javance Tupouata-Johnson QB Chaminade HS West Hills, CA
Accuracy. That is the number one skill that jumps out about Javance Tupouata-Johnson’s game. He puts the ball in winning spots at all levels of the field, even showcasing the understanding and ability to throw receivers open at times. Like most high school QBs, he was not asked to scan the field and work through five progressions, but he reads the plays well and delivers the ball on time and in the right place. As a runner, he is not explosive but is still a threat with the ball in his hands.
2023 should bring SDSU’s newest QB a redshirt year and set him up for an expected competition with Liu Aumavae and Kyle Crum to replace Jalen Mayden in 2024. If he were to win it, he could be a four-year starter for the Aztecs.
Marcus Ratcliffe S Cathedral Catholic HS San Diego, CA
Ratcliffe dominated on the defensive side of the ball for Dons. With the success SDSU has had in converting safeties to corners, he will get a chance to do that at the next level. What stands out about him is his physicality. He already runs well to the football and brings bad intentions with him.
True freshman DBs have earned playing time on special teams this season. Ratcliffe could find his way on the field next season in that role. Ratcliffe is a winner and plays like it. He does what is needed on the field to succeed. The Aztecs did well to keep him home.
Caleb Otlewski LB Melissa HS Melissa, TX
Otlewski profiles as an outside linebacker for the Aztecs. It was a position he played with great skill in high school. He has great size already at 6’3 225 pounds. With the success SDSU has had with helping players add weight, his future could even be on the defensive line like Garret Fountain and Dominic Oliver, who arrived on campus as linebackers before switching to the line.
As much as his physical abilities stand out, Otlewski’s intelligence and football IQ are what separates him as a player. These qualities are essential for a SAM LB at SDSU. If Otlewski can adjust quickly to the college game, he could compete for time early in his career.
Baylin Brooks WR Loyola HS Los Angeles, CA
Among the most impressive aspects of Brooks’ film is the variety of ways he was used in high school. Brooks made game-changing plays lining up all over the field and running different patterns. Deep shots, jump balls, crossing routes, posts, and bubble screens are part of Brooks’ arsenal. His versatility should allow SDSU to employ him inside or outside the formation.
At 6’3, 190 lbs, he should have the ability to shed tacklers to pick up big plays. In high school, he played DB and was an attacking defender. He brings that mentality to the offensive side and should help the Aztecs spring long runs by delivering blocks at the last level of the defense.
Ryan Silver OL Junipero Serra HS Mateo, CA
Silver’s high school team was the back-to-back Northern California Open Division Champion. Playing right guard, he possesses strength, athleticism, and toughness to compete for time early in his career. Tight ends frequently bulk up to play on the offensive line, Silver’s feet are good enough that if he slimmed down, he could line up as a skill position player. Add to that his hulking 300 lb frame, and he checks every box the Aztecs are looking for in a lineman.
Silver was teammates with redshirt freshmen Drew Azzopardi and Hassan Mahasin in high school. SDSU is laying the foundation of a pipeline to one of the best programs in the state. If the trio has success in the coming years, it should open the doors to more players from Serra.
Jelani McLaughlin S Citrus Valley HS Redlands, CA
Speed is what jumps out most about McLaughlin’s film. He was granted freedom in high school to read the QB and make plays all over the field. He did just that. Even when his original read proved incorrect, he had the athleticism to explode back into the play.
McLaughlin has great size already. When he is coming downhill, he packs a serious punch. He profiles well at the Aztec safety position. He also played special teams in high school and should be able to find a place there early in his career. McLaughlin could be lining up next fall at the likes of Washington or Oregon State but will call SDSU home instead.
Chris Fewell DL Lincoln HS San Diego, CA
More methodical than explosive, Fewell plays under control and rarely runs himself out of the play. He mostly played outside LB for Lincoln but also lined up off the ball. He made plays inside and outside of his area. What is most impressive is his ability to read plays while engaged with a defender. He keeps his eyes in the correct places, and once he diagnoses what the offense is doing, sheds the block and gets into the play.
His elite instincts will drive opposing offenses crazy in the coming years. As he ages and his athleticism improves, he should flourish in the 3-3-5. Fewell made play after play for Lincoln on its way to a state title and a number three ranking in California.
Tyson Berry WR Chapel Hill HS Tyler, TX
SDSU was on the Tyler, Texas, native early. Berry’s first offer came from the Aztecs. He committed early and made his signing official on Wednesday. In July on The SDSU Football Podcast, he said SDSU recruited him as a running back in the mold of Jordan Byrd, but in Wednesday’s release, he was listed as a wide receiver.
Berry is fast and elusive. The question of how the Aztecs plan to get the ball in his hands will be interesting moving forward. Like Byrd, he should get the opportunity to return kicks. Berry is an under-the-radar signing, but he comes from a winning program and could develop into a matchup nightmare in the years to come.
Briley Barron OL Texas HS Texarkana, TX
Mauler is an apt description of Barron’s game. Between the tackles, he dominates his opponents with a nasty streak fitting the reputation of Texas football. He does not appear to be the fleetest of athletes but has enough athleticism to thrive inside at the next level.
Barron’s only public offer was from the Aztecs. Time will tell if the local schools missed on this gem of a player and if SDSU found a diamond in the rough.
Sinn Brennan DL Los Alamitos HS (CA) Honolulu, HI
Judged by scholarship offers, Brennan is not among the top players in SDSU’s 2023 class. Evaluated based on his film, and a different story is told. Brennan’s tape is fantastic. Detractors could question the talent he competed against, except that he played on the sixth-best team in California and the 41st-ranked team in the country. Most importantly, his fit for SDSU is perfect.
He played right end and did what he will be asked to do with the Aztecs. He profiles as an elite pass-rushing defensive end for years to come. He needs to add weight but has the frame to do it. SDSU has had success with lighter linemen dedicating themselves and turning into specimens. Cam Thomas is the latest example, and they are hoping Brennan is next.
Sam Dunnell DB St. Margaret’s HS San Juan Capistrano, CA
Listed as an “athlete” on his recruiting profiles, SDSU’s release of its signing class places him as a defensive back. Dunnell stands 6’4 and looks like a linebacker when playing defense. On offense, he played wide receiver and could easily play there at the next level. His potential might be highest if he could play cornerback. He shows the flexibility to do so.
If Dunnell were to add weight, he could also play weak-side linebacker. With his cover skills, he could become SDSU’s antidote to spread offenses. He is a willing tackler and possesses good speed. He is the most versatile athlete in this class.
Brady Nassar DL Amador Valley HS Pleasanton, CA
Nassar has the body and motor to be an early contributor for the Aztecs. Speed and power are his calling card. Since he was an underclassman, he dedicated himself to training for the DI level, and it shows. The challenge ahead of him is unlike high school, every player in college works hard on their craft. Adjusting to not being the biggest and fastest and still successfully competing could earn him time in 2023.
Most linemen redshirt their first season. If that is in Nassar’s future, the devotion he has already shown him will serve him well. He should emerge back on Aztec Nation’s radar in 2024 as an even more impressive player than he is today.
Kyle Stanback OL Ventura College Inland Empire, CA
A midyear transfer, Stanback should be at SDSU in January to compete for playing time with the offensive linemen on the roster. He started his college career as a defensive lineman and transferred to the offensive side of the ball. He is a bit undersized as a result, but likely will not be once the 2023 season begins.
It is easy to see on tape the potential that will bring him to the Mesa. He stands 6’7 with long arms and has quick feet. What he offers offensive line coach Mike Goff is more options to compete against the incumbent starters.
Talib Salahuddin DL Riverside City College Philadelphia, PA
SDSU’s defense is unique, and a player like Salahuddin is more valuable in the 3-3-5 than he would be in other defenses. With his hand on the ground or standing up, he is relentless pursuing the ball. He already possesses the motor to adopt the Aztecs’ “eleven hats to the ball” mentality. The gap between junior college and Division I is large, but if he can transverse the learning curve quickly, he should be in the defensive line rotation next season.
Tupu Alualu DL Mt. SAC Honolulu, HI
On paper, this is the replacement for Jonah Tavai. Things, though, rarely go according to that plan. To expect him to replace an All-American is foolish, and there is likely nothing he can do next season where he will not be seen as a weakness. Unfair comparison’s aside, there is a lot to like about Alualu’s game.
Alualu should be able to stunt and do everything the Aztecs demand of their defensive lineman, provided he can master the defense in time to contribute in 2023. He is quick for a man his size, which gives him the ability to play inside and out. The leverage he gets from his short stature allows him to beat bigger offensive linemen.
Raphael Williams Jr. WR Western Carolina Ft. Lauderdale, Fla
Speed kills, and Williams has it. He brings an element to the offense rarely seen at SDSU in recent years. It will be interesting to see how he works with Jalen Mayden. Mayden has yet to establish a deep passing game, but he has thrived on well-thrown balls across the middle. Williams’ ability to run away from defenders across the middle is the most obvious way he can be utilized with the Aztecs.
He amassed 120 receptions, 1,617 yards, and 15 touchdowns for FCS Western Carolina over the past two years. His addition to the receiving corps brings an upperclassman to a group that will be short on experience in 2023.