This first article in the East Village Times’ 2022 Aztec football season preview series examines the quarterback position. At every school across the country, the outlook of a team rests on the ability of its signal-callers. Generally speaking, preseason prognostications begin and end with the person expected to be under center.
Even though there is less experience at the position heading into 2022 than last season, indications point to the current crop of QBs having a better chance for success than their predecessors. When coach Jeff Hecklinski took over as offensive coordinator, Carson Baker was the heir apparent who had won the confidence of his teammates.
Coach Hunkie Cooper said Baker’s struggles, coupled with the lack of production in the passing game throughout 2020 from whoever was under center, was an issue the team has worked through. Last year, the offense began the season like it left off in the previous year, but signs of progress in the passing game emerged as the season progressed. Heading into 2022, belief in Hecklinski’s offense is established, giving the QBs a better foundation on which to build.
“I think we had a lot of unknowns a year ago coming out of Covid,” Hecklinski said in an exclusive interview with EVT. “Lucas was injured that whole 2020 season. We saw Lucas for what three quarters? We were still looking to get things right around the quarterback situation. I felt Braxton and Will came into a more stable situation from everybody else that was around them, to how we were presenting (the offense), to everything. I’ve grown a lot as a coach. You’ve heard me say that a lot too. I’ve grown a lot as a coach in understanding really from a starting point to getting to the first game, the presentation and coaching part of it, fundamentals, techniques. Playbook-wise, we’re just farther along where we should be going into essentially year two and a half if you take that Covid year as a half year.”
Before detailing the position, a word about our method, EVT writers Andre Haghverdian and Paul Garrison graded the various aspects listed below, which were averaged to arrive at the grades provided.
Since Hecklinksi arrived on campus, the talent in the room has grown each season. Four QBs at SDSU have professional potential, which bodes well for the future of the position. Development will be key to actualizing what could become a strength of the team in the coming years. The question for 2022 is whether Braxton Burmeister can bridge the gap until the youngsters are primed to take over.
Down the depth chart, a battle is brewing between three freshmen, Will Haskell, Liu Aumavae, and Kyle Crum. Their work behind the scenes as Burmeister’s backup is vitally important and will determine if the coaching staff uses the transfer market again for a QB to lead the team in 2023.
“Both (Braxton) and Will are having great summers, and so are Kyle and Liu,” Hecklinski explained. “I think our quarterback room from when I first got here in 2020 to where we are now is a completely different room, a completely different set of athletic abilities that can throw the football. So I think we’re right where we want to be.”
Confidence in the starter: B
Expectations for Burmeister are deservedly high. Unlike past transfers at the position, he has extensive starting experience in his career- 4 with Oregon and 16 with Virginia Tech. He started every game a season ago for the Hokies except for the team’s bowl game, which he missed only after deciding to transfer.
His numbers may not be eye-popping nationally, but his 2,468 yards from scrimmage, 14 touchdowns, and four interceptions were decidedly better than any SDSU QB from a season ago. They are even more impressive, considering he played half the year with broken ribs. Make no mistake, Burmeister is not just older than the rest of the QBs in the room. He is every bit as talented.
“I thought (with) the competition between Will and Braxton that somebody was going to separate themselves quickly (in spring camp),” Hecklinski explained. “You get a really good feel for Braxton’s experience through this. It really wasn’t anything that Will didn’t do. It was just the amount of experience Braxton came in with and that confidence and that calmness that he plays with. You could tell he’s played 20 plus games in the ACC and had a great feel … You could just tell as we were going, he was getting more and more comfortable.”
Star Power: B
2022 looks to be the year Burmeister finally breaks out and reaches the potential that made him one of the more sought-after recruits in the nation when he graduated from La Jolla Country Day. The offenses at both of his previous stops featured a version of the Run-Pass-Option (RPO) offense SDSU employs. Burmeister is an expert at the offense, which will allow Hecklinski to use more variety in his play-calling and formations.
While Burmeister is adept at running the RPO, there is a difference in SDSU’s version. Oregon and Virginia Tech leaned more to the run than the pass. The Aztecs want to be closer to a PRO than RPO, where the QB is more aggressive, pulls the ball, and throws as the first priority. Only three times last season did Burmeister throw more than 30 times in a game, while SDSU reached that mark five times over the final nine games of the season. With more opportunity, expect Burmeister’s game-highs of 32 attempts, 19 completions, 254 passing yards, and three touchdowns to be topped next season.
“Braxton is the ultimate competitor,” Hecklinski said. “The best thing about Braxton is when you tell Braxton he can’t do something. He’s going to find every way to prove that he can do it, and that’s what you want at that position. What we probably didn’t know going in, and what, I think, we saw very early, Braxton is a very accomplished thrower. We were able to really streamline a lot of fundamentals and techniques in the passing game with drops and footwork and things like that and really get his eyes in the right spot. Once that started to hit, you could really see when he was repping through spring ball. He really was able to take us down the field and did a lot of great things. That has continued.”
Proven Depth: D
Behind Burmeister is where the question marks emerge. Provided he has no setbacks, Hecklinski expects Haskell to start the season as the primary backup. While Haskell’s talent is evident, his game is not polished yet. He has a powerful arm but struggles at times with accuracy. His ability to elude defenders and be a threat as a runner is exceptional, but he sometimes forgets the subtleties of matching the correct drops with the play that is called.
Haskell has only thrown seven passes in his career. None have come in pressure situations. Behind him are two freshmen, who looked advanced in Spring Camp, but their next snap in a game will be the first of their careers.
Players improve the most between the end of spring camp and the beginning of fall. The coaches give each player clear areas to focus on, and with the carrot of increased playing time in the upcoming season, growth often ensues. This is Haskell’s first time through this critical junction of the calendar. Hecklinski reports that he has made huge strides.
Aumavae and Crum are behind Haskell at the moment. Their choice to enroll early and participate in Spring Camp went a long way towards evening out the experience gap between them and Haskell. Their confidence that they belong at this level and can lead the team is an important step for them. All three freshmen left Spring Camp equal on the depth chart. Haskell has elevated himself with his work since. Burmeister is the best QB they have been around on a daily basis, and gleaning what they can from him will help them reach his level sooner.
“It’s the same thing that coach (Hoke) said with Braxton, ‘Braxton is the starter unless,” Hecklinski said. “I would say the same thing with Will. Will is the backup to Braxton unless. And that ‘unless’ is you still have to perform. You have to come in every day, and you have to work at a level and to reach the expectations that we have, for the position, for the offense, and for the team. If at any point you don’t do that, there’s somebody there who’s pushing to take your spot. That’s competition, and that’s the way coach has built this program since 2009, and that’s why there’s been the sustained level of success around here because of that competition.”
Conference Rank: C+
Entering the season, four conference foes have better QB situations than SDSU. Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, Air Force’s Haaziq Daniels, and Utah State’s Logan Bonner are all senior signal-callers with heavy experience. Burmeister would rank behind these four because of their established production at their current schools. The rest of the conference has a less enviable spot than the Aztecs when it comes to the QB position.
“Will is doing a great job of learning from Braxton,” Hecklinski explained. That’s hard when you’re competing against that guy. That’s hard because that’s the guy you’re trying to beat, but you still want to take and learn. You can really see Will’s growth and maturity in what it’s going to take to be a high-level quarterback. The notes that he’s taking in the meetings that we’ve had. You watch him now in 7-on-7. He’s right there with Braxton at (completing) seven out of ten almost every time and learning how to push the ball down the field while still checking down and coming down. You see a lot of good things from those two and a lot of competitiveness. … If you’re 14 or 15 out of 20 during any course of a game, you’re feeling pretty good about how you’re moving the football, and that’s where we want to be throwing the football-wise.”