The 100th year of SDSU football is less than 50 days away. In only 17 of the first 99 seasons has an Aztec surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark. During those years, six pairs of teammates have reached the plateau. The last duo to achieve that number in the same year was Vincent Brown and Demarco Sampson (2010).
The 1990s was the decade with the most 1,000-yard seasons. Half of the ten years saw a player reach this level. The list of Aztecs with at least 1,000 yards receiving in a season has 21 names on it. Darnay Scott (1992-1993) and Will Blackwell (1995-1996) are the only Montezumans to do it twice in their careers. Ezell Ruffin (2013) was the last player to do so.
With significant departures from the 2021 team, senior starters Jesse Matthews, Tyrell Shavers, and TJ Sullivan should receive the lion’s share of the snaps in 2022. Could the increased opportunity lead to one or more of them joining the distinguished list of players with 1,000 yards in a season?
“Jesse and Tyrell can play a 60-minute game and not blink,” SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski said in an exclusive interview. “Now that gives you a chance to afford to build around them. And a guy that had a great spring for us was TJ Sullivan. We’re looking for huge things around TJ. So, I think we have three there that really can play a whole game, are versatile, and can move all around.”
Confidence in the starters: A
Belief in the WR corps begins with Matthews. He is tied with 2006 Aztec Hall of Fame inductee Craig Scoggins for 15th place on the program’s all-time receptions list with 129. Matthews needs 19 receptions to enter the top 10, 59 for the top five, and 134 to reach the top spot.
Realistically, SDSU’s star receiver would need to utilize his extra Covid season to push J.R. Tolver for the school’s top spot. But should the pride of Christian High set the career mark in 2022, he would also pass Tolver’s single-season school record for receptions (128).
Belief in the rest of the starters is more about experience than production. Shavers (28) and Sullivan (7) have 35 career receptions between them. However, entering 2022 they have played eight combined seasons of college football. Both were freshmen in 2018. Shavers is using his Covid year of eligibility. Sullivan is moving into his redshirt senior season. Their talent has always been evident. Physically mature, increased opportunity, and improvement in the passing game should lead to breakout seasons by one or both of the duo.
“If I’m not mistaken, I saw some publications where Jesse was a preseason All-Mountain West player,” Hecklinski said. “You mention the high expectations. My expectations coming in here was to build this to where we have a quarterback and a wideout in that talk, along with a running back, a tight end, and an offensive lineman or two. Now you’re complete as an offense, and that’s where we’re headed.”
Proven Depth: C-
Behind the starters, RBs Jordan Byrd (37) and Chance Bell (19) have the most career catches on the team. As a hybrid RB/WR, Byrd, in particular, adds to the depth of the WR position. Brionne Penny (5), Mehki Shaw (4), and Darius De Los Reyes (1) are the only players listed as wideouts with any receptions.
The lack of production is really a lack of opportunity. SDSU has had a consistent receiving group the past few seasons. All but Matthews are no longer with the program. The experience deficiency sets up a dynamic that is common among most programs but has not been the case at SDSU. With WR coach Hunkie Cooper generously rotating his players, there was not a huge difference between the starters and the reserves in years past. That should change in 2022.
“No,” Hecklinski answered flatly when asked if the lack of experience is a concern. “I think in our day and age of football, there is some youth movement throughout the course of all this. I think our youth has a chance to be very productive, and also with the way that coach Cooper coaches and the expectations that he has, he’ll bring them up to speed very quickly.”
The make-up of the WR room at SDSU is interesting. It consists of three seniors, two juniors (one walk-on), three sophomores (two walk-ons), and four freshmen (two true freshmen). If Matthews and Sullivan return for a second season in Snapdragon Stadium in 2023, the coaches may not need to go to the transfer portal to fill their roster, but more than likely, San Diego will be a top destination for wide receivers seeking a new home next season.
Incoming true freshmen Jacoby Kelly and Hassan Mahasin have a chance to capitalize on the smaller room and earn time in 2022. Kelly arrives at SDSU with the size to contribute immediately. He is tall (6’3), built (195 lbs), and was a national recruit out of Loyola High in Los Angeles. Mahasin, a four-star prospect by some recruiting services, is recovering well from a knee injury he suffered in October. Among the scholarship athletes, he is the only wide receiver who profiles like BJ Busbee and Ethan Dedeaux from the slot receiver spot.
“If you look at us offensively, I’m huge on personnel, and I’m huge on moving personnel,” Hecklinski said. “I’m huge on having multiple personnel groups that not only gets everyone involved but makes the defense have to defend it. You look … from San Jo(se) on, our two-minute was all 10 (1 RB, 0 TE) personnel with four wideouts on the field. We were in a little more 10-personnel as we moved at certain times throughout the course of a game. I think Brionne (Penny) fits into that 10-personnel where you have four wideouts on the field. Now, with Braxton (Burmeister), I think we have the ability to get in empty stuff, where you’re talking about having Brionne in four wideouts and maybe Mark Redman as a tight end … I’m not opposed to going five wideouts and an empty. … Now, defenses have to defend that. They have to decide how they are going to do that because they still have to defend Braxton and Will in the quarterback run game. So, there’s a lot of options and opportunities to build that, but you’re only building that in if the personnel is ready for that.”
Star Power: B+
It will be a disappointing 2022 if multiple SDSU receivers fail to garner all-conference consideration. Shavers has been a star since his time as a high school prep, making waves as a potential impact performer as an incoming player with Alabama, Mississippi State, and SDSU. Ironically, as he is poised to have his best season and is better prepared than ever to actualize his obvious potential, there is less fanfare about the possibility.
Shavers shared with EVT this offseason that he has professional aspirations, and he knows SDSU is his last chance to reach his goals. Since arriving on campus, coach Cooper has pushed the correct buttons to motivate him, and by watching Matthews’ work, he is poised to become a household name in America’s Finest City.
“One of my goals since I’ve been here – and you have to remember I was here in ‘09 and ’10. We had Vincent Brown. We had Demarco Sampson – I want to get back to having that type of room of having two guys like that every year,” Hecklinski said. “I think coming into this season, we’re blessed to have two guys like that in Jesse and Tyrell that now will allow us to build that depth around them.”
Compared to the rest of the conference: B-
Among the top 20 receptions leaders in the Mountain West (MW) in 2021, only six return for 2022. Fresno State welcomes back Jalen Cropper (85 rec) and Josh Kelly (52). Colorado State returns Dante Wright (43) and welcomes Nevada transfer Tory Horton (52) to the program. UNLV has Kyle Williams (42) coming back. SDSU’s Matthews is the sixth.
The Aztecs compare favorably to the rest of the conference in the makeup of their room. Like most of the conference, they will depend on a number of unproven players to make leaps in production. In 2022, SDSU should benefit from depending on seniors to make those jumps.
“We talk on it a lot during the week, and we’ll have a lot of discussions as we come through fall camp as to rotations and things like that,” Hecklinski said on how SDSU substitutes its players. “There’s a reason all of the position coaches are on the field, and they’re their positions and with their players. Being up in the box, I’m removed from that, so I rely on them. Coop’s going to say, ‘Ok, Jesse just ran two routes. He caught one down the field. I need to give him a break.’ We don’t communicate that. That’s on Coop to do that because he knows his players better than I do. He’s there, he sees them, he’s with them, and he can make that happen immediately.”