SDSU Aztecs position review: Defensive Line

Credit: SDSU Athletics

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Credit: Aztecs Football

A look at the defensive line position for the San Diego State Aztecs. 

Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks were both members of the 2018 SDSU football recruiting class.

Banks was an immediate contributor along the defensive front. Thomas redshirted before starting the next season. Their tremendous talent and a lack of depth at the position were the perfect recipes for early playing time. Banks and Thomas have helped spearhead one of the best defenses in America. Still, their impact on the program – if SDSU coaches can capitalize on the opportunity the dynamic defensive duo provided – will be felt long after they have left the Mesa.

The ideal career arc for a lineman is to spend a couple of years in a program maturing, adding weight and strength, before earning playing time on the field. While this maturation is taking place, the position is filled with upperclassmen who themselves went through a similar cycle as underclassmen. Banks and Thomas were not allowed this luxury because the state of the defensive line position when they came into the program was in disarray. In many ways, SDSU hit the reset button on the position in 2018.

Usually, having to depend on young players for significant playing time is a recipe for failure, but Banks and Thomas were able to dominate along the line earlier than expected. Doing so got the program back on cycle. The defensive line is now stocked with underclassmen who are seasoned and waiting for their turn to play.  If the coaches can add key recruits and develop the younger guys in the program, the position can have a rhythm where year in and year out players graduate, and there are older, mature players ready to fill that void.

2020 Starters

#2 Keshawn Banks          6-4         275        Junior 

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

14               0             6                5                               1

Coming off a 2019 season where Banks had 4.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, 2020 was statistically a step back for the defensive lineman from Rio Rancho, New Mexico. One look at the tape; however, and Banks was just as disruptive this past season but was not the player who finished the play and got credit in the stat sheet. Banks is a terrific lineman who plays well in all phases of the game. Nearly every game, Banks can be counted on to make a play that helps his team win.

In 2021, Banks needs to improve as he did between his freshman and sophomore seasons. If he can match his leap in productivity from his freshman to sophomore years, he will find his way onto an NFL roster a year from now. Consistency is key for Banks.

He is an instinctual playmaker but disappears at times. Whatever the cause of his inconsistency, Banks does not necessarily need to get better. He needs to be at his best for more snaps. SDSU’s front seven next year has a chance to be one of the best in school history. Expect Banks to be a big part of that.

#66 Jonah Tavai              6-0         305        Junior

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

25               3.5          5                6                               1

Tavai was brought into the program in 2019 to offer immediate help to a young defensive line. That help never materialized, and Tavai entered 2020 as an afterthought. If coaches around the conference did not have him as a focal point of their game plans to start the season, by the end of the year, he demanded everyone’s attention. His emergence last season allowed Cameron Thomas to play defensive end. Thomas was more dominant as an end last year than at nose tackle.

Pro Football Focus named Tavai to their first-team all-conference team. They graded him as the best lineman in the conference against the run. Tavai may have been at his best against the run, but he was most entertaining on passing downs. Lining up a couple of yards from the line of scrimmage, Tavai – all 300 plus pounds of him – would get a running start before bull-rushing his way to the opposing quarterback.

In 2021, Tavai can grow his game by demanding even more attention from the offensive line. Already disruptive even against constant double teams, Tavai has more to give. Raising his awareness of where the ball is without losing any of the strength or tenacity is the next level for the senior lineman.

#99 Cameron Thomas    6-5         265        Sophomore

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

35              4             14                9.5                            0

Credit: SDSU Athletics

The superlatives for Thomas’ first two years on the Mesa are vast. With all due respect to Fred Dryer, Thomas is this generation’s Hunter. He has been a first-team All-Mountain West selection both seasons and a leading candidate for conference player of the year in 2021.

Quarterback hurries (QBH) is a relatively new statistic. It has been kept since 2014. Alex Barret is top among defensive lineman in that time. He had 29 QBH in three seasons. Thomas has 27 in two seasons. He surpassed his 2019 total last season in five fewer games. Kyahva Tezino holds the career (45) and single-season (21) school records. Look for Thomas to make a run at both next year.

In 2021, Thomas will add to his already impressive strength and agility, making him even more effective. To help the team win, Thomas has played more at nose tackle than at end to this point in his career. Learning the subtleties of the defensive end position should allow Thomas to ad-lib more and make more plays outside of the defense’s design. Another step up in production could make next year Thomas’ last on the Mesa, though opening the New Aztec Warrior Stadium is an enticing incentive for this Hometown Hero.

2020 Defensive Line Rotation

#91 Kahi Neves                6-4         245        Senior

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

8                1              4                  1.5                            0

A starter at defensive end to open the year, Neves’ strong start to the season saw him begin to live up to the high expectations he had in high school. Neves was a four-star linebacker recruit who took a couple of detours before ending up with the Aztecs. A broken hand, which Neves played through with an enormous club, prevented him from playing his best.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

With the emergence of Jonah Tavai, Neves lost his starting spot but continued to be in the rotation. He only played in five games total but should be cemented into the defensive line rotation next year. 2020 was supposed to be his last season in San Diego, but the Aztecs get the gift of another year of the services of this talented athlete.

In 2021, Neves needs to become a pass rush specialist who can allow Thomas or Banks to slide inside on passing downs. His four-quarterback hurries in just five games suggest another level of production Neves has not tapped into yet. If he can form a tandem on the outside with Caden McDonald, SDSU should be able to provide ample pressure when rushing only four players.

#98 Connor Mitchell       6-5         265        Junior

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

12               3.0          1                  3.5                           0

Mitchell has been a consistent performer for the Aztecs for three seasons now in the defensive line rotation. A swiss army knife, Mitchell has played and produced at each position. Athleticism is not Mitchell’s calling card; instead, he uses good technique and great effort to contribute each time he steps on the field. His three sacks were fourth-most on the team in 2020.

In 2021, Mitchell will be a senior and part of the group that will lead the team. Mitchell embodies the lunch pail, blue-collar mentality the program has been built upon since 2009. As a senior, Mitchell may be more vocal this season, but he has been leading by example for years.

On the field, Mitchell needs to build upon his productive 2020. The reality is Mitchell is not going to receive as much attention as his more decorated teammates. Beating his man more consistently in a timely fashion would increase his impact. Mitchell dances with the offensive lineman at times, so adding a go-to move to disengage the lineman would benefit him.

#52 Jalil Lecky                  6-5         240        Senior  

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

6                1.5           2                2.5                             1

Lecky was part of the same recruiting class as Banks and Thomas. A junior college transfer, Lecky redshirted his first season and was not a major contributor the following year. Last season, he filled a needed role as a productive member of the defensive line rotation. When a team’s sixth player in the group contributes, it makes everyone better. It allows the starters to get fuller rest because the drop in production is small.

For years, SDSU’s first-team defensive line was competitive, but opposing offensives took advantage when the reserves were in. Last year was one of the first in recent memory when SDSU’s line was consistently good no matter what combination was in the game. Lecky was a big reason for that.

In 2021, Lecky gets a shot at a second senior season. He has flashed an ability to bring a speed rush on clear passing downs. If he can be more consistent in spring ball, he will force the coaches to get him on the field in those key situations. The best mistakes happen at full speed. At times, Lecky looks indecisive. Playing at full speed more consistently would allow his talent to take over more.

#84 Sefo Mailangi           6-4         240        Senior

Tackles     Sacks     Hurries     Tackles for Loss     Forced Fumbles

1                0             0                  0                               0

Mailangi (MY-LONG-ee) was a player who came in late when the game was out of hand. He has primarily been a special team performer for the Aztecs. Mailangi came to SDSU in 2019 as a tight end but moved to defensive end late that same season. A senior in 2020, he is coming back for another year on the Mesa.

In 2021, continuing to be a counted on special teams player and senior leader are his clearest paths of impact on the team. However, Mailangi has flashed speed and toughness in the little time he has gotten to date. Will a third year in the program and a second at a key position catapult him into a surprise contributor?

Other Defensive Lineman on the 2020 Roster

#95 Nassir Sims     6-2         280        RS Freshman      Games Played: 0

Throughout this series of position reviews, a common theme has emerged. San Diego State is competing with schools from Power Five conferences for recruits. Sims chose the Aztecs over offers from Syracuse and Washington State, among others. In high school, he showed everything you would expect from such a highly recruited player. His size, explosiveness, instinct, and motor were all terrific.

In 2021, Sims would appear on paper to be among the likeliest to wrestle time away from the returning lineman. Ideally, being a true backup to Tavai would allow Thomas to play exclusively at end. It will be Sims’ third year in the program. It is his time to produce.

#63 Daniel Okpoko     6-5         265        Sophomore     Games Played: 2

Okpoko (OH-poke-oh), a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, was an under-the-radar recruit in 2018. He looked very raw on his high school highlight tape. He was the best athlete on the field and made plays to help his team win, but he lacked the explosiveness that comes with better knowledge of the game. He used his hands well to shed blockers.

In 2021, the door is open for one or two additions or replacements in the defensive line rotation. A redshirt junior, Okpoko has the most time in the program and should be in the mix for playing time. Any hesitancy he showed in high school is likely gone, and he will be ready to compete in spring camp.

#97 Daniel To’oto’o       6-3         250        RS Freshman     Games Played: 0

To ‘oto’o was an under-the-radar recruit from the 2019 class. He would have likely been more sought after, but his slight frame made him somewhat of an unknown, position-wise, in college. He was an edge rusher in high school and profiles well for the position.

In 2021, there should be plenty of opportunities for someone to step up as an edge rusher on passing downs. Jonah Tavai did a good job on passing downs last season, but a front four of McDonald, Banks, Thomas, and the as yet discovered rusher off the edge would be potentially even more potent. In his third year in the program, To’oto’o could step into a reserve role this season.

#45 Wyatt Draegar         6-4         255        RS Freshman     Games Played: 5      Draegar is another versatile athlete who could play either side of the ball. He was a terrific tight end and defensive end in high school. He was the 19th best recruit coming out of the state of Nevada in 2019. San Diegans lament when a local kid commits to another school without an offer from SDSU. Draegar is that type of recruit but in reverse. He was not offered by the local program, Nevada, but signed with the Wolfpack’s division rival instead. Part of the brotherhood at State, Draegar could make Nevada regret that decision soon.

In 2021, Draegar, like the other rising sophomores, will be entering his third year in the program. Banks and Thomas’ ability to play early in their careers allowed these younger players to develop on more typical schedules. In high school, Draegar profiled more as a true defensive end than an edge rusher. He showed great strength. Often, despite not being the fastest player on the field, he pursued the play (11 hats to the ball) and was able to run himself back into the play.

#93 Dylan Taylor             6-2         245        RS Freshman     Games Played: 0

Taylor is a walk-on who had 31 tackles for loss during his career in high school. As that statistic suggests, he was dominant. He was the most valuable player on his team. At SDSU, he has yet to appear in a game.

In 2021, Taylor’s third year in the program should see a large jump in his comfort and production. History shows SDSU will play the best player. If that is Taylor, he will be in the game.

#59 Liam Boersma          6-4         195        Freshman     Games Played: 0

Production, production, production. Boersma made enough plays for three people. He led the state of California in 2019 in sacks for Dana Hills High, where he earned Dana Point Athlete of the Year as a senior. He had 123 tackles and 22 sacks. Originally he planned to go the JC route but walk-on at State instead.

In 2021, Boersma needs to add more weight. His slight frame makes playing time as a defensive lineman unlikely. However, he was willing to go to a Juco, so his commitment to football was significant.

#56 Logan Schwenke      6-3         225        Freshman     Games Played: 0

Schwenke was a late addition to the 2020 recruiting class. He chose the Aztecs over six other schools, including Army, where he signed a commitment letter according to the OC Register. In high school, he played defensive end and excelled as would be expected from a Division One athlete. He showed an ability to get off blocks, and perhaps more importantly, for that level. He exploded past would-be blockers.

In 2021, Schwenke will continue to add weight to his frame while acclimating himself to the Mesa. It seems unlikely he will see time this year. However, positions are won on the field. No one could have predicted Banks and Thomas playing as early as they did. Perhaps there is a surprise coming from Schwenke soon.

#57 Darrell Masaniai      6-2         210        Freshman     Games Played: 1

Masaniai choose the Aztecs over a handful of other choices. Throughout high school, he played multiple positions before settling in at defensive end. Despite being a little undersized for the position, he was strong as the point of attack. On passing downs, he shined, displaying a quick first step, good awareness of where the ball is, and hallmark Aztec tenacity.

In 2021, Masaniai could contribute to special teams. He played on multiple special teams units in high school. Adding weight to his frame while increasing his explosiveness is the goal for the redshirt freshman. How quickly his explosiveness finds the field will be up to him.

#49 Ubaldo Nolasco       6-4         240        Junior     Games Played: 0

Nolasco came to SDSU from nearby Southwestern College and prepped at local Chula Vista High School. He never made an impact for the Aztecs and is not listed on the 2021 roster.

2021 Recruits

Pa’a Ewaliko                     6-4       235

Ewalkio is a versatile athlete who was a first-team all-league performer at tight end and defensive end. He showed good hands-on offense and was a load to bring down after catch. On defense, he played with a mean streak. When Ewalkio met a ball carrier, he destroyed him. Toughness would be the trait he displayed on both sides of the ball.

In 2021, a redshirt seems in order. A year to acclimate to the school and the expectations of the strength and conditioning regiment would set his career on a great path. It would not be shocking to see him rewarded with some snaps this season. Players can play in four games without losing their redshirt season.

Darrion Dalton                6-3         280

Dalton’s highlight tape is fun to watch. He has size, power, and athleticism. He played inside in high school but flew to the ball from there to make plays all over the field. He used his hands well to disengage blockers. He fired off the ball well. It is no wonder he racked up double-digit offers.

In 2021, Dalton will likely redshirt. Being completely healed from injury for 2022 would set him up well for the future. The defensive line could be in need of multiple starters when the New Aztec Warrior Stadium opens. Especially at the position, Dalton profiles to play. He has the potential to be on the field early in his career.

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