SDSU Aztecs Year In Review: Linebackers

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Coming into the 2020 season, the Aztecs placed four players on the media preseason all-conference team. Cameron Thomas and Keshawn Banks were chosen from the defensive line; Darren Hall and Tariq Thompson from the secondary. There was no mention of the linebacker group. In this regard, this past season was a coming-out party for the position.

Following the season, Caden McDonald was named to the official first-team all-conference team. Michael Shawcroft was a first-team all-conference by Pro Football Focus. Seyddrick Lakalaka was named to Phil Steele’s Third Team All-Mountain West. Segun Olubi came out nowhere to be an impact performer. Meanwhile, Andrew Alexi played in the 43rd game of his career.

Thought of as the only potential position of weakness on the defense, the players proved to be a strength for the team. In 2021, everyone from the two-deep returns. SDSU should have one of the top front sevens in all of college football.

2020 Starters

#54 Caden McDonald    6’3/235                              Junior

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumbles

34              10                               4.5         10             0                           1

McDonald made a meteoric rise in 2020. Entering the year, McDonald had been a solid if unspectacular player as an underclassmen. That all changed his junior season. McDonald was simply sensational in eight games last year. He earned first-team all-Mountain West honors and will be a favorite for Mountain West Defensive player of the year next season.

In 2021, expectations should be through the roof for this dynamic player. Anything short of double-digit sack totals will be a letdown. Adding a few veteran-savvy moves to his pass rush in the offseason, without losing the speed and motor that made him incredible in 2020, should move him onto NFL draft boards across the league. With Darren Hall and Tariq Thompson’s departure, the team is losing a lot of its playmaking ability. Expect McDonald to pick up some of that slack by causing more turnovers and being even more disruptive of opposing offenses.

#43 Seyddrick Lakalaka   6’1/235                              Junior

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumble

28              6                                0             1                 1                            1

Lakalaka is in the mold of Aztec, 3-3-5 linebackers, who have been terrific players at SDSU. A tad undersized for the position, he makes up for any deficiencies in height by his toughness and nose for the football. With McDonald and the defensive line able to get pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, the other linebackers played in coverage more than years prior. Coverage is not Lakalaka’s strength.

In 2021, Lakalaka needs to seize the position and become an all-down linebacker who is as effective in coverage as he is against the run or rushing the passer. His aggressiveness can sometimes be a detriment. He does not get always get deep enough on his drops in the passing game but hovers too close to the line of scrimmage. Each season Lakalaka has improved, so expect the best version of #43 next year.

#38 Andrew Aleki            6’3 /230                              Senior

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumble

30              2.5                             0             3                0                           0

Aleki broke the century mark in career tackles last season. He has been a solid player since playing as a true freshman in 2017. Aleki is an attacking linebacker and plays with the physicality that is the hallmark of the program. A fan favorite, he opted to return for a second senior season and has a chance to play in more than 50 total games for SDSU.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

In 2021, if Aleki can improve his play recognition, it would go a long way towards helping him be an every-down linebacker instead of splitting reps at the position. Aleki is strong against the run but can get lost when teams spread the field. Entering his fifth year in the program, Aleki’s experience may finally match his athleticism, which is a frightening thought for opposing offensive coordinators.

 

2020 Second String

#24 Segun Olubi              6’2/215                             Senior

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumble

15              0.5                           0             2               1                           1

A complete unknown entering 2020, Olubi burst onto the scene. His interception return for a touchdown against Hawaii was among the top defensive plays of the season.

Many programs pay mere lip service to the idea that competition decides playing time. SDSU embraces the mantra. Olubi is another in a long list of examples of unheralded players leaping prized recruits on the depth chart.

In 2021, Olubi could replace Dwayne Johnson at the Aztec position. Olubi has experience in the secondary in junior college and even practiced with the defensive backs when he first came to State. If he can wrestle the position away, it would give the defense even more experience at a crucial position.

Whichever position he plays, expect the same type of tough-nosed, aggressive football that makes Olubi a joy to watch each time he steps onto the field.

#39 Garret Fountain       6’4/240                              Redshirt Freshman

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumble

2                0                               0             0               0                           1

When you are the backup to Caden McDonald at the Sam Linebacker, as Fountain was in 2020, snaps are going to be difficult to come by. The 2019 Scout Team Special Teams Player of the Year, Fountain has played in 9 games in his career, mostly on Special Teams. He had a forced fumble against UNLV in the opening game of the season.

In 2021, playing a full season would be a great way for Fountain to take the next step in his development. Ideally, Fountain would be strong enough as an edge rusher to force his way on the field opposite McDonald on passing downs. His presence in the two-deep as a redshirt freshman suggests this may be a possibility.

#46 Michael Shawcroft    6’2/230                              Sophomore

Tackles     Tackles for Loss     Sacks     Hurries     Interceptions     Forced Fumble

35              5                               1.5          3               0                           2

A Hometown Hero, Shawcroft is a player blessed with the knack for causing turnovers. He forced and recovered two fumbles and caught a blocked punt last season. Shawcroft’s value to the team was most evident on passing downs. When teams tried to spread the Aztecs out on defense, he played well in space. Pro Football Focus named Shawcroft to its first-team defense, commenting that he was the best linebacker in coverage in the entire conference.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

In 2021, Shawcroft will be in his third year in the program. It is the time when players often make their biggest leaps in production. One of the linebackers needs to step up and become a player who is only taken out when he is fatigued. Despite not being a starter, Shawcroft has shown the most potential to be that player.

2020 Third String

#42 Kobah Fuamatu     6’1/230     Freshman     Games Played: 0

Fuamatu was listed third on the depth chart at the Sam Linebacker as a true freshman. He came to SDSU from nearby Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, where he was a member of the Cal-Hi all-state team. He chose SDSU over Arizona State.

In high school, Fuamatu played in a similar position as the one he is listed at for SDSU. He showed terrific pursuit of the ball, even running himself into plays that were designed to go away from him. Eleven hats to the ball are the mantra of the defense; Fuamatu already embodies it.

In 2021, Fuamatu needs to open eyes during Spring Ball to force himself into the conversation for playing time. He is listed 30 pounds heavier than his high school profile, so he is clearly a hard worker. Will that work ethic pay off with his first playing time as an Aztec?

#44 Vai Kaho     6’1/235     Freshman     Games Played: 7

Another true freshman listed third on the depth chart, Kaho, could be playing for a Power 5 school but rebuffed Colorado to sign with the SDSU. He was rated the sixth-best recruit in the state of Nevada and the 54th best inside linebacker in the country by 247 sports in the 2020 recruiting class.

In high school, he played exactly as a consensus three-star recruit should. He was a man amongst boys. He played at all linebacker positions but was most often off the line of scrimmage.

In 2021, it is difficult to see a way for Kaho to get on the field with the players above him on the depth chart. However, he participated in seven games this past year, so he does have some experience working for him. Most likely, another year of special teams production is in store for him this season. On the other hand, if he were to enter into the conversation for playing time, it would be a huge indication of how special he is.

#55 Clifton Styles     5’10/205     Sophomore     Games Played: 14

Styles has been a special team performer his first two years at SDSU. Listed third on the depth chart at the Will linebacker, Styles came to the Mesa from Hendrickson High School in Pflugerville, Texas, which is the Austin area. He was a 6A all-state linebacker.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

In 2021, Styles may move up the depth, especially if Segun Olubi moves to the Aztec position. Like Styles, all of the linebackers listed behind Aleki are undersized. It would not be surprising if one of them played a key role in pass defense this upcoming season. As Styles begins his third year in the program, he should be expected to be among the group vying for playing time.

Other Linebackers on the 2020 Roster

#47 Kaelin Himphill     6’2/220     Senior     Games Played: 26

Himphill was a celebrated, late addition to the 2016 class. He played in 26 games over his career but never reached the level hoped for when he signed. An Aztec for Life, Himphill earned his degree from SDSU and will be a graduate transfer in 2021.

#47 Hunter Kaupiko     6’0/225     Freshman     Games Played: 0

As part of the 2020 recruiting class, Kaupiko did not see the field last season. SDSU continues to recruit the state of Nevada well. Kaupiko was the 16th best recruit from the state and the 91st best inside linebacker recruit in the nation.

Kaupiko’s high school tape shows the traits lots of Aztecs in recent memory possess. He was physical, versatile, and instinctual for Faith Lutheran High School.

In 2021, Kaupiko looks buried on the depth chart, so becoming a contributor on special teams looks like his best way to contribute next season. Still only a redshirt freshman, Kaupiko continues to be an exciting prospect for the Aztecs.

#51 Josh Bornes     6’0/220     Sophomore     Games Played: 0

A Hometown Hero from San Marco High, where he was the Avocado League Defensive Player of the Year, Bornes helped prep the Aztecs as a member of the scout team his first year on the Mesa. He was impressive enough in that role to earn Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year in 2018.

Bornes’ time on the football team appears to have come to an end. He is not listed on the 2021 Spring Football Roster.

#53 Sam Whipple     6’1/215     Freshman     Games Played: 0

A true freshman walk-on, Whipple was an early enrollee in 2020. He played middle linebacker his senior season at El Toro High School. Like most elite players at the position in high school, he dominated as a read and react player who used good instincts and superior athleticism to dominate.

In 2021, Whipple could begin his rise from fourth on the depth chart at the Will linebacker. He plays at a school where the best player will play. Whipple will have every opportunity to earn his way onto the field.

 

2021 Recruiting Class

Zyrus Fiaseu       6’0/220

Fiaseau is yet another linebacker from Nevada and still another Aztec who could be playing in a Power 5 conference. He turned down offers from Oregon and Nebraska among a host of others to accept an invitation to play in San Diego. Fiaseu played running back and linebacker for Liberty High, where he led the school to its first-ever state title.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

Fiaseu is listed on the Spring Roster, so he will get a chance to prove that what he displayed in high school will translate immediately to the next level. On the tape, he displays the downhill attacking style SDSU loves in its players. Unsurprisingly since he played tailback, Fiseu possesses nimble feet. He will be exciting to watch this spring.

DJ Herman                       6’2/225

Another Nevada linebacker coveted by Power Five schools, Herman chose the Aztecs over Arizona State’s offer. He fits the model of aggressive, strong linebackers who are the staple of the program.  Herman was able to play close to the line of scrimmage from his linebacker position because he used his hands well to shed blockers.

Playing time seems like a stretch with the roster loaded with upperclassman, but Herman is an intriguing prospect who should be in the mix at the position throughout his career on the Mesa.

Brady Anderson              6’2/220

Like Fiaseu, Anderson also played at Liberty High School, but they were not teammates. Anderson is from Bakersfield, California. Watching film on Anderson, it is remarkable the similarities the linebackers throughout the roster have.

Anderson attacks ball carriers instead of waiting for offensive players to get to him. He is a strong, physical player who could grow to play any of the three linebacker spots in time.

Dominic Oliver                 6’3/220

A three-star recruit from San Jose, CA, Oliver chose the Aztec over Power 5 offers from Arizona and Kansas.  Oliver looks like he could play in a game tomorrow and give the Aztecs a handful of productive snaps on passing downs. He possesses the key, foundational characteristic all elite edge rushers have speed.

It is a tall task for any true freshman to play with the same pace and confidence they had in high school. If the complexity of the playbook, the leap in talent, or the newness of the surroundings causes Oliver to play a step slower, a redshirt is likely in store for 2021. If he can retain his quickness off the line despite these challenges, he might see the field as a true freshman.

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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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Total Views: 278 ,
(Visited 412 times, 1 visits today)
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.