SDSU Aztecs Football Season Preview: The Senior Class

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: AP Photo

Part of San Diego State Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke’s coaching philosophy is to make a distinction in roles. “Players play, coaches coach.”

During practice, this means defensive coaches stay on the sidelines during any live competition. Mimicking game day conditions, where players cannot hear instructions from the sidelines, players are left to figure out how to work together and compete with minimal coaching.

Afterward, coaches watch the day’s practice film and evaluate how many yards versus the run and the pass were given up in certain formations and calls. When they find what they want to work on, the coaches coach in their defensive meetings. Before the next practice, the defensive staff works with the offensive staff to recreate the situations from the previous practice in order to give as many competitive repetitions as possible.

This approach is complemented by another aspect of Hoke’s philosophy. The Aztecs are a player-led program. The coaches give some of their authority away to the senior class. In exchange, the most seasoned players in the program model the Aztec Way and police their teammates to meet that high standard.

The form this arrangement takes organizationally is a weekly meeting between coach Hoke and the seniors where everything that happens in and around the program is open for discussion. It is this meeting that former players point to as some of their favorite memories at State, and the younger players look forward to joining when it is their turn to assume the leadership mantle.

The process of a new senior class growing into the leaders of a team is organic. The shape it takes is unique to individuals who make up the group. The responsibility given is real. Each senior class leaves its stamp on the program, a lasting legacy that subsequent teams build upon.

The danger in this approach is if the seniors fail to lead, there is a tangible leadership void with predictable results on the field. For example, about a month after Spring Camp, most of the players returned to San Diego to work out and practice in player-led Skeleton (skelly) Drills. Skellys are seven on seven team sessions where the linebackers and the defensive backs play against the quarterback and his five receiving options. It was the seniors who were in charge of these drills.

If they led their teammates well, these drills could springboard the team into fall camp because it provides valuable repetitions and allows the players’ chemistry to develop. On the other hand, if the seniors failed to lead, it would cement bad habits the coaches would have to devote practice time to break. During Skellys it is easy for players to not chase the ball on each play, for instance, and only dedicated seniors can maintain the “11 hats to the ball” identity of the defense.

Credit: Go Aztecs

Fortunately, for more than a decade, on the field and off the field, the seniors have been incredible ambassadors of their families, the program, and the university as a whole. From all indications, the 2021 group is shaping up to be special.

The class has an advantage over past years. Ten seniors from 2020 chose to exercise their extra year of eligibility and return to the Mesa, including one of the Team Captains, Dominic Gudino, from a year ago. According to the players in the locker room, integrating last year’s seniors with the new group has been seamless.

There are 34 players in this year’s class. A total of 24 of whom will have the opportunity to return next year to open the new Aztec Stadium. As would be hoped for and expected, the players from this group will form a significant number of the two-deep that will be chasing the 22nd championship in program history.

 

Star: Greg Bell Career

Career Stats at SDSU:

7 games       124 touches 751 yards    7 TDs

The clear-cut star of the senior class is Greg Bell. He burst onto the scene last year and gave Aztec fans the type of back they have not seen since Rashaad Penny graced the Mesa. The rest of the running back room is filled with talented players, who have had moments of brilliance throughout their careers and will be counted upon this season, but Bell cemented himself as the clear-cut RB 1. Bell’s carries and yards were double that of any other back last year. Until another threat develops, the number one aim of opposing defenses will be figuring out how to stop the dynamic tailback. 

The range of expectations for Bell’s senior season has varied. He was listed on the preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award, given to the top player in college football, but was left off the preseason MWC team. Outside expectations aside, Bell has one clear goal in mind for 2021.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

“I just think (winning a championship) will be big doing it for my hometown,” Bell said during Spring Camp. “A lot of people know me out here, and I just think it would be huge to do it out here for the school and San Diego.”

Fittingly for this aspiration, Bell is returning to the number he wore in Pop Warner and high school, #22. It will be the first time he has worn it as an FBS player.

Did you know? SDSU has had a player rush for at least 1,000 yards 25 times in school history. Rashaad Penny, in 2017 was the last to accomplish the feat. He finished with 2,248 rushing yards, which is a school record and the fifth-highest single-season mark in NCAA history.  

Breakout Star: Lucas Johnson

Career SDSU Stats:

3 games       14/24 com/att  184 yards passing   1 TD    8 rushes        80 yards      1 TD

Though they have left the door open by not officially listing him as the starter, the coaching staff has also repeatedly indicated that Lucas Johnson is the favorite to be the starting quarterback, making him the easy choice for the “Breakout Star” of the senior class. Each time he has stepped on the field, Johnson has flashed a tantalizing potential that should have Aztec fans dreaming of pairing an outstanding offense with a dominating defense. 

Credit: Twitter

His first game action as an Aztec against Hawaii, when the game was out of hand, and everyone knew a run was the play call. The Rainbow Warriors could not stop Johnson’s read option. He rushed 3 times for 51 yards. The following week against Nevada, he showcased an amazing first-half performance leading the announcers to compare him favorably to Jalen Hurts. Finally, during the Spring Game, though the QBs were not live and only a touch would end the play, Johnson ran circles around the defense, getting to the edge at will. 

“I know we’re going to have great competition early in Fall Camp,” Hoke said at Mountain West Media Days. “I think Lucas Johnson had a very good spring. I think Jordan Brookshire had a very good spring, and I think Jaylen Mayden had a good spring. As you look at how they progressed and what they have done over the summer and then, early in Fall Camp, we’ll make a decision.”  

Did you know: Adam Dingwell holds the school record for the most passing attempts in a game with 63 against Eastern Illinois in 2013.

Unsung Hero: Jordan Brookshire

Looking around the Mountain West Western Division, only two of the six likely starting quarterbacks signed with their respective schools out of high school; the rest are transfers. And, while players having the opportunity to freely find schools that fit them better is a welcomed change to college football, there is still room to admire players who stick it out at a school through tough times.

Credit: AP Photo

Jordan Brookshire’s decision to stay with the Aztecs despite being listed fourth on the depth chart at the start of the 2020 season has had a major impact on the team. Coaches can tell their players that production and improvement will dictate playing time, but when that is actualized at the most important position on the field, it resonates differently and inspires every player on the roster to grind.  

 “Jordan (Brookshire) is a tough competitor,” Hecklinski said during Spring Camp. “The amount of respect that I have for Jordan coming through last year. In a day and age where it’s not common for people to stick through and push and compete, you really saw that with Jordan. Jordan got his chance and went in and played tough. He’s got a lot of energy and a lot of respect on the team.”

Did you know: Brady Hoke is tied with Al Luginbill, Ted Tollner, and Rocky Long, among head coaches for most 3,000 yard passing seasons. Each had two such years during their tenures. Don Coryell, Tom Craft, Chuck Long, Doug Scovil, and Denny Stolz each had one.

Inspirational Leader: Dominic Gudino

In 1928, Ken Johnson donated the trophy, the Dr. R. Hardy/C.E. Peterson Memorial Trophy, which is given perpetually to the team captains of the football team. While not unprecedented in the Hoke/Long era, a returning captain from the previous year is rare because in sticking with the senior-led theme, captains are only chosen from that class. Gudino’s return, then, is special and makes him the easy choice for the Inspirational Leader of the senior class. 

Credit: Twitter

Gudino is completely healed from his injury and is back snapping the ball. He practiced at every interior lineman spot during camp and looks to be a favorite for a starting nod. Like most of the ten returning seniors, winning a championship was the biggest motivation for returning. Gudino has never won a title at any level and is hoping that #Win22 will be #Win1 for him. 

“I don’t think there’s any sort of disconnect,” Gudino said during Spring Camp when asked how the returning seniors are meshing with the rising seniors. “If anything, we have more of a beneficial situation. Those guys that are becoming new seniors kind of get us older guys to set the example in a way. It’s definitely just a good cooperative leadership attempt by all of us in that group.” 

Did you know? The last two-time team captain was J.J. Whitaker. He was chosen in 2014 and 2015. Kevin O’Connell holds the record for most team captain selections. He was chosen four times from 2004 to 2007. 

Most Traveled: Segun Olubi

Career SDSU Stats:

7 games       15 tackles    .5 tackles for loss      1 interception  1 TD

Born Oluwasegun Olubi in Downington, Pennsylvania, a small town of fewer than 8,000 people, Segun Olubi came to SDSU as the most traveled senior class member. When he was two, his family moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. Then, they left St. Paul for Bullhead City, Arizona. When he was 10, they relocated to London, England, before moving back to the US for a second stint in Bullhead City. A couple of years later, they moved to Corona, CA, where Olubi was a three-year letter winner in both football and track and field at Centennial High School.

SDSU Athletics

A tremendous athlete, Olubi clocked an 11.33 100 meter dash, a 23.23 200 meter dash, and leaped 22’ 3” in the long jump. He continues to hold a Centennial school record in the triple jump with a 45’ 11” mark. 

Following high school, Olubi competed in football at the College of Idaho in Caldwell, Idaho, Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, CA, and Harding College in Searcy, Arkansas, before making his way to the Mesa.  His 71 yard, Pick Six against Hawaii last year was the top highlight of the 2020 season. He elected to return to SDSU for a second senior season. An economics major, Olubi made the Dean’s List for Spring 2021. 

“What I admire most about Segun is his work ethic,” Olubi’s brother Gbenda Olubi told the East Village Times. “His strength to battle through adversity and to never quit. If there’s something that Segun wants, he will go get it.” 

Did you know: The school record for most team interceptions in a season is 36. It was set in 1969 by an Aztec team that outscored its opponents 492-194 on its way to an 11-0 record, including a win over Boston U in the Pasadena Bowl. SDSU ended that season #18 in the United Press International Poll, the forerunner of the present-day Coaches’ Poll. 

Something to Prove: Kobe Smith

Career SDSU Stats:

32 games     80 receptions  926 yards    6 TDs 

With all due respect to the others on this list, there may not be a more talented player in the senior class than Kobe Smith. Potential, though, cuts both ways, and, on paper, Smith’s drop in production from 2019 to 2020 is a troubling development for a receiver who appeared well on his way to becoming the next SDSU wideout in the NFL. He had 45 fewer receptions, 569 fewer yards, and two fewer scores in 2020 than in 2019.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Box score scouting, one of the blights of modern sports, rarely tells the true story of an athlete’s production, however. When asked about the difference between Smith’s 2019 and 2020, the coaching staff laid the blame squarely in the laps of the quarterbacks. Too often, they were unable to get an open Smith the ball. The QBs and WRs never recovered from the lost practice time before the season. 

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a setback,” Hecklinski said when asked about Smith’s 2019 vs. 2020 during Spring Camp. “Wideouts are a byproduct of the quarterback. They’re one-half of the equation. It’s the same for a quarterback because he’s one-half of the equation when he lets the ball go. It’s his job to throw it, and it’s the wideout’s job to catch it.” 

“We’ve got to get them in better positions to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. The quarterbacks have to be more decisive in decision making, more authoritative in how they throw, and then, get (the wideouts) in positions to go make those plays.”

The expectation is that with a normal lead-up to the season, SDSU’s passing attack will be much improved in 2021. Be that as it may, we live in a numbers-dominated world. Until his production is once again commensurate with his talent, Smith is the senior who has something to prove. 

Did you know? J.R. Tolver holds the school record for most receiving yards in a season with 1,785. He set the record in 2002. Second on the list is Kassim Osgood, with 1,552, a mark he also set in 2002.  

Biggest Shoes to Fill: Tayler Hawkins

Career SDSU Stats

44 games     108 tackles  4 tackles for loss     1 interception  9 passes defended

SDSU returns all of the two-deep at linebacker and defensive line. Its secondary is another story. Three starters are missing from a year ago. Replacing two of them, Dwayne Johnson and Tariq Thompson, will fall to players outside the senior class, which leaves Tayler Hawkins as the senior with the biggest shoes to fill.

SDSU Athletics

When the Aztecs take the field against New Mexico State, it will be the first game in the past 20 without Darren Hall starting at cornerback. While the coaching staff felt comfortable enough with Dallas Branch and Noah Tumblin at the position to move Adonis Brown and Cedarious Barfield to safety, the role of the team’s top cover, man, falls to Hawkins. 

Hawkins will not duplicate Hall’s play by matching his NFL-level athleticism. Instead, he will use his extensive experience, grit, and competitiveness to match Hall’s presence on the field. If defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix is able to count on Hawkins to dominate one-quarter of the field, it will allow him to shade the defense to put less pressure on the defense’s less experienced players. 

“It was important for me because I think we have a lot to prove on offense and defense,” Hawkins said during Spring Camp. “We didn’t really get to show last year. I definitely want to win a championship. We haven’t won one since my freshman year here, and I feel like I haven’t gotten a ring myself, so I actually want to earn a ring, myself, and actually do it.” 

Did you know? Hawkins, Andrew Aleki, and Trenton Thompson are four-year letter winners. They are expected to be among the first five-year letter winners in college football history. A distinction that was impossible before this season. 

Most Important Player: Caden McDonald

SDSU Career Stats:

34 games     70 tackles    15.5 tackles for loss 7 sacks        1 interception 1 forced fumble 

The Western Division of the Mountain West is one of the best passing divisions in college football. Fresno State (6), Nevada (13), and San Jose State (18) each ranked in the top 20 in passing yards per game in 2020. Expect Hawaii (60) and UNLV (106) to be vastly improved from a season ago because they, like SDSU, were breaking in a new staff, and COVID prevented adequate practice time to implement the new systems.

Credit: Go Aztecs

The kryptonite for any great passing game is a great pass rush, and this is what makes Caden McDonald the most important player in the senior class. McDonald led the Aztecs in sacks, tackles for loss passes knocked down at the line, and was second in quarterback pressures. His ability to rush the passer allows the team to get pressure on the QB while dropping the maximum number of defenders into pass coverage. Taking his pass-rushing to a new level would also free up the rest of the defensive front to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

 “What it does is it allows you to rush with three or four guys,” Kurt Mattix said during Spring Camp. “A lot of times we’re going to add a fourth rusher to balance it out, even though we’re a 3-3-5, we’ll add a fourth rusher…Being able to rush with four and be able to put pressure on the quarterback with four allows you to play the best coverage you want to have.”

Did you know? Mike Douglass holds the record for the most sacks in a single season with 21. The 2004 Aztec Hall of Fame inductee set the record in 1976. He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 5th round of the 1978 draft and went on to have a nine-year professional career. 

Best NFL Draft Prospect: Daniel Bellinger

SDSU Career Stats

30 games     37 receptions  414 yards    3 TDs 

At 6’ 6”, Bellinger’s presence on the field is noticeable. He possesses the size, toughness, and athleticism to compete for a spot on an NFL roster or practice squad this season as a blocking tight end. What will determine whether he can leap up draft boards is if he is able to realize more of his potential as a receiver.

Credit: EVT Sports

Throughout Spring Camp, the coaching staff spoke about Bellinger growing into the matchup nightmare an NFL caliber tight end should be at the college level. What that evolution of his game will look like is Bellinger turning into a threat after catching the ball. When teams defend him with smaller players, it should take multiple defenders to bring him down as he fights for extra yards. If larger defenders pursue him in the passing game, improved route running and added speed should create separation and allow for additional yards after the catch.

Expect to see the ball in #88’s hand often. In the final closed scrimmage, the first team ran about 45 plays. Bellinger had upwards of eight receptions, including the play described below. 


“Dan Bellinger is really impressive,” Hecklinski said during Spring Camp. “He took a screen went for about a 45-yard touchdown where he ran through people, ran around people. I want to say – and I don’t have it in front of me – he had five to eight catches (in the third scrimmage). We’re moving him all over the field.”

Did you know? Seven players have had at least 4,000 all-purpose yards in their Aztec careers, including running back Juwan Washington. Washington finished his career with 2,699 rushing yards, 284 receiving yards, and 1,017 return yards for a total of exactly 4,000 yards.

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Paul Garrison
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.

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