SDSU Football Season Preview: the Offensive Line

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

This past week, Dean Abdullah, an offensive lineman from American River College in Sacramento, announced his commitment to SDSU. Abdullah played defensive end and tight end for Antelope High School and earned one scholarship offer to Eastern Washington. Electing to go the JC route, Abdullah, a full qualifier out of high school, has four years to play three at SDSU.

“Dean has tremendous position flexibility, high football acumen, and the athletic ability to compete at an extremely high level,” American River College head coach Jon Osterhout told EVT. “He has a natural bend, good fundamental base, plays with good leverage, and has a burning desire to improve daily in his quest to create the best version of himself.”

Credit Twitter @deanabdullah

“(Abdullah is) extremely quick, very coachable, and has the intangibles needed to compete at a high level. He is 6’3 1/2″ and 275 lbs.  Has an extremely large wing span and large hands for continued growth potential. A unity council member, leader, and outstanding member of our football team, he models the meaning of being a student-athlete and will be a great addition to the offensive line room for Coach Goff.”

The question that remains to be answered is if he can help the team in 2022 at left tackle or if he will utilize his redshirt year to complete the transition physically to the offensive line. Any time a junior college player is added, there is a chance he gets on the field sooner rather than later. On tape, his speed jumps out, and there is no question that he has the athleticism to play on Braxton Burmeister’s blind side. His size, though, suggests he is not ready to assume that spot. He weighs 30 and 35 pounds less than Zavier Leonard and Jonathan Harrison, respectively.

Abdullah joins a group that was one of the strengths of the team in 2021 but is replacing three starters and two key reserves.  

Second-team All-American William Dunkle is fighting for a spot on the Eagles roster. Zach Thomas is trying to break in with the Bears after Chicago drafted him in the sixth round. Chris Martinez transferred to Arizona State, where he is the favorite to start at right guard. Joey Capra transferred to Nevada and appears to be the Wolfpack’s starting center. Dominic Gudino graduated.


These defections raise questions about the Aztecs’ ability to compete at a high level in 2022. Part 5 of the East Village Times Season Preview examines the offensive line.

“First off, let’s change our verbiage and terminology because (the offensive line)’s not a weakness, it’s an experience thing,” SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski said in an exclusive interview. “We were helped, and every program has been helped because of the ability of guys being able to come back. In 2020, when I got here and you looked at our depth chart, we were really supposed to be this way a year ago. … The blessing of that is guys like Jonathan Harrison have actually been in our program for two years, so they are a little bit further along than they would have been … Guys like Joey Wright, our freshman Ross Maseuli, Josh Simmons, Zavier Leonard, those guys … are going to have to provide critical roles for us. “

“That’s our job as a coach, and that’s why we coach. To coach the fifth-year guy, the Zach Thomas, who is going to be a draft pick, those guys have played a lot of football. They know what they have to do to get ready. My job as a coach is to get the young guys ready and get them to understand what it is to be a college football player, and how to be successful, and how to go out there and do it for 60 minutes a game for 14 or 15 weeks and be consistent at that level.”

Credit: EVT Sports

Confidence in the starters: C+

Hopeful Aztec fans can look at the Spring Game for signs that the offensive line is going to be just fine in 2022. Simply put, the contest resembled real football. When an offense is unable to block up front, the game plan is stymied, and the resulting play is nothing short of ugly. That the OL was able to effectively block their defensive counterparts is a data point suggesting there is little reason to worry. 

On the other hand, in 2020, the line had one new starter, Alama Uluave, surrounded by three seniors and William Dunkle.  Last season, the Aztecs had one new starter along the line, Brandon Crenshaw Dickson (BCD), surrounded by Dunkle and three seniors. Given the skill and experience of the rest of the group, the offense could fully support integrating one new component into their offensive lines. This year is nearly the opposite. Three new starters will take the field against Arizona on September 3rd. They have to be good right away because SDSU’s first five contests are the hardest stretch on their schedule.

To get there, SDSU’s staff, after two weeks of fall camp, will inventory what the offensive linemen do well and build the game plan around that. As the young linemen season, the offense will grow from there.  

“Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson is probably the most changed person since I’ve got here in 2020,” Hecklinski explained. “If you look at his progression as a player, what he did a great job of a year ago was taking over the right tackle spot during the spring and becoming that player now. Because he’s no different a year ago than Jonathan Harrison is right now than Ross Maseuli is right now than Cade Bennett is right now. But, from the time spring ended (in 2020) through fall camp, he was able to get to that mentality to be aggressive and be consistent, nine and a half out of ten plays. And now, he’s an every-down starter, and now he should be some sort of an all-conference player coming into year two. The only difference is we were doing that with one player (last year). … Now, we’re doing it at both guards and left tackle. We’ll get them there. Mike (Goff)’s a great coach.”

Credit: EVT Sports

Proven Depth: D+

Competition is the name of the game at SDSU. At times during spring and fall camp, the staff intentionally rests their starters to give the players below them on the depth chart experience in practice and scrimmages. With playing time comes confidence, trust, and hopefully, the ability to push their way into the games.

During spring Jonathan Harrison was competing with Zavier Leonard at left tackle. Kyle Trombley was competing with Cade Bennett at left guard. Over the summer, Josh Simmons and Joey Wright made strides to reinsert themselves into the mix. On paper, SDSU should have a talented player behind the starters, but none of their depth is proven. In 2022, the Aztecs are hoping the adage, ‘if you have two QBs, you probably don’t have one,’ does not apply to the OL.

“From a football standpoint, Ross has really been pushing from a year ago to play,” Hecklinski said, describing Maseuli. “If I remember right, he was traveling early. … Ross has been an impressive football player since he stepped on campus. From that standpoint, I don’t think it was any shock to us what we saw and what happened throughout the course of spring.” 

“What Ross has got to do a good job of is now is be able to do it for 60 minutes a game, and being able to practice that way every day throughout the course of a week as you’re heading into that game. It’s really an everyday thing, and that’s for all of these young guys. Jonathan Harrison, the same thing. Zavier Leonard, the same thing. Cade Bennett, the same thing. It’s not a three out of every five plays. It’s not a one out of every two plays. It’s a nine and a half out of every ten plays. That consistency has to happen. That’s what Zach Thomas was so good at. It’s why he got drafted. It’s what Alama (Uluave)’s so good at, and that’s why Alama has a chance to play at the next level.”

Credit: EVT Sports

Talent: B+

Chris Martinez started at left guard in 2021. He was not extended a scholarship offer for the 2022 season. Martinez subsequently landed in the Pac-12, transferring to Arizona State. He entered spring camp with the Sun Devils competing with Spencer Lovell at right guard. Lovell transferred at the end of camp, leaving Martinez atop ASU’s depth chart.

Given all of the lack of experience at SDSU, the staff’s decision to allow Martinez, a potential starter in the Pac-12, to leave is noteworthy. Their rationale is they believed the players behind him were better and more talented. 

SDSU has won more recruiting battles with Power 5 schools since Brady Hoke has taken over as head coach. Nowhere on the roster is that fact more evident than the offensive line.

“The expectations are for the position,” Hecklinski explained. “They will be ready to play. They will be ready to play San Diego State Aztec football. They will be ready to play at a winning level immediately when we hit the ground running. We’ve already spent all spring doing it, that’s what they’re spending all summer with coach Hall doing, and that’s what we’ll do in fall camp is to get them ready to go to be in a position to win football games for us immediately.”

Credit: EVT Sports

Conference Comparison: C+

SDSU’s situation with their offensive line puts them in the middle of the pack compared to the rest of the conference.

Air Force has three returning starters, including two who earned preseason recognition by different outlets.

Boise State has two senior transfers joining a pair of returners plus good depth behind them. 

 

Colorado State has four linemen with at least 20 starts on their roster.

Fresno State welcomes back four players who started at least six games a year ago, led by All-Mountain West Preseason Pick Dontae Bull.

Nevada returns four transfers and two returners, including preseason all-conference selection Aaron Frost. 

The strength of Hawaii’s team is its O-Line, with three starters returning, and they added a transfer from Utah.

Utah State returns six of their seven players who started a season ago.

San Jose State has four seniors expected to compete up front.

UNLV had a lot of injuries in 2021, so it has a lot of experienced players in 2022. 

Wyoming returns two starters.

There is nowhere to go for New Mexico’s line but up after a terrible 2022.

“When you talk about the inexperience that we have, the thing about being here at San Diego State … (is) the expectation is for the position, not for the player,” Hecklinski said. “When the player steps into that role, his job is to meet those expectations that have been set by the players ahead of him. Alama did just that.

“In two years, we’ve had one bad snap. … That was BYU on the very last snap on the very last series on the very last play of the 2020 season.”

“… he has lived up to those expectations, and now it’s his job to teach Ross Maseuli, Cade Bennett, Kyle Trombley, Jonathan Harrison, Joey Wright, Zavier Leonard go down the line. It’s his job to teach those guys how to live up to those expectations, and he’s done that. He’s doing it, and he does that every day, and he does it in his own way.”

Credit: EVT Sports

Star Power: C+

While BCD is entering his second season as a starter, and expectations are for him to grow into at least an honorable mention All-Mountain West selection in 2022, the only star on the offensive line is Alama Uluave. He was named to the Mountain West Preseason Team and also to the Remington Award Watch List given to the nation’s top center.

Throughout the offseason, coaches have raved about Uluave’s leadership and intelligence. With young players around him and a new QB, SDSU is depending on him to call protections and get the offense set up. Heading into his third season as a starter, Uluave’s 2022 will determine how he enters the NFL next season. With improvement, he should hear his name called in the 2023 draft.

“The best thing about Alama is Alama is his own person,” Hecklinski said. “In 24 years, he might be one of the smartest offensive linemen that I’ve been around. … We went into UTSA. I said, ‘What do you think, Alama,’ He said, ‘Coach, they hardly move their front, we’ll be just fine. Don’t ever worry about it.’ ‘Great, here we go.’ So, that’s the amount of trust (we have in him).”

“But, you have to remember 22 games ago, we were all on pins and needles because he now is our starting center and has never snapped before. But through the course of that time, he has become the leader of the group. Now it’s his turn to lead those young guys to teach them what the expectations are. You couldn’t ask for a better person to do that, and we were blessed and fortunate enough that he wanted to come back.”

San Diego State Offensive Line Overall Grade: C+

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.
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