Only 32 of the 259 NFL draft picks in 2021 were week one starters. Among the 4.5% of draftees that accomplished this feat, 17 were first-round selections. In total, 18 teams used a rookie to start their season’s first game. The Atlanta Falcons Kyle Pitts was the lone tight end among the group. He was selected with the fourth pick in the entire draft, the highest ever for the position. Two fourth-round selections, Packers OL Royce Newman and Steelers OL Dan Moore started their teams’ opening game.
These stats put the beginning of Daniel Bellinger’s NFL career into perspective. Reports of his first practices with the New York Giants have been stellar. He has already earned reps with the first team, leading many to predict he will join Pitts, Newman, and Moore as week one rookie starters.
Bellinger’s success with the G-Men also highlights the difficult task the Aztecs have in replacing him in 2022. If the SDSU great earns the starting nod when the Giants travel to Nashville to take on the Titans on September 11, he will be the first former Aztec to start the NFL’s first game of the season as a rookie since Miles Burris lined up for the Raiders in their 22-14 loss to the Chargers on September 10, 2012. Kyle Turley was the last player before Burris. He started for the Saints in their 24-17 victory over the Rams on September 6, 1998.
“He was an extra coach. Honestly, that’s the first thing that I always say about him,” Savai’i Eselu said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast. “Belli, he was exceptional in just about every avenue of life as a San Diego State Aztec football player. He was always doing the right thing. In the weight room, he was always working hard with the responses to coach Hall. On the field, training, he’s always in the film room. … He was the standard, in my opinion. … I’m excited because now the other guys, the Jay Rudolphs, the Aaron Greenes, the Gus McGees, the Cameron Harpoles, the guys that got the chance to sit in the room, JP Murphy, all those guys, they can see how it should be done.”
From the coaching staff to the fan base and even his own family, seemingly everyone except Bellinger himself bemoaned how underutilized he was in the Aztecs’ passing game. Ironically, it is this fact that gives hope that SDSU’s tight ends can be more productive in 2022 than in 2021. There may not be a more talented player on the roster than Bellinger, but it is possible with a collective effort to replace his output between the lines. Bellinger’s leadership on the team will likely fall to someone outside the tight end room.
SDSU’s success in sending tight ends to the NFL is extensive. Since Gavin Escobar arrived on the Mesa in 2010, every Aztec roster since has had at least one tight end who would go on to play at the highest level. With Bellinger leaving, that 12-year streak is in jeopardy. Every tight end on the roster in 2022 has the potential to carry on the legacy, but they must grow tremendously to join Escobar, Kahale Warring, Daniel Brunskill, Bryce Quigley, Parker Houston, and Bellinger in the NFL.
Guiding them in their development is an up-and-coming star in the coaching ranks, Savai’i Eselu. Following his playing career at Cal (2007-2010), Eselu returned to his alma mater Moanalua High School, where he was an assistant coach before taking over the program in 2016.
“I’m an alum of Moanalua, graduated 2007,” Eselu explained. “Got a chance to play ball, came back home. Built it from the ground up. It was really good fun. … It was an eye-opening opportunity. Personally, to me, it was the ability to understand the ground up. Really being boots on the ground and really harness your ability to outreach. Get these kids going, and now (at SDSU), it’s essentially the same thing, just at a much higher level.”
In many ways, just as he did with the Menehunes, Eselu is building the Aztecs’ tight ends from the ground up. For the first time in his tenure, there are no holdovers who were coached by previous regimes. Eselu is one of the best recruiters on the staff and has filled the tight end room with potential stars.
During the past couple of years, recruits have gone out of their way to praise SDSU’s tight-end coach. For them, his way of being is a breath of fresh air in an industry fraught with deception.
“First off, it’s my faith, my faith in Christ, that’s been a huge pillar of success, as a matter of fact, the main pillar of success in what I do in this profession,” Eselu said. “Honestly, I could take that word out ‘profession.’ To me, it’s not really a profession. It’s the heart of a servant, servanthood. Along with my faith, going back to my upbringing. You talk about the Polynesian style. That’s exactly what it is. It’s the heart of the servant, servanthood, the authenticity of servanthood because if you try to fake the funk in a Poly family, …. It’ll be corrected in a heartbeat.”
Eselu’s skill, coupled with the success of the Aztecs’ tight ends in the NFL, has attracted top tight ends from all over the country. Below is an analysis of those players listed according to their place on the post-spring depth chart. At Moanalua, it was the third season when Eselu’s culture bore fruit. Entering his third season with SDSU, expect a similar dynamic with the Aztecs in 2022.
“The physicality, that’s the key thing,” Eselu responded when asked why such talented tight ends want to play for the Aztecs. “Anybody can go run a route and catch a ball. Being a tight end, in my opinion, begins in the trenches. If you’re willing to get your face in on the action, then I can work with you. We all can work with you. I love what Coach Coop says, and I steal this from him all the time, ‘if you ain’t going to bite as a pup, you ain’t going to bite as a dog.’ If (a recruit) ain’t willing to put his face in with the front five, I don’t want him. … It’s a different kind of beast in this sport to run it like the Aztecs do.”
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Tight End Y
Redman is listed as the starter at the same position Bellinger was for the Aztecs. His transfer from Washington this past year solidifies the position. Heading into fall camp, Redman and Jay Rudolph are the two tight ends with the least questions about their abilities. Without Redman, the room would be more of an unknown. Redman is a good blocker, possesses great speed for his size, and can catch balls in a variety of ways. If the tight ends in 2022 outproduce the group from 2021, it will likely be because Redman realized much of his tremendous potential.
Eselu Quote: “Mark is every bit of a “Y. My man is solid. He can catch, and he can catch anything and everything. It helps that he’s 6’5, maybe 6’6. It also helps that he’s got super long arms. Would love to keep him roughly where’s he’s at about 250, 255. But my man is smart. He’s very smart to where he’s so knowledgeable. He knows what’s going to happen pre-snap. He knows the likelihood of this combination block. He knows more than likely what’s going to happen … I say all that to say this, he’ll be able to put himself in a great position to succeed on the field. His range is tremendous in the passing game. I would expect him to be a big-time target this upcoming season. Just sheer ability to run, sheer ability to be able to catch with such a huge radius. Now, my hope is when we coach him up, we can turn him into what I always tell them – when I played – into a Jeremy Shockey style.”
When Greene arrived on campus, he stood out. 275-pound players do not run routes at a typical practice. Even at that size, he moved well, showed soft hands, and always fell forward when being tackled. It was suggested half-jokingly that Greene, who was not this big in high school, might make a terrific offensive lineman. Those days are done. Greene has completely reworked his body and looks to be the third tight end. It is a testament to Greene that he could lose that weight and separate himself from the other players in the tight end room to earn the backup at the “Y.” It is unclear exactly how Eselu would reshuffle the depth chart in case of an injury. Fall camp will determine that. At this point, the best guess in Greene is third and would slide over to the “H” if Redman or Rudolph were unable to play.
Eselu Quote: “Aaron Greene, he’s come a long way. You look at him in terms of body type. He’s definitely a “Y,” an inline guy. My man is heavy-handed. He can strike. … Now, my man is down in the 250 range. He’s able to run with the best of them. He’s understanding now, ‘shoot, I messed up. I came back in the wrong manner in terms of body type.’ He’s tremendously grown. He’s worked hard in the weight room, and you can see it. … he’s a key piece because we feature the 13 personnel, which is three tight ends. He got to smell some game a little bit (last year). Jump in there. Being able to contribute in a far greater manner now is key. … Aaron is going to be special. He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten slimmer, but he hasn’t lost the mass I’d expect him to have as an inline “Y.”
Murphy continues to display a lot of the pass-catching ability fans love but not enough of the blocking the coaches want to see. As a result, he is listed third on the depth chart. Murphy has added 20 pounds and is up to 245. If he has bulked up this off-season without losing the leaping ability that could make him special, Murphy could emerge from the underclassmen as the primary understudy at the “Y.”
Eselu Quote: “JP’s been putting his best foot forward. He’s been trying to find his groove of things. He’s going to be a solid addition. There is a big battle going on in the room, that’s for sure, as we progress getting closer to camp. I’m excited to see where this pans out with JP. I want to see if he’s going to answer the call. I want to see if he’s going to push it in terms of competition. I want to see if he’s really going to push it in terms of physicality and go from there because there may be a lack in certain areas with all these individuals. At the same time, what are your strengths? … his catching ability is key. He’s got soft hands, great maneuverability.”
Tight End H
Likely the starting “Y” if Redman had decided on a different school, Rudolph enters his second year as the starter at the “H” position. Rudolph is already a very good blocker that could be used in those roles should Redman not prove as adept at it in the games as he is expected to be. As a rising junior, Rudolph’s experience may be another key to the unit producing more in 2022 than in 2021. Rudolph only had one reception, a two-yard touchdown catch against Utah. He figures to be more involved this year, which could make the offense even more dynamic formation-wise next year.
Eselu Quote: “Jay, he’s kind of funny. I call him the silent assassin. My man is quiet in the room, but he’s sharp. The thing about Jay is he’s not scared to do anything. He’ll be able to hold his own, to handle his job to the best of his ability. The thing about Jay is he’s always wanting to be better. Now, you can say that for all the kids that play college football, but Jay’s a different cat. … he’s not of the verbal nature. You know when Jay wants you to work. You can just see it. …it’s my hope we can feature him more with what coach Heck does. … I’m excited. Jay’s going to be something special.”
McGee switched numbers from 42 to 87 this offseason. He was a standout player in the Spring Game catching three passes for twenty-one yards and beating Patrick McMorris on the first two completions. That production mirrored what he did in practice throughout camp. In 7-on-7, McGee showed nimble feet and the ability to go up for the ball. Among the freshmen tight ends, McGee separated himself a little. If he can build on it, he could work his way into the mix for playing time this season.
Eselu Quote: “Gus McGee. He’s a tricky one. He has the body of a “Y.” We’re trying to see if he has the tremendous ability of an “H.” … in my mind, where you have the body of the “Y” but the abilities of the “H” and the willingness of an Aztec Warrior to get your face in on contact, battle it out. He’ll be key because he has gotten some time in the games last season. He’s definitely gotten his feet wet, but now it’s, ‘bra, you got to grow up. You’ve got to be a big boy now, and let’s play.’ I’m hopeful he can get going at the point of attack, in the box. He can hold his own, though, don’t get me wrong. He’ll be a huge addition because of his reach and his range (as a receiver).”
Harpole might have the highest ceiling in the room. When he arrived at SDSU, he was basically a tight end trapped in a larger wide receiver’s body. That is no longer the case. He has put on weight while maintaining the speed to play outside. Harpole profiles more as a Y, but he is buried at the H to send a very clear message. Tight ends at SDSU see the field as blockers. Harpole’s athleticism could allow him to see the field on special teams.
Eselu Quote: “Holy cow, that guy can run! Harp is fast. Harp is fast. He is solid. He’s done a great job with coach Hall. … He’s gotten big, in a good way. He’s now at 236 to 238. I tell him, ‘Bro, if you think you’re going to come in here and handle a 270, 280-pound defensive end, you’re going to fold. It’s not going to be good.’ He has grown physically – tremendous, exponential growth. Now, it’s a matter of putting it all together in terms of inline and watching how Jay does it. He can be that huge contributing factor. Special teams guy, he can help all over. Smart, cerebral kid. I’m excited with him. That’s another Texas guy. We’ll keep it rolling with him.”
One of the three early enrollees from the class of 2022, Tanner’s reputation as a pass-catching threat was well earned. He more than held his own during spring practice against older players. He provided one of the highlight plays of the Spring Game. His 45 reception from Liu Aumavae over junior college transfer Kristien Reyes down the seam flashed an aspect to the offense not seen in years. A redshirt season is likely for Tanner in 2022, but his presence on campus this semester makes it more of a possibility he plays as a true freshman.
Eselu Quote: “He’s freaking strong. That guy’s strong. Now, it’s what I call the race to maturity. Technically, he should be moving into SDSU this week and going from there. The sky’s the limit for him because he has every bit of the ability of an “H” tight end. He can flex out. He’s already willing to get his face in on the action. The expectation when I recruited him was he’ll hit some extra growth spurt and get taller because right now, he’s pushing about 6’3 and 6’4 roughly. I’m expecting his playing ability to be much greater than that, greater than tangibles. Being able to contribute in the manner of, are you a receiver? Are you a tight end? You’re such a tweener. Dang, you can do it all.”
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.