According to reports from various college football reporters, Aztecs’ defensive line coach, Jordan Thomas, is leaving the Mesa to become the assistant defensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns, and the Aztecs will replace Thomas with Justin Ena, the current defensive coordinator at Dixie State. Neither team has officially announced the hires yet, but Thomas added “CLE” to his Twitter bio next to “IE” (Inland Empire) and “SD,” giving credence to the reports.
Ena was the defensive coordinator at Dixie State (St. George, UT) in 2021, a Division I FCS school playing in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). The Trailblazers suffered a rough 2021 season, finishing with a 1-10 record. Their defense recorded 66 tackles for loss but only 22 sacks through 11 games last season.
Ena has strong football ties to the State of Utah dating back to his collegiate football days at BYU, where he was a three-time All-Mountain West Conference linebacker from 1999 through 2001.
After a four-year NFL career with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tennessee Titans, Ena returned to Utah in 2008 to begin his coaching career as the special teams’ coordinator at Southern Utah. In 2010, he was promoted to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, which he held until moving to Weber State in 2014 in the same role.
His biggest coaching break came in 2015 when Utah, a Pac-12 school, hired him to be their linebackers coach and eventually added co-special teams coordinator to his responsibilities.
When fellow defensive assistant and associate head coach, Gary Anderson, left Utah in 2019 to become the head coach at Utah State, Ena joined him as his defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Following the 2019 season in which the Aggies ranked second in the Mountain West and 15th nationally with 24 forced turnovers, Ena lost his defensive coordinator role and took over as inside linebackers coach before being relieved of duties after the 2020 season when Anderson left Utah State.
Kevin Meitzenheimer, a starting inside linebacker at Utah State for the past several seasons, praised Ena’s work as a coach. “He played the game, so he’s very intelligent,” Meitzenheimer told EVT on Monday morning when asked for comment. “He knows the game well…brings toughness and grit to a program,” while adding that although Ena is an “in your face” type coach, he constantly solicits feedback from players to understand why a play did or did not become successful.
During the 2019 season under Ena as defensive coordinator, Meitzenheimer was third on the team with 89 total tackles, including nine against San Diego State on September 21st in a 23-17 Aggies win. He added six tackles the following year (2020) against San Diego State in a 38-7 Aztecs win on October 31st after Ena was reassigned to inside linebackers coach.
Outside of his playing and coach experience, as well as his football savvy, the hiring of Ena could promulgate one major focus: increased recruiting efforts in the State of Utah. The Aztecs class of 2022 includes quarterback Liu Aumavae, who plays high school in Provo, UT. However, the Aztecs have not necessarily had much-recruiting success in the region, typically dominated by the major Utah schools (Utah, Utah State, BYU) and the top programs from adjacent states.
According to 247sports.com, the Aztecs have made offers to two Class of 2023 recruits from Skyridge High School in Lehi, UT, cornerback Smith Snowden and edge rusher Tausili Akana. Akana is a 4-star recruit, and 31st ranked player in the class, and first in Utah per 247sports. Expect the number of offers to recruits in Utah to rise over the coming months.
Thomas, a former San Diego State defensive lineman from 2010 through 2014, was the defensive line coach for the past two seasons after serving two years as a graduate assistant working with the linebackers and defensive line. Studying under head coach Brady Hoke, Thomas’ positional group led by All-American Cameron Thomas was one of the best defensive lines in the country, wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines.
Thomas will have an exciting opportunity to work with a strong defensive line led by Myles Garrett, one of the most disruptive defensive ends in the NFL. Garrett, the number one pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Browns, was named first-team All-Pro in 2020 and 2021 and recorded double-digit sacks in each of his last four seasons.
It will be interesting to see whether the Browns re-sign another first overall pick in the NFL Draft (2014), Jadeveon Clowney, who resurrected his career in his first year in Cleveland last year playing opposite Garrett on the defensive line, collecting nine sacks. The Browns could opt for a cheaper and younger replacement for Clowney by taking an edge rusher early in the draft, such as Cameron Thomas, who played under Thomas at San Diego State.
Spring Camp for San Diego State begins in one week on February 28, with the annual Spring Game tentatively scheduled for Thursday night, March 24. No official announcement has been made yet whether the Spring Game will be open to the public. Last year’s game was limited to only the media and family members of the current players.