Real football was played in San Diego on Saturday evening as SDSU held their first of two, NCAA allotted scrimmages. During warmups, players spread out on both practice fields, but once the main event began, the team headed to the grass field, the fences closed to block any prying eyes, and the team competed in a lively dress rehearsal.
From the get-go, tempers flared as they are wont to do when teams don full pads for the first time. Tired of competing only partway throughout the week, players on both sides released a lot of pent-up frustrations on Saturday. On three occasions, play had to be stopped and once, star offensive lineman William Dunkle and starting defensive lineman Keshawn Banks were sent off for a play, because of extracurricular activities. (The refs, it should be noted, only penalized Banks on the play.)
Overall, it was Aztec football. Tough, physical, and fast with a lot of good-natured jawing between the two sides. The best play for the offense, as is often the case for opposing teams when they face the Aztecs, was the jump ball pass to the outside. The defense forced a handful of turnovers and had a few more opportunities literally slip through their fingers. The coaching staff will be happy because there was enough good and bad to allow for many teachable moments going forward. Bottom line: SDSU got better Saturday night.
The scrimmage was situational. Each side of the ball was broken up into first, second, and third-team units with the ones competing against the ones, the twos versus the twos, and so on. The offense was on the east sideline dressed in black with the defense on the west sideline clad in white. The action always moved from south to north.
The first situation saw the offense trying to secure a first down in three or fewer plays. If they were successful running only play one or if they failed to make a first down, the units would rotate. This was followed by a second five-minute period with the same objective, but this time the quarterbacks were live and could be tackled. The next period was work on third down with each unit rotating and having one chance to move the chains.
Around the halfway point of the evening, the offense took possession at their own 35 with an opportunity to put together a scoring drive. They managed two scores in about five drives. The first was a 40 plus yard field goal from Matt Araiza and the other, a touchdown pass from Jordan Brookshire to Jesse Matthews.
Both scores came during the only time on Saturday when the first or second-team offense did not match up against its counterpart on defense. Instead, they faced a hodgepodge of defenders and took advantage. This fact was not lost on the defense. When Matthews scored, the first and second-team defenders, who came into the game for the extra point, made that it abundantly clear to the offense celebrating its first touchdown of the game that they had done so against weaker competition.
Red Zone Offense
The last phase of the scrimmage was the offense getting the ball on the 20-yard line going in. This was, without question, the highlight of the day from an offensive perspective. Last season, only 12 teams were worse than the Aztecs in red-zone offense. SDSU scored on a pedestrian 74% of its trips inside their opponent’s 20-yard line. In this light, the offense was barely recognizable Saturday night.
In three attempts – this time with the ones playing the ones and so forth – the offense scored two touchdowns and a field goal. On the first attempt, Lucas Johnson found Elijah Kothe for a touchdown. The second Jalen Mayden found tight end Jay Rudolph for a score. On the third, Brookshire rolled to his left and fired a laser for a touchdown, but it was called back due to a holding call.
On the next play, with the QBs live, Brookshire scrambled up the middle and somehow came away from a pile of defenders before being pushed out of bounds at the 12. On third down, Brookshire hoisted a pass to the east side of the end zone. Brionne Penny elevated above the defender, caught the pass, but his right foot landed a few inches out of bounds.
What started as an ugly night for the quarterbacks ended on a high note and a glimpse of what the coaches have been saying about the players at the position. There are three Division I signal callers on the roster. It remains to be how good they are, but none of the three looked overwhelmed on Saturday against a very good defense.
Brookshire, Johnson, and Mayden rotated equally throughout the night. Typifying how these QBs alternated, Brookshire opened with the ones the first possession of the scrimmage, but his next time out, he was with the threes. His third time on the field, he was with the twos.
Each quarterback was better when they were live and each was dangerous with their feet. Johnson threw an interception to Jelani Whitmore early in the scrimmage but rebounded to throw two touchdown passes – one to Ethan Dedeaux and one to Kothe. Mayden ran for three first downs and threw a touchdown pass. Brookshire had the aforementioned 18-yard scamper and threw a touchdown.
While Brookshire, Johnson, and Mayden started the practice throwing routes on the synthetic field, William Haskell started the day throwing on the grass field with the walk-on quarterbacks. If he is going to insert himself into the competition, time is of the essence for the talented true freshman. In the scrimmage, he was fast on a read-option, juking a DB who only had to touch Haskell to bring him down. Haskell throws a very nice ball and had a few completions on the day.
- Elijah Kothe is a playmaker. He caught four passes for more than 100 yards. He was particularly skilled outside of the numbers.
- Jesse Matthews’ ability to catch passes in traffic is amazing. There was an audible gasp on his two receptions. One with Trenton Thompson draped all over him.
- Vai Kaho, learn that name. It remains to be seen if he will find a role on defense with a senior-heavy linebacker group, but he lined up all over and was impactful for the defense.
- When camp began, Coach Hoke said four players were vying for the starting cornerback spot. Apparently one of them is true freshman Noah Avinger. He took some reps with the first-team defense opposite Tayler Hawkins along with Dallas Branch, Noah Tumblin, and Adonis Brown.
- Darius De Los Reyes made some nice plays in the scrimmage. The local product from Lincoln High took an end-around and made two catches.
- Star running back Greg Bell did not get many carries, but when he did, he showed a difference-making explosiveness.
- Offensive Coordinator Jeff Hecklinski spoke about using two backs sets during Spring Camp, and that was on display Saturday. Given the depth at running back, it was not hard to see why the coaches like that personal group.
- Cedarious Barfield appears to have a leg up in the Warrior Safety competition.
- Funnest Play of the Day: Matt Araiza’s 60-yard field goal attempt was way off, which allowed Trenton Thompson to return the field goal. He took it back about twenty yards.
- Funniest Play of the Day: TJ Sullivan went to make an over-the-shoulder catch, but did not realize he was three yards out of bounds. As he turned from looking over his left shoulder to his right, offensive line coach Mike Goff intercepted the pass, which left Sullivan perplexed as to where the ball went.
- NFL scouts were in attendance. They have been at each practice this week.
- Offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called on #42 Gus McGee on offense and #42 Brady Anderson on defense. The spectacle of dueling #42s wrestling on the ground after the whistle was a sight to behold.
- Desmond Bessent and Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson both saw time with the ones at right tackle.
- One great aspect of having the QBs rotate is it makes them take control and manage players not lining up correctly. A handful of times – only when the three’s were on the field – the team had trouble lining up properly. With the play clock counting down, the QBs were forced to get everyone set up.
- Another of coach Hecklinski’s stated goals was to show off the versatility of the offensive personal. It was on display Saturday.
- SDSU’s next scrimmage is schedule for a week from Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, CA.
- In about 10 days, SDSU will begin game preparation for New Mexico State.