SDSU Football Season Preview: The Sophomore Class

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A look at the Sophomore class for the upcoming 2021 San Diego State University football season. 

One of the greatest predictors for the future success of a college team is the makeup of its sophomore class.

In 2014, more than a third of SDSU’s 20 sophomores (at the time) would go on to play in the NFL. That same group as seniors led the Aztecs to a Mountain West Conference Championship in 2016.

Success, though, was hard to sustain because that same 2016 team only had 12 sophomores on the roster. Two years later, when those sophomores were seniors, the Aztecs finished 7-6. It was the only time from 2015 through 2019 SDSU failed to win at least ten games.

In this light, does SDSU’s current class portend a difficult 2023?

There are 18 sophomores on the 2021 roster. Five are walk-ons, one is a transfer in his first year at SDSU, nine are redshirts from the 2019 recruiting class, and three are true sophomores from the class of 2020.

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In most seasons, the coaching staff would look to the junior college ranks to bolster those numbers, but with the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA and the prospect of playing in the new stadium, reinforcements will likely come from within as the upperclassmen stay on for an extra year. If enough of the current group of juniors stays for a second senior season, it should mitigate the attrition from the 2019 recruiting class. The developing story of the roster makeup in coming years is worth keeping an eye on, but for now, the sophomore class will be counted on in key positions for the upcoming season. 

In fact, for a program like SDSU, roster improvements from year to year are more likely to come from the sophomore class than anywhere else. The group is typically composed of players entering their third year in the program or those talented enough to play as true freshmen but now, with a year of college weight training under their belts. In either case, the sophomores are primed to burst onto the scene.

In 2021, the class is being counted on in key roles. During spring camp, Brandon Crenshaw-Dixon was penciled in as the starter at right tackle. Jay Rudolph spent a lot of time running with the first team at tight end. Noah Tumblin is competing for time at corner. Kyron White is looking to make his mark on the secondary. In addition, the group will be counted on to play special teams and provide depth at nearly every position on the team.

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Star of the Class: Jaylen Mayden

Mayden is the star of the sophomore class because he carries with him the hope of the entire fan base. Across football at every level, the passing game has taken center stage, but in San Diego, where the modern passing game was created, finding a quarterback who can sling the ball all over the field has been difficult. Since the graduation of Ryan Lindley in 2012, SDSU has thrown for 300 yards in only four games. Enter Jaylen Mayden. His high school accolades, incredible highlight tapes, and power conference resume have made him first in the hearts of Aztec Nation, even as he sits third on the QB depth chart.

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The coaching staff’s summer assignment for Mayden was to lose weight so he could be more of an explosive runner. 

Listed at 230 pounds on the new roster, he used his slimmed-down figure to collect three first downs with his feet in the first scrimmage of Fall Camp. He certainly proved he belonged and was not overwhelmed in the least facing SDSU’s staunch defense.  

Did you know? Ryan Lindley holds the record for most passing yards in a season by a sophomore. In 2009, he threw for 3,054 yards. Lindley ranks first in program history with 12,690 yards for his career.

Breakout Star: Vai Kaho

The challenges the abbreviated preseason preparation had on the offense in 2020 are well documented. The first time the team was permitted to line up in a legal formation last year was nine days before the first game. Under these constraints, any true freshman who earned playing time a season ago in any capacity is a special player. Only Vai Kaho, Isaiah McElvane, and Jay Rudolph from the 2020 recruiting class played more than four games and burned their redshirt season as freshmen.

Kaho followed up playing in the final seven games of the 2020 season by having one of the best springs on the team. His name came up frequently from players and coaches of young players who stood out in April.

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In the Spring Game, he showed tremendous poise beyond his years. A play after not biting on the play action and recording a sack, the offense banked on Kaho’s youth getting the best of him. They called a bubble screen to Kaho’s side, hoping the young linebacker, in his exuberance, would take himself out of the play by rushing the quarterback even harder than he had the previous play. Kaho did not oblige. He attacked the line of scrimmage but had enough speed and wherewithal to get back in the play and bring the wide receiver down from behind.

Kaho entered camp slimmed down to 225 pounds. In the first scrimmage of Fall Camp, he forced two fumbles. The second of which was a play-action pass with Lucas Johnson under center and the QBs live. Kaho arrived in the backfield at the same instant Johnson pulled the ball from the running back. Kaho leveled Johnson creating the highlight hit of the scrimmage. 

In a deep and experienced linebacker room, Kaho will continue to excel on special teams while pushing the upperclassmen for inclusion in the two-deep in 2021. Coach Hoke said there is “no doubt” Kaho is in the mix for playing time at linebacker.  Whatever his role this year, it is only a matter of time before he joins the likes of Calvin Munson, Kyahva Tezino, and teammate Caden McDonald as star linebackers for SDSU.

“Vai is very competitive, would never accept losing,” Kaho’s high school coach Ernie Howren told EVT.  “Vai’s athleticism made him a highly recruited athlete. Vai’s speed on the field is so sudden and violent, which sets him apart. I knew right away that Vai’s game would translate to college football. His athleticism and ability to be violent made it easy for Vai to have success in college.”

Did you know? Matt McCoy’s 125 tackles in 2003 are the most by a sophomore in program history. A few years later, McCoy was the 63rd overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft. He had a seven-year NFL career.

Unsung Hero: Kyron White

White earns the nod as the unsung hero because his strip fumble last season against Hawaii was a remarkable play forgotten too soon. Covering a punt 46 yards angled towards the sideline, White displaying his elite speed, arrived at the 10-yard line at the same time as the ball and dislodged it from Hawaii punt returner Melquise Stovall. Plays like these from players, not on any of the school’s promotional material, can be the difference for a team moving from good to great.

White enters fall camp looking to make the two-deep at Aztec safety. He has made the most of his summer, adding 20 pounds to his listed weight last season. If he is able to keep his speed, his added weight should make him more of a force in the run game and covering tight ends in the passing game. In the team’s first scrimmage, he played Aztec with the second team and looked very comfortable with everything demanded of that position.

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“Kyron White has an infectious personality that draws all of his teammates to him,” Scott Peach, White’s high school coach told EVT. “He was always beloved in the locker room because he cared about the players around him. Kyron White was the first player that we called on as coaches to represent our program. He lived his life the right way as a student and a player.”

Did you know? In 2020, Tariq Thompson led the team in tackles with 41. It was only the fourth time since 2000 that a defensive back led the Aztecs in tackles. Amazingly, SDSU’s top five tacklers a year ago were all DBs. 

Something to Prove: Brionne Penny

Rashaad Penny’s senior campaign was arguably the best single-season in SDSU history. When his younger brother Brionne followed in Rashaad’s footsteps and committed to the Aztecs, some around town acted like they expected Brionne to match Rashaad’s play. As unfair as those expectations are for any player, they make Penny the player with something to prove in the sophomore class.

In Fall Camp, Penny’s size and speed are evident. With the experienced players in front of him and talented players throughout the depth chart, it will be a tall task for Penny to wrestle away numerous snaps in 2021. Penny ran with the twos and threes during the first scrimmage and made a spectacular catch that was inches from being a touchdown.

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Did you know? Sophomore Jack Kaiser led the Aztecs in receiving in 1947. He had 12 receptions for 216 yards (18.0 average) and five touchdowns. Kaiser was a two-way standout whose 14 career interceptions were a school record until Damontae Kazee passed him in 2016. After college, Kaiser became a history teacher and drove a beer truck in San Diego until he retired to Rosarito Beach, Mexico. He also is credited with being among the founders of Over the Line.  

Biggest Shoes to Fill: Noah Tumblin

At the beginning of Fall Camp, Coach Hoke said four players are in the mix to start at cornerback. Count Noah Tumblin among the ranks. While someone is going to be listed at the top of the depth chart for the first game against New Mexico State, most likely, a pair of players will rotate at the position early in the season. Expect opposing offenses to test the new corners early and often.

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In terms of measurables, Tumblin possesses everything the modern football game demands at the cornerback position. He is 6’2,” weighs 180 pounds, and is a fluid athlete. He is strong enough to help in the run game, tall enough to leap with bigger receivers, and fast enough to run with most receivers. During the scrimmage, he lined up with the ones opposite Tayler Hawkins. If he is able to string together a few weeks of solid practice, he would set himself up for an opportunity to contribute this season.

“(We are) so excited for him and the upcoming season,” Nikiya Tumblin, Noah’s mother, told EVT. “He’s such a focused, hardworking young man. My husband and I are so very proud of him. We are blessed.”

Did you know? Getting off to a fast start is key for the Aztecs. Since 1969, SDSU has won 337 games. Only 82 (24%) have been ‘come from behind’ victories where the Scarlet and Black trailed in the second half.

Most Important Player: Brandon Crenshaw-Dixon

If SDSU’s offensive line is going to improve in 2021, they are going to need a lot of production from their starting right tackle. In Spring Camp, the coaches raved about Crenshaw-Dixon’s growth in the program. He burst onto the scene in practice during the 2020 season and built on that during the offseason. When Fall Camp opened, head coach Brady Hoke did not list right tackle as a place where there was an open competition.

As expected during the first scrimmage, Crenshaw-Dixon ran with the ones, but he did split time some time with Desmond Bessent. Crenshaw-Dixon possesses great size and is very agile for a man his size. With experience, he should fill in nicely for the Aztecs.

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Did you know? SDSU has had 23 offensive linemen drafted into the NFL. Keith Ismael was the last. He was taken in the fifth round, pick 156, of the 2020 NFL Draft by the Washington Football Team.

Best NFL Draft Prospect: Jay Rudolph 

In a class without a player who has made a significant impact in a game, it is difficult to project out which of them will grow over the next three seasons to realize their NFL dreams. Though all of the players on the list have pro potential, Rudolph gets the nod over them because his skills are very evident, he has an opportunity to play significant time in 2021, SDSU’s reputation as a program that develops tight ends, and the players he is surrounded by in the tight end room.

When SDSU went to two tight ends last year, Nolan Givan played “Robin” to Daniel Bellinger’s “Batman.” Givan gave his all as a blocking tight end but posed no threat in the passing game. In the first scrimmage of Fall Camp, Rudolph was the second tight end and showed an ability to line up anywhere in the formation. He can do all of this while being a physical blocker and helping in the run game or protecting the passer.

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He is also blessed with a tremendous mentor in senior Daniel Bellinger, who takes pride in his role as a leader on the team and in the tight end room. Bellinger was shown how to be an Aztec by the likes of Kahale Warring and Parker Houston, and he is paying that forward with the young tight ends on this year’s team.

Those young players in the room are, according to the recruiting rankings, some of the most talented players on the roster. There are more on the way for 2022. SDSU has become a destination program for tight ends more so than a significant number of Power Five schools because the Aztecs feature the tight end position, send players to the NFL, and have a personable position coach, Savai’i Eselu, who makes getting better at football fun.

“Jay works so hard,” Jodi Rudolph’s Jay mother told EVT. “He’s not much of a talker but works hard and is really focused. He listens to feedback from the coaches and really looks to upperclassmen like Bellinger as his examples. He gets it done in the classroom, loves football, and leads by example.”

Did you know? The 1960 Aztecs hold the dubious distinction of the team with the fewest yards gained in a single season. In eight games, they gained 1,397 yards. By comparison, in eight games last season, SDSU gained 2,806 yards. 

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