Poetically, SDSU’s most memorable throw of the 2021 season, a two-yard toss from Jesse Matthews to Lucas Johnson, came statistically in their worst passing game. The completion sealed the 33-31 win over Utah. The Aztecs defeated the best team in the Pac-12 with only 44 passing yards for the game.
The victory set off a year-long conversation, at least in San Diego.
Was SDSU better than the Utes? The voters and members of the college football committee gave a definitive answer. They were so enamored with Utah’s two victories over Oregon they placed the pride of Beehive State in a different stratosphere than the team that beat them up in Carson the third week of the season.
At the end of the year, Utah ranked 12th in the final AP poll with 851 points. The mighty Aztecs finished 714 points behind them, rounding out the rankings at number 25. This past week the NFL sent a clear message, the teams were a lot closer than the experts thought.
The Hula Bowl, the NFLPA Bowl, the East-West Shrine Bowl, and the Senior Bowl are the four postseason showcase events where the top players from college football display their abilities in front of NFL talent evaluators. Utah had four players invited to one of the four bowls, SDSU had seven.
CB Tayler Hawkins, LB Segun Olubi, S Trenton Thompson, RB Greg Bell, LT Zachary Thomas, DE Cameron Thomas, and TE Daniel Bellinger are the Aztecs’ representatives. Add in juniors P/K Matt Araiza and RG William Dunkle, and there are at least nine Aztecs on the NFL radar.
What makes this number even more impressive is, if you include WR Jesse Matthews in these ranks, SDSU had an NFL caliber player at every position on the team with the glaring exception of quarterback. It is no wonder they were able to manhandle many of their opponents, including Utah, on their way to 12 wins. They were extremely talented.
Many of these nine also starred as special teams players in addition to their roles on offense and defense. Not only did their presence on these units give the Aztecs a huge competitive advantage, but it also set an example for the rest of the roster. The coaching staff has spoken frequently of the importance of having their best players on special teams. It is the best teacher of the Aztec way.
Nine NFL prospects is certainly a feather in the program’s cap, but how they got there is probably more important to SDSU’s future. None of the nine were highly recruited, “can’t miss” prospects. Only Bell and Hawkins were consensus three-star recruits. The rest earned two stars for their high school exploits except for Olubi, who boasted zero stars.
Despite the sophistication of analytics, the mystery of why some recruits realize their potential and others do not remains. When coaches and athletes work together to discover part of that secret as they have at SDSU, it helps with the recruitment of the next wave of players while also keeping your current players from transferring.
Nearly all of the players who have left the program so far have been upperclassmen whose career arcs have developed. The freshmen and sophomores at nearly every position can compare themselves to a player on the NFL radar. They learned firsthand how the nine tackled their school work, studied film, and trained in the offseason. Why would younger players leave SDSU hoping another school will prepare them better when they were in the same weight room and have the same coaches as those who have already navigated the path they are planning to take?
It remains to be seen how many of the nine will actually be drafted, but it is safe to say, barring injury, each will get a Training Camp opportunity in the league. All told, it is a remarkable feat to have this many Aztecs on the NFL radar. Without a conference title, it is difficult to properly place the 2021 team in the history of SDSU football. Perhaps, they should be remembered as a Top 25 team with Top 25 talent.