SDSU Aztecs Football Season Preview: The Junior Class

Credit: USA Today Sports

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Credit: SDSU Athletics

The junior year is an opportunity for the men to separate themselves from the boys.

Five of the players in the class – Matt Araiza, Jesse Matthews, Michael Shawcroft, William Dunkle, and Cameron Thomas – have been major contributors since their freshman year. In 2021, the rest of the rising juniors will be counted on to carry the program to its 22nd conference championship.

Due to the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA in response to the Covid shortened 2020 season, these juniors for SDSU actually enter the season with three years of eligibility. In contrast to last year’s junior class, this group also has an advantage. They have gone through a more typical offseason in the weight room, during spring camp, and in player-led summer practices. 

There are 20 members of this 2021 junior class for San Diego State. San Diego County is well represented. Nine players from this class hail from local high schools. They will be looking to help sustain the success of their local university and realize the promise of being a hero in their hometown. 

A lot of the names are yet to be fully known across the dorms on the Mesa, but once these soon-to-be stars make their mark on the Scarlet and Black, there is an opportunity to go down in Aztec history. 

Star: Jesse Matthews

Career SDSU Stats:

21 games  72 receptions 959 yards  3 TD 

Jesse Matthews led the 2020 Aztecs receiving core in yards by over 100, with 326 yards hauled in. Jeff Hecklinski and the coaching staff will be asking for even more out of him to propel the passing offense to complement the running attack of Greg Bell and company. 

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Matthews was born and raised in San Diego and attended Christian high school. He walked on to the team, started as a redshirt freshman, and earned on scholarship. Now, as a junior, Matthews is looking to take yet another step forward and help reinvigorate a passing attack that ranked 115th in the country a year ago with only 151.4 yards a contest. 

Though Matthews’ 40.8 yard per game average led the team, the total did not rank among of top 200 receivers in college football. Part of the reason for this low total leading the team in 2020 was inconsistency and injuries at the quarterback position. 

“We just got to do a better job of throwing the football,” Hecklinski said during Spring Camp. “That’s our number one goal coming out of the spring, to be much more efficient with how we throw the football and how we catch the football. The receivers are a byproduct of the quarterbacks.”

Hecklinski and company are optimistic that with a more traditional spring and summer leading up to the season, the quarterback play will improve and give more opportunities to the wide receivers, like Matthews and the rest of the gang, to increase their production.

Matthews not only helps on offense, he returns punts as well. In his time on the Mesa, Matthews has returned 24 punts for 191 return yards. 

Did you know?  It has been nearly a decade since the last 1,000-yard receiving season for the Aztecs. Ezell Ruffin hauled in 1,136 yards in his 2013 campaign.

Breakout Star: Tyrell Shavers

Career SDSU Stats: None. (Below are his career stats. This is his first year in the program)

7 games       10 Rec  127 yards    1 TD    

Shavers will be a dynamic wide receiver for San Diego State. Originally signed by the Alabama Crimson Tide, he transferred to Mississippi State after his redshirt sophomore year. He left the Bulldogs, where he was teammates with transfer quarterback Jaylen Mayden, following one season. Shavers hopes to have found a home in America’s finest city.

At 6-foot 6-inches tall with blazing speed, Shavers provides a potential deep ball and jump-ball threat to an offense that has lacked both in recent seasons. He displays a ton of athleticism that will be a nightmare for opposing defensive backs.

“You definitely know who he is on the field,” Hecklinski said during Spring Camp.

Moving from the South Eastern Conference to the Mountain West Conference, Shavers will no longer be going up against the elite defenses every game that make many people believe the SEC is the best conference in football. 

San Diego State fans may not know his name yet, but they will shortly.

Did you know? Kassim Osgood holds the record for the most prolific season by a transfer wide receiver. After starting at Cal Poly, Osgood came to the Aztecs for one season in 2002 and finished with 108 receptions, 1,552 yards, and eight touchdowns.  Despite only spending one year on the Mesa, Osgood ranks 24th in career receptions in program history.

Most Important Player: Patrick McMorris

Career SDSU Stats:

16 games 11 tackles 1.5 tackles for loss 1 pass deflection

“The Aztec” position for San Diego State’s defense is a high honor that is reserved only for the best players and leaders for the Aztecs. With “the Aztec” up for grabs this year, the emerging candidate is Patrick McMorris, the junior safety from Santa Ana, California.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

As a junior with three years of eligibility left, McMorris has the opportunity to lead one of the nation’s premier defenses as one of the captains in coming years. 

Most of his stat production came against Nevada last year in his first career start when he totaled seven tackles, a tackle for loss, and his lone career pass breakup. On the road against the conference’s premier quarterback, McMorris displayed the leadership and tenacity the coaching staff is hoping for out of him throughout the 2021 season.

With potentially being “the Aztec,” you will be able to find McMorris all over the field, playing high or low depending on the play calls. That is what makes “the Aztec” such a pivotal role and why they need their best and smartest player there.

Did you know: Damon Pieri holds the school record for most tackles by a player in the secondary. He had 143 stops in 1991. Upon leaving the Mesa, he had a three-year NFL career.

Most Traveled: Daniel Okpoko

Career SDSU Stats: 2 games, 0 tackles

Daniel Okpoko is yet to record any stats for the Aztecs, but his junior season could be his time to change that. Despite no production yet from Okpoko, he is the most traveled junior on San Diego State. 

Okpoko is from Saskatoon, Canada, which is in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. For reference, Saskatoon is between Edmonton and Winnipeg and directly north of Denver. Saskatoon is about four hours north of the Canada-United States border. 

Okpoko is a big lineman who can cause trouble for interior offensive linemen. He will be easy to root for when he gets on the field in 2021.

Did you know: Okpoko is the only international player on the 2021 San Diego State Aztecs football team. 

Something to Prove: William Dunkle

Dunkle played in five of the eight games in 2020 after playing all 13 games in 2019. He only played in just over half of the games last year due to COVID-19. When Dunkle played, the offensive line performed great. When he was out, the holes and protection lessened. With new starters alongside Dunkle on the line this year, it will be up to him to lead them back to a high level.

The Eastlake High School grad is a local product that stands out on the field at 330 pounds.

“William takes tremendous pride playing football at SDSU and representing His hometown of San Diego,” Freddy Dunkl, William Dunkle’s uncle and current head coach at Montgomery High School, said. “He’s a gentle giant off the field and Dunkzilla on the field.”

Hoke referred to Dunkle as “one of the top linemen in the conference” heading into Fall Camp. In addition to Hoke’s high praise, Pro Football Focus named Dunkle a preseason first-team all-Mountain West selection.

Dunkle will need to prove Hoke’s words and Pro Football Focus’ selection right by opening up running lanes for Bell and company and by protecting whoever is running the offense as the Aztecs’ quarterback.

Did you know? Freddy Dunkle won the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week Award on December 4, 2006. His blocked punt was a catalyst to the Aztec’s 17-6 victory over Colorado State.

Biggest Shoes to Fill: Cedarious Barfield

Career SDSU Stats

4 games     13 tackles  2 tackles for loss     1 interception  1 passes defensed

Three starters from the 2020 Aztecs secondary are gone. Dwayne Johnson and Tariq Thompson, two of those three departing starters, are safeties, leaving two openings for 2021. With McMorris slated to slot in at the Aztec position, SDSU needs a safety to fill in for Thompson. Enter Cedarious Barfield.

When teams spread out with more than two receivers, Thompson would cover the extra receiver no matter which side of the formation. Coach Mattix said they are looking to replace that aspect of Thompson’s game with basically a third corner at safety. At the beginning of last year, Barfield was a starter at corner and should be able to slide into that cover safety role. 

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He is getting a lot of reps at practice, and defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix said that Barfield had three interceptions in one practice in the spring. Barfield sparsely made plays on the ball despite starting in 2020 but will need to fill the big shoes of Johnson and Thompson to keep the status of the Aztecs defense high. A more confident and physical Barfield will surely make an impact.

Did you know? Barfield was a prolific quarterback at El Dorado High School in El Paso, Texas. He threw for more than 5,000 yards in his career, ran for over 3,000 yards, and scored more than 100 touchdowns.

Inspirational Leader: Cameron Thomas

SDSU Career Stats:

22 games   84 tackles    18.5 tackles for loss    9.5 sacks   3 pass deflections

Cameron Thomas is one of the featured Aztecs who are returning to the defense this year. He hopes to continue to haunt the quarterbacks of the Mountain West and bring the pain to opposing running backs. 

As a returner to the team, Thomas will be a leader, but he primarily leads by example with his strong effort and recognition to never give up on plays during games and practice.

“I’ve always considered myself an effort player,” Thomas said. “The more effort I put in, the best I’m going to get out of myself. I consider myself a leader by example rather than a vocal leader, and I believe that my effort plays a large role in that.”

The defensive line for SDSU will be a strength of the team, and Thomas will play a large role in that. Linemen role deep, the Aztecs’ line is no different.

“I was very happy with the competition amongst the defensive line this year,” Thomas said. “We’ve all played with each other for three years now, and we are just getting more fluent with each other, working on getting our stunts timed and tighter.”

Did you know? Kyahva Tezino leads the program in career quarterback hurries. He had 45 during his storied career. Thomas is third on the list with 27.

Best NFL Draft Prospect: Tyrell Shavers

Career SDSU Stats: None. Shavers is a transfer. Instead are his total college stats T

7 games       10 Rec  127 yards    1 TD

We are double-dipping in the Tyrell Shavers sauce, as he is also the best NFL draft prospect in addition to the breakout star for the junior class on San Diego State. At 6-foot 6-inches and very athletic, it is easy to see why Shavers can be an NFL draft prospect. 

Credit: Twitter

According to 247Sports, Shavers ranked as the 88th prospect in the 2017 recruiting class. In his home state of Texas, he ranked as the 11th best prospect. At his position of wide receiver, he ranked 12th in the nation. 

That number 12 ranking at wide receiver put him in front of some pristine wide receivers such as Jalen Raegor, 2020 Philadelphia Eagles first-round pick, CeeDee Lamb, 2020 Dallas Cowboys first-round draft pick, Amari Rodgers, 2021 Green Bay Packers third-round pick, and Tylan Wallace, 2021 Baltimore Ravens fourth-round pick.

Did you know? Only one San Diego State Aztec was taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. In the fourth round, the Atlanta Falcons selected cornerback Darren Hall with the 108th overall pick.

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