SDSU connects with high school football community through coaches clinic

Sean Lewis addresses the gathered coaches at SDSU's coaches clinic. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

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Credentials waiting to be picked up by the attending coaches. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

A total of 270 coaches from as far away as New York and Mexico registered for SDSU’s annual coaching clinic. Beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, the halls of the Fowler Athletic Center were filled with dedicated leaders of high school and junior college athletes.

For five hours, the Aztecs’ coaching staff pulled back the curtain on their program. They rolled out the red carpet, honoring the gathered professionals who pour into the young people, often with little fanfare.

“I think if you’re a football coach, you need to be here,” Granite Hills High School head coach Kellan Cobbs told EVT. “The game’s always evolving. … As a high school coach, if you’re not here networking and trying to promote your own kids, (you should be) … I’m here obviously selling some of our kids, talking to (SDSU’s staff), ‘Come out to practice. Here’s our schedule’ while trying to get better as a coach.”

Registration took place in the Fowler’s Hall of Fame area. Surrounded by the enshrined Aztec greats, the coaches were given their credentials and welcome folders. The slick, well-made handouts gave the event a professional feel while doubling as mementos to take away from the clinic.

The meeting room where the opening session took place. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

Opening Session

Director of Football Operations Ruben Pena opened the proceedings promptly at 5:30 pm. He gave a welcome, an overview of the evening, and introduced the coaching staff. Highlighting the mutual benefit of the event, Director of Player Personnel Sean Dillon was the first scheduled speaker.

Dillon explained SDSU’s player acquisition process, detailing the best way coaches can get a player evaluated. He emphasized the Aztecs’ priority in recruiting California. Dillon also put slides on the screens showing every staff member’s recruiting areas before laying out the critical factors each position coach wants in a player for their room.

Among the athletes Cobbs promoted to the staff was his starting QB, Class of 2027 prospect Zachary Benitez. Cobbs heard exactly what SDSU QB Matt Johnson looks for in a signal caller. Benitez, who led Granite Hills to an Open Divison Title on his way to winning Cal-Hi Sports State Freshman of the Year, possesses every characteristic Dillon listed during his presentation.

Armed with the correct verbiage, Cobbs can promote Benitez better. Cobbs, who attended SDSU and got his coaching start on The Mesa, hopes the Aztecs offer Benitez soon.

Head coach Sean Lewis followed Dillon. A commanding presence due to his position, stature, and booming voice, Lewis’ first message to coaches was, “Be you.” Before explaining the type of program he is building with the Aztecs, Lewis warned the group that they would fail if they simply copied his ideas because when confronted with adversity people revert to their most deep-seated beliefs.

Lewis’ talk revealed his intentional methodology. He explained the meticulous systems he has created to create his desired environment. His three pillars that should guide everything the Aztecs do are 1. Be Truthful, 2. No BCD (Blaming, Complaining or Defending), 3. Be early.

Throughout his remarks, Lewis emphasized that he wants his staff to be a resource for coaches. He explained how he started in the profession as a high school coach and the appreciation that experience gave him for what those gathered do. He also employed his audience to send their athletes to The Mesa.

“A lot of positive energy,” Cobbs replied when asked what he thought of the night. “Overall, I’ve liked some of the different things they’ve incorporated. I like that just because they are going to play fast, it’s not a finesse, soft type of football. To me, football is still about blocking and tackling. You can tell there’s a heavy emphasis on that even though they’re trying to play with tempo.”

Associate head coach Zac Barton followed Lewis as the final speaker to the entire group. He stole the show. Intertwined with a detailed, impressive presentation on the philosophy and practice of SDSU’s special teams, Barton shared personal stories, used humor, and connected with his audience.

His folksy demeanor and sometimes salty language commanded the room as much as Lewis’ more professional persona. Coaches left the talk with specific techniques to use in practice and encouragement to grow in the profession.

SDSU’s staff preparing to check coaches into the clinic. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

Community Dinner

Embodying the “Be early” mantra Lewis espoused earlier, SDSU efficiently fed the entire group while providing a top-notch network event in 45 minutes. The free coaches clinic came with food and adult beverages provided by the event’s sponsors.

AleSmith provided the libations. Their San Diego State Ale graced many of the hands during dinner. El Capitan Head Coach Ron Burner owns Nicolosi’s Italian Restaurant. He attended the clinic and blessed his colleagues with terrific food. Big Cheech’s also contributed to the impressive spread. Served buffet style, the student equipment managers made sure plenty of food was available at all times.

“It does a lot to bridge gaps having something like the social where their coaches are all out interacting with you, and you’re able to ask questions,” Cobbs explained when asked how the event connects SDSU with San Diego’s football community. “I came out to a practice yesterday. They’re open to having people out and sharing what they’re trying to do, sharing their brand of what they’re promoting. Trying to have us have our top kids involved in that. Having access to the program is good. They said they’ve had a bunch of kids come out to practice, which is cool.”

One of the gathered coaches. (Credit: SDSU Athletics)

Closing Sessions

The crowd split for the rest of the evening as the position coaches provided nuts and bolts insights for the high school coaches. Half of the coaches went to the defensive staff’s presentations, while the rest attended the offensive staff’s. Unable to be in two places at once, below is a report on the men tasked with building Aztec Fast.

Offensive line coach Mike Schmidt started the final portion by showing how he teaches double teams, getting to the second level, and footwork for pulling linemen. Using tape from his first tenure on The Mesa, his time at Mississippi State, and from Spring Camp, Schmidt illustrated positive and negative examples of the techniques.

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“Coach Schmidt is in here, getting me pretty fired up,” Cobbs said. “Glad to have him back. He’s obviously a good football coach. He will bring a lot of excitement to our offensive line. It seems like a great group of offensive coaches. I haven’t sat in on the defensive stuff yet, but my DC’s over there so excited to see the differences they have.”

Darian Hagan (RBs), Ryan Lindley (TEs), Matt Johnson (QBs), and Lanear Sampson (WRs) followed. They mirrored Schmidt’s presentation method to provide day-to-day tips and insights into SDSU’s offensive philosophy.

Among many noteworthy details was ample evidence of explosiveness from this spring. Johnson, in particular, showed multiple long touchdowns from the current Aztecs as he taught QB progressions from a specific play in SDSU’s arsenal. Judging from Friday night, the hope for offensive improvement is well on its way.

The event ended at 10:30 pm. Cobbs and Johnson left the auditorium talking together. The value for SDSU to continue building a relationship with the head coach of the best team in San Diego in 2023 goes without saying.

The 30,000-foot view of NIL, the transfer portal, and the Power conferences show an impossible task for SDSU. What that bird’s eye view can never see is the quality of ground-level events like Friday night, where the Aztecs used a coaching clinic to connect with the high school football community.

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