SDSU Football Season Preview: The Freshman Class

Credit: EVT Sports

Credit: EVT Sports

San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke loves recruiting.

He is nationally known as one of the best recruiters in college football. When he was at Michigan, Hoke went toe to toe with Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Alabama’s Nick Saban to bring home the No.6, No.4, and No. 20 ranked draft classes in his three full years in Ann Arbor. 

Hoke’s expertise is already being felt on The Mesa. The last five incoming classes under Rocky Long from 2015 through 2019 had an average ranking of 80th in the nation. The 2021 class, Hoke’s first full one as head coach, was ranked 62nd. 

His impact at SDSU goes far beyond the numbers. In 2019, SDSU employed only one coach, Matt Razzano, whose sole role was recruiting. The current staff employs four coaches whose main task in the program is to focus on evaluating and securing commitments from future Aztecs. 

With the new stadium nearly built and a head coach who is a master at his craft, the next few years could be the Golden Age of Aztec recruiting. 

The Aztecs 2021 freshman class has high-profile names, highly touted recruits, and star potential at key positions on both sides of the ball. Hoke noted in fall camp that he likes this class, but “when you watch them work, you can tell they are freshmen…and they need to understand how different and how hard you work at this level.”

In this preview, EVT looks at the best prospects of the 2021 freshman class, which consists of 32 true freshmen and 13 redshirt freshmen.  

 

Star: #3 QB Will Haskell

There’s no doubt that the star of this freshman class is the phenom quarterback from Arizona. He dazzled Aztecs fans following his commitment to SDSU over a year ago with his highlight tape leaping on top of an SUV and workout clips shown on ESPN

Credit: EVT Sports

While he was never a legitimate candidate in the competition for starting quarterback this coming season, it will be a disappointment if he is not on the field by the time his sophomore season rolls around. 

Haskell was rated as the 14th best recruit in the state of Arizona by 247sports. He was considered a big commitment for SDSU’s program at a time when they were transitioning from a pro-style offense to a spread and RPO-based offense that would better utilize a dual-threat quarterback.

Haskell has participated fully in fall camp, has taken practice reps with the three quarterbacks vying for the starting role, and played in both scrimmages. His talent and athleticism, especially his ability to outrun defenders, has been evident and has only fueled the excitement and eagerness of the fanbase that wants to see him on the field. 

Following Sunday’s scrimmage, coach Hoke stated, “I think Will is very talented. That’s one reason we really wanted to make sure he was going to be an Aztec.” 

Offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski also spoke about Haskell this week, stating that with any true freshman on a college campus for the first time, their focus is to “make sure he is on stable footing as we continue to grow him and he continues to develop.” He added that Haskell “is a tremendous talent, is exactly what he hoped he would be and even more, and we look forward to the great future that he has.” 

Could that great start come next year when SDSU opens their new stadium against Arizona? Stay tuned.

Did you know? The highest career rushing yardage by an Aztec quarterback is 1,312 by Kevin O’Connell. It is the 23rd highest total in program history. The 22 players above him on the list are all running backs, including Donnell Pumphrey, whose 6,405 career yards rank first in program and college football history.  

 

Breakout Star: #38 RB Jaylon Armstead

Armstead is listed as the co-backup “T” running back with Chance Bell behind starter Greg Bell on the team’s week one depth chart released Thursday. Armstead is one of the few redshirt freshmen who received playing time last season due to the recently enacted rule allowing freshmen to play up to four games without burning a year of eligibility. He recorded five yards rushing in his only appearance. 

Credit: EVT S

During spring camp, Armstead’s name was continually brought up by coaches and fellow teammates as someone who had impressed. In the 2021 Spring Game, Armstead led all running backs with 50 rushing yards on 12 carries.

Armstead carried that over into fall camp. During the second scrimmage this past Sunday, Armstead led all backs with 78 rushing yards, more than double the next highest yardage output by another player, including a 62-yard rushing TD. 

Although the Aztecs return all contributing running backs from last season, including Greg Bell, Chance Bell, Kaegun Williams, and Jordan Byrd, there may be ample opportunity for Armstead to find a playing role on this team this season. It would not surprise anyone with some early success to see Armstead become the primary back behind Greg Bell and potentially take over the starting spot next season. 

Did you know? Marshall Faulk was the first freshman in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring (15.6 ppg) and rushing (158 ypg). He finished the 1991 season with 1,429 yards and 21 touchdowns. 

 

Unsung Hero: #94 TE Aaron Greene

Credit: EVT Sports

The redshirt freshman from Prescott, AZ, enters the season as the primary backup behind Jay Rudolph at TE – H and one of three who should see the most playing time in 2021. 

While most fans look at tight ends for their receiving production, Greene’s abilities as a run blocker should not go unnoticed. He has good hands but is typically called upon to be an extension of the offensive line and help with blocking in the run game. His willingness to do the dirty work sets an example for all Aztecs players, but especially the freshmen class. 

Greene was also a member of the 2020 Mountain West Fall All-Academic Team. The lineman came into fall camp twenty pounds leaner, which should help him become more of a force in the passing game. 

Did you know? Aaron Greene finished his career at Prescott High School in Arizona as the school leader with eight blocked kicks. He blocked five field goals and three punts! 

 

Inspirational Leader: #30 LB Dominic Oliver 

Credit: EVT Sports

Oliver comes to The Mesa after setting lofty goals for himself.

As chronicled in an EVT article, Oliver wants to break the Aztecs’ all-time sack record of 34 held by Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. But the loftier goal that he set is to win the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which is presented to a player for their volunteer and charity work off the field and performance on the field. It is rare to have an incoming college athlete just as focused on the humanitarian aspect of his life than his football aspect. For that reason, Oliver comes to The Mesa as the inspirational leader of the freshmen class. 

Did you know? Will Blackwell holds the school record for most receptions by a freshman in a season. He had 51 catches in 1994. In 1991, Darnay Scott’s 727 receiving yards set the school freshman record for receiving yards in a season.

 

Something to Prove: #98 DL Avory Iosefa-Hart

Credit: EVT Sports

It’s hard to pick a freshman with something to prove, given that most have yet to step onto the field. However, for Avory Iosefa Hart, his journey to SDSU involved proving that he belongs on the college football field.

In EVT’s article on his commitment, Hart explained that he proudly lists his zero-star status on his Twitter bio so that student-athletes “know that stars don’t mean anything.” 

Hart entered his senior season without a scholarship offer and needed the rescheduled and abbreviated spring season to prove to SDSU and others that he deserved one. After receiving and accepting that offer from SDSU, Hart now has to prove that he does, in fact, belong on the college football level and can earn his playing time.  

Did you know?  San Diego State has won the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week 37 times since the league’s inception in 1999. Jordan Byrd was the last to win it this past December.

 

Biggest Shoes to Fill: #17 CB Noah Avinger

Credit: EVT Sports

It is no secret that this position group was hit the hardest from departing seniors in the secondary. The Aztecs are looking to replace three of five starters from last year’s team, all of which are currently on NFL preseason rosters. 

Avinger is one of the finalists for the second cornerback starting position opposite Tayler Hawkins. He came to SDSU as a highly decorated three-star recruit with a scout grade of 88 and rated as the 40th best cornerback of his class by 247sports. 

He picked the Aztecs and teaming up with his older brother, running back Lucky Avinger, over numerous Pac-12 offers. Whether Avinger wins the starting position or becomes the primary backup, it is evident that he will play a big role on the team this season. The corner will be called upon to replace the departed defensive backs from last season. 

Did you know? Nine Aztecs have been named Freshman All-Americans. Kirk Morrison was the first. He was named to the fourth team by the Sporting News in 2001. Cameron Thomas was the last to do it. He was named to the second team by The Athletic in 2019.

 

Most Important Player: #34 S CJ Baskerville

In the Aztecs’ unique 3-3-5 defense, the three safety positions become essential to the defense’s overall success. Recently, the Aztecs have found gold with safeties that excelled in college and made the leap to the NFL, most notably Tariq Thompson and Dwayne Johnson Jr. 

Credit: EVT Sports

This season, the Aztecs return one starting safety from last season, Trenton Thompson, who is on the Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List and poised to be the leader of the secondary. The other two spots will be filled with new starters who should contribute well.  

Not too far away could be Baskerville, a budding true freshman from Texas, who was a consensus three-star recruit. He received a scout grade of 88 by 247sports, and picked the Aztecs over several Power 5 schools closer to his Texas hometown.  

When asked about Baskerville during fall camp, coach Hoke reiterated that while he is still learning, his development is “going to start through the kicking game…on special teams,” while noting that “this is not the easiest defense for safeties” to pick up immediately.  

This past Sunday, Baskerville led all defenders with four solo tackles in the second scrimmage, including one tackle for a two-yard loss. 

If the Aztecs secondary is going to sustain its excellence over the next few seasons with the new influx of players, Baskerville will be the one at the forefront leading the way.  

Did you know? Only two Aztecs have won League Freshman of the Year, and both were running backs. Lynell Hamilton won Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2003, and Ronnie Hillman took home the honor in 2010.

 

Best NFL Draft Prospect: #77 OL Josh Simmons

Projecting NFL prospects out of a group of players who have yet to play a single down of college football is difficult to do. However, with the aid of several recruiting service profiles, high school highlights, and listed measurables, projecting future NFL Draft status can also be a fun task. 

Credit: EVT Sports

This year’s freshman class includes several highly touted players who are poised to lead the Aztecs into their new stadium and beyond. Only one player, Simmons, however, was a consensus four-star recruit by the major recruiting services. 

Simmons, a hometown kid from Helix High School, was rated as the 14th-best guard in the 2021 recruiting class and the 24th-best recruit in the state of California regardless of position by ESPN.

Simmons, who is listed at 6’6” 330 lbs and expected to play either guard or tackle at SDSU, was recruited heavily, both as an offensive lineman and as a defensive tackle. He amassed a total of 28 offers, including 22 from Power 5 schools, and initially committed to Oregon in January 2020. However, he later de-committed reopened his recruitment and chose SDSU instead. 

In his scouting report on Simmons, Greg Biggins, National Recruiting Analyst from 247sports, said that he “can overwhelm an opposing defensive lineman with his size and strength. Is a road grader as a run blocker and shows the feet to project as an excellent pass blocker as well…has all the raw tools to be a future mid-round NFL draft pick.”


Did you know? In the past ten years, eighteen Aztecs players have been selected in the NFL Draft. Twelve of those players have either been offensive linemen (3), running backs/fullbacks (4), or defensive backs (5). 

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Andre Haghverdian on Email
Andre Haghverdian
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.

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