A striking difference between the first week of fall camp in 2023 versus 2022 is the number of big plays produced in the passing game. Last season, the quarterbacks had trouble connecting with wide receivers on deep routes in 7v7, 9v9, or 11v11 action.
This year, those troubles are few and far between.
It’s no surprise that when asked after the first practice what was the main area he was focused on improving over the summer, Mayden responded, “Deep balls and being able to stretch the field vertically.”
During one of the first reps of 11v11 drills at Tuesday’s practice, Jalen Mayden faked a handoff and lofted a perfect deep pass for Phillippe Wesley, who had raced behind every member of the secondary. Wesley tracked down the ball, caught it in stride, and raced the final 20+ yards for the touchdown, causing all ten other offensive players on the field for the play to run to the end zone in celebration.
Toward the end of practice, the offense took reps from just outside the red zone, alternating between the 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s after each play. The first few plays yielded unfavorable results for the offense, but Javance Johnson found a wide-open Raphael Williams, Jr. on a corner route to the end zone sideline for a touchdown.
That jump-started the offense, which then ran off multiple consecutive big plays. Mayden connected with Mekhi Shaw on a back-shoulder fade down the left sideline for a score.
If Mayden’s primary focus for summer improvement becomes a strength in 2023, the Aztecs’ offense could yield the explosive plays it has lacked.
Wide Receiver Depth
After losing starting WRs Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers to the NFL and only returning one player (Mekhi Shaw) with extensive FBS experience, the wide receiver group was the biggest unknown for the SDSU offense heading into fall camp.
Add in the outgoing transfers of redshirt freshmen Hassan Mahasin and Jacoby Kelly following spring camp, and the number of scholarship players in the unit dwindled to four returners from 2022: Mekhi Shaw, Brionne Penny, Phillippe Wesley, and Josh Nicholson.
FCS transfer Raphael Williams, Jr. transferred to SDSU and participated in spring camp and was expected to provide a deep threat option for the offense. However, his eligibility for the upcoming season is in question and dependent on the NCAA granting him a hardship waiver due to a second transfer.
Following Tuesday’s practice, Hoke stated a decision had not been made yet, and he planned to make some phone calls this week to help speed up the process.
Arguably the biggest offensive addition post-spring for the Aztecs was local high school star Jalil Tucker, who redshirted at Oregon in 2022 as a cornerback but committed to SDSU to play wide receiver.
Fall camp began last week, and Tucker did not report to the team. He is no longer listed on the team roster, and the staff does not expect him to be part of the team moving forward. Neither the school nor Tucker has provided a reason for the departure.
Jelani Whitmore, who previously spent time at cornerback, has permanently transitioned to wide receiver to add depth.
True freshmen Tyson Berry and Baylin Brooks round out the seventh and eighth scholarship players in the group. Brooks made waves in summer workouts that caught the eye of Hoke and looked fluid and crisp during individual drills to start the first practice of fall camp before sustaining an injury that has caused him to work only with trainers since.
Asked if any consideration would be given to moving true freshman Jordan Napier (safety) or Sam Dunnell (cornerback) to receiver, given they played the position in high school, Hoke implied no, asserting that he likes what he has seen from the remaining guys.
“I think we’ll be fine there, I really do,” he reiterated. “(We’ve had) improvement from some of the young guys from the spring. I think we have a more versatile group. I like how Brionne (Penny) has been practicing. I think he’s growing up. If he’ll grow up, that’s going to help us a bunch.”
Several walk-ons will look to elevate their games this season and hope to follow the path of Shaw, Matthews, and BJ Busbee in earning scholarships at the position in recent years.
Darius De Los Reyes, who missed most of spring camp with a knee injury, is back and fully participating in practice. He converted a pair of first downs in drills on Saturday.
Mikey Welsh, who is a contender to replace Jordan Byrd in punt returns, has shown a knack for finding openings in the defense and possesses good hands.
Mayden cited the growth he has seen in the entire wide receivers’ unit that has helped develop a better depth to the room than what was available last year.
“Everybody has stepped up,” Mayden said. “You can throw anybody in there, and it’s the same result.”
Nicholson injured an ankle in the first practice and was seen in a walking boot. Hoke said following Tuesday’s practice that the injury is not expected to be major, but his availability will depend on how well he can bounce back from it.
True Freshman Update
The Aztecs had several true freshmen play critical snaps on offense and defense last season, but none earned official starts.
That will likely change this year.
The leader in the clubhouse to earn that recognition is safety Marcus Ratcliffe. As an early enrollee for spring camp, Ratcliffe earned valuable practice time behind an experienced returning secondary. With the surprise departure of All-Conference Patrick McMorris post-spring, the competition for starter at the aztec position suddenly becomes real. Ratcliffe and sophomore Max Garrison led the competition on the post-spring depth chart, flanked by Jatavious Magee and Kyron White.
During the first practice of fall camp, Garrison took initial reps with the first team. During practice four on Tuesday, Ratcliffe held the honor. While both possess the skills and instincts to man the position at a young age, Ratcliffe’s size and length (6’3, 210) likely give him a slight edge to start in week 0.
Another true freshman who has excelled through the first full week of camp is defensive lineman Brady Nassar. The former Colorado commit started near the bottom of the depth chart on day one but has progressed solidly to second-team defensive end and has even taken reps with the first unit.
“He’s smart, and that always helps when you got a guy that can really understand it,” responded Hoke when asked about Nassar after the first practice. “He’s done a great job. We are really happy he is here.”
Given the inexperience at the position, Nassar has a legit opportunity to not only receive significant snaps during his true freshman season but earn a starting spot opposite Garret Fountain at some point.
Offensive Line Competition
Throughout the first week of camp, the starting offensive line has comprised of Christian Jones (LT), Cade Bennett (LG), Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli (C), Dean Abdullah (RG), and Drew Azzopardi (RT).
Similar to spring camp, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson has taken reps with the second team despite starting at tackle the last two years and was listed atop the post-spring depth chart at right tackle. The coaching staff has reiterated several times that they know what they have in BCD, and are looking to get reps from the younger linemen. One possibility is the competition between Jones and Azzopardi could lead to one starting at their respective position while BCD slots in as the starter at the other.
Jones won the competition in the spring and was named the starter at left tackle.
“He’s one of the nicest kids on the team, (but) we don’t want him to be nice out here,” said Hoke when asked about Jones’ development. “I think he’s improved on that. His footwork and his fundamentals have improved. I think he can be a really good player, and I’m happy with his progress.”
Ulugalu-Maseuli, who started at RG last season, has strengthened his hold on the starting center position with his play, while Thomas Mirabella is the primary backup.
“He’s doing great,” said Bennett about Ulugalu-Maseuli’s play at center after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s locked in and getting all the calls now, so it’s been great.”
Hoke agreed with Bennett’s assessment, noting Ulugalu-Maseuli is improving at the position every day. Along with every other positional battle, Hoke expects to have his starters identified in time for the scrimmage at Snapdragon Stadium during FanFest on August 12th.
The strongest competition along the line is at RG, where Abdullah and incoming Washington transfer, Myles Murao, are battling. Abdullah started several games at RG last season in place of an injured Ulugalu-Maseuli and has earned the praise of the coaching staff for his versatility.
Finally healthy after several bouts of injuries during his time in Washington, Murao looks to showcase the talent that graded him as one of the top interior linemen in the country in the Class of 2020 out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.
“He’s good for the team … (and) for the culture,” Bennett said of Murao. “It’s been awesome having him.”
Bennett, unlike Murao, had the benefit of participating in spring camp at SDSU after transferring from Oklahoma State last year. He said things began to click for him last year towards the end of fall camp after becoming comfortable with the numerous daily repetitions and drills. If Murao can expedite his learning curve, his inclusion could solidify a talented offensive line.
- True freshman quarterback Javance Johnson continues to wear a black jersey during practice while all other quarterbacks wear the traditional green for the position that ensures they are off limits to take hits; fortunately, the lack of the correct colored jersey has not led to any issues
- Keion Mitchell continues to win a majority of his one-on-one drills versus offensive linemen regardless of who he is matched up against
- Junior college transfer defensive lineman, Kenneth Jiles, Jr., is listed on the SDSU roster but has yet to participate in practice
- Two other commits, offensive lineman Matthew Barcot and wide receiver Ma’jon Wright, are not listed on the roster yet and have not practiced. Sources tell EVT that both are now on campus and should be on the roster and at practice shortly.
- With Tucker’s departure, the Aztecs likely have three open scholarships at the moment, and Hoke acknowledged the possibility of granting one or more to current walk-ons on the roster
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.