“Last year is last year,” said SDSU defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kurt Mattix in an exclusive interview with EVT. “Let’s go out and create an identity of who we want to be…and who we are going to be.”
The Aztecs ranked 12th in total defense and 17th in scoring defense while boasting the third-best run defense in the country in 2021. But coach Mattix’s focus is not on last year anymore. He and the rest of the defensive coaching staff employ a clean slate mentality for the 2022 season.
“It starts on the first day (of fall camp) with the pursuit drill, running to the ball and understanding that’s going to be one of our core fundamentals,” he said.
For the linebacking positional group, the clean slate is heightened by the loss of three of the top six players on the two-deep. Seniors Andrew Aleki and Segun Olubi graduated. Junior Garret Fountain moved to the defensive line.
Coach Mattix will look to lean on his top three returners while developing and incorporating the next group of talented linebackers.
Before detailing the position, a word about our method, EVT writers Andre Haghverdian and Paul Garrison graded the various aspects listed below, which were averaged to arrive at the grades provided.
The Aztecs’ linebacking unit returns three seniors who have played a ton of snaps in the Mountain West. The group is led by super senior Caden McDonald, a two-time First-Team All-Conference performer who has started 31 straight games, the longest streak on the team. In 2021, McDonald collected 49 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and seven quarterback hurries.
Michael Shawcroft and Seyddrick Lakalaka round out the senior linebacking trio with their experience and versatility. Shawcroft earned Honorable Mention on the 2021 All-Conference Teams after registering 55 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, six quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and an interception. Lakalaka finished with 44 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, and an interception.
Caden’s younger brother, Cooper McDonald, an incoming junior transfer from Washington, looks to fill the void left by departing linebackers. He started ten games in the Pac-12 last season, collecting 25 tackles and one sack.
“Cooper has had a good summer, had a really good spring,” said Mattix. There were some things he did in the middle of practices that I’m looking around, ‘did we get that videotaped’ because that was pretty doggone good. He can pass rush. He can set the edge. He can do some things athletically that Caden can’t do.”
Confidence in the starter(s): A
The three starting linebacker positions figure to be held by some combination of the four players mentioned above. Coach Mattix said that the three seniors would likely be his starters for Week 1, but the younger McDonald would not be far behind on the field.
In the post-spring depth chart, both McDonald brothers were listed as starters at SAM (strongside linebacker), while Caden McDonald was also listed as a starter with Lakalaka at MIKE (middle linebacker). Lakalaka was also listed as a starter with Shawcroft at WILL (weakside linebacker).
Mattix discussed how the versatility of Caden McDonald and Lakakala allows them to play multiple spots and gives offenses different looks.
“Lakalaka is a good football player and has played a lot of snaps for us,” said Mattix discussing a MIKE rotation with him and Caden McDonald, while also joking that McDonald was listed as the starter at SAM as well because he was not quite ready to be the coach that took a two-time First-Team All-Conference player at SAM and moved him to another position.
Proven Depth: B
When asked the biggest growth opportunity for the linebacker group in 2022, coach Mattix stated creating depth. “It’s a contact sport, and things can happen at times where you lose one of your top guys,” he explained.
After the top four linebackers, only junior Vai Kaho has previously played snaps on defense. In week 8 against Air Force last season, Kaho lined up for 44 defensive plays. While only making two tackles, he helped the Aztecs’ rush defense hold down the dominant Falcons triple-option offense in a 20-14 Aztecs victory.
“(Kaho) has a lot of energy, plays with passion, and sometimes we have to calm him down,” said Mattix. “We are hoping with some game reps and getting a chance to play, (he) can provide good backup and defensively, (we do) not take that big step back when he has that opportunity to play.” Kaho can play both the MIKE and WILL positions and figures to be the fifth linebacker in the rotation.
The rest of the depth is comprised of sophomores and redshirt freshmen ready to step up and contribute this season, along with filling the void next year when the top three seniors depart.
Two redshirt freshmen Mattix highlighted during our interview who could get snaps based on specific personnel packages and down and distance situations are Dom Oliver and New Zealand Williams, who is transitioning over from the safety position.
“(Oliver) had a season-ending injury last fall and was unable to practice in his freshman year. This Spring, he showed he has the ability to pass rush. You go into a situation where it’s third down and long. We are going to put (him) on the field in those situations to allow him to play to one of his strengths.”
“(Williams) strengths are covering and being able to play in space because he still has the safety speed, but we feel like he can better help us at linebacker and get on the field a little bit quicker. The game is defending 53 ⅓ (yards). You have to have guys that can cover and be able to play in open space. And how can we get our best eleven on the field? Williams can run, he can hit, he is physical, so let’s get him closer to the ball.”
Star Power: A
The linebackers have received numerous accolades and recognition over the past several years, both within the conference and nationally. In addition to being named on the Preseason All-Conference Team, Caden McDonald was one of 85 defensive players named on the 2022 Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List, handed out to the most outstanding defensive player in college football.
Additionally, Shawcroft was named to the 2022 Wuerffel Trophy Watch List, which is given to college football’s top community servant. Star power is not strictly derived from one’s performance on the field but in the classroom and in the community as well.
Coach Mattix praised Shawcroft’s intelligence, preparation, and team-first mentality, while also noting his injuries throughout the past two seasons have hindered his statistical totals. “If he had some of the same snaps that (Caden McDonald) has had and been able to be healthy, he would have received much more recognition (for his play).” If Shawcroft can stay healthy in 2022, he will have his chance.
Conference Comparison: A
Caden McDonald was named on the Mountain West Preseason All-Conference Team with Kyle Harmon (San Jose State) and Vince Sanford (Air Force), both of whom were also named on the Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List.
Harmon joined McDonald on the 2021 First-Team All-Conference, while Sanford was selected on the Second-Team.
Harmon registered 134 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and one sack last year. Sanford finished with 59 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles.
The other two linebackers on the 2021 First-Team departed the conference. Chad Muma (Wyoming) was drafted in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Darius Muasau (Hawai’i) transferred to UCLA.
With the return of Shawcroft and Lakalaka, the addition of Cooper McDonald, and the emergence of Kaho, the SDSU linebackers are primed to be the best linebacker group in the Mountain West.