SDSU’s offensive line poised to bounce back in 2023

Photos by Don De Mars/EVT

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The OL is lining up as their OL coach Mike Goff looks on. (Don De Mars/EVT)

At the forefront of a disappointing 2022 football season for San Diego State was the lackluster play of the offensive line. Overall, a team widely known for its rushing attack over the past decade averaged only 143.4 rushing yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry. Those marks ranked 72nd and 80th in the country, respectively. Even more anemic, the Aztecs only mustered 11 rushing touchdowns, 115th in the nation in that category. Only 11 programs had fewer scores on the ground.

“Missed opportunities, that’s all it comes down to,” replied SDSU offensive line coach Mike Goff when asked about the underwhelming performance in 2022 on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “We had a lot of guys that were thrust into different positions. For the first time in a long time, we had multiple people playing because of injury at the right guard spot.”

How did an offensive line that included one First-Team and Second-Team All-Conference selection perform so poorly?

“This isn’t a one-man show, and I think that once people understand that the offensive line is a unit within a unit, and you got to be able to work as one,” Goff said. “Even if all five guys go the wrong way, you might be able to make it work, but if four guys are going one way and one guy goes the other, then the results won’t be positive.” 

Perhaps most notable about the offensive line in 2022 was the amount of penalties committed. Among the five primary starters, 45 penalties were called per Pro Football Focus (PFF). Right tackle Josh Simmons was the main culprit (17), with left tackle Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (11) not far behind. 

With three returning starters and several younger players competing for an opportunity to see time in 2023, Goff, a 12-year NFL veteran, is entering his third and most important season as the offensive line coach. 

Roster Shakeup

The OL runs drills as their OL coach Mike Goff (left), looks on. (Don De Mars/EVT)

The first step towards an improved 2023 was determining the makeup of the group. 

Five scholarship players from the 2022 offensive line are gone. All-Conference First-Team Alama Uluave graduated and will soon head to training camp with the Miami Dolphins.

Jonathan Harrison was no longer on the roster when spring camp began in February. The school confirmed he was no longer part of the team but did not provide a reason for his absence. 

Last week, Harrison and former CB Jaiden Brown were added as defendants in the civil lawsuit alleging five then-current Aztecs gang raped a 17-year-old at an off-campus party in October 2021. Their inclusion in the lawsuit comes nearly seven months after San Diego’s District Attorney announced no criminal charges would be filed in the case. All five named defendants are no longer with the team.  

Kyle Trombley, who missed the 2022 season due to an injury, was forced into medical retirement due to continued physical issues. 

Simmons entered the transfer portal prior to spring camp in a very surprising move and signed with Ohio State in the post-spring transfer portal window. 

Finally, redshirt freshman Laakea Kapoi also entered the portal following spring camp and signed with conference rival San Jose State. 

Outside of three incoming freshmen from the Class of 2023 that are stepping on the Mesa this summer for their first collegiate experience, the only new offensive lineman announced by SDSU is junior college transfer Kyle Stanback. 

Stanback enrolled at SDSU prior to spring camp but was unable to participate due to not being medically cleared. He has since been cleared and has been working out with the team. Stanback (6’7) came to SDSU as a 265 lbs tackle but has put on at least 15 lbs, according to Goff. The SDSU roster now lists him at 285 lbs. 

“His athleticism is hard to teach,” Goff said about Stanback. “It’s just getting him caught up to speed of really understanding what we’re looking for on different plays. … He just needs to stay the course and continue to gain weight and continue to work out hard, and you already see him filling out just in a few short months that he’s been able to be cleared and be with the team.” 

Two FBS transfers have been linked to SDSU in the past month. 

Florida Atlantic offensive tackle Jordan Sandlin (6-foot-6, 274 lbs) announced his transfer commitment to SDSU on June 8 on social media. Sandlin spent the past two seasons with the Owls but did not appear in a game. He was a three-star recruit in the Class of 2021. 

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Washington interior lineman Myles Murao (6’3, 319) took an official visit to SDSU. He was linked to the program as a commitment in early June but has yet to make a public announcement. Murao was an early enrollee at UW in 2020 and played in four contests for the Huskies last season. 

Murao was the Lineman of the Year in the state of California his senior season at national power Mater Dei Catholic in Santa Ana. MaxPreps placed him on its All-America team. A consensus four-star recruit, he was rated the 41st (Rivals), 72nd (ESPN), and 120th (247sports) overall recruit for the Class of 2020. 

A source confirmed to EVT that both Sandlin and Murao are currently on campus and enrolled in school. Both should be in the mix to compete for time in the fall. 

Goff was unable to speak about the two newest players since they have yet to be officially announced. But when asked if he is still looking to bring in more players for the 2023 roster, he said “no” while referencing “transfers.”

“When you got some transfers that you’re bringing in, and you just see how the younger guys have really changed,” Goff responded. “We got done with spring at the end of March, I think right before we went on spring break, and you just look at how their bodies have changed from March to now; I think you have to have that sense of okay, this is what we’re going in with.” 

Fixing 2022’s Problems

Cade Bennett, Thomas Mirabella, and Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli enter the practice field. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Moving towards an improved offensive line in 2023 had to include learning from your past failures, especially with five returning players with at least 143 offensive snaps played.

“I think when you take the time and reflect, part of talking with (the players) and showing them the video is that it really just comes down to making sure you do the ABCs of football,” explained Goff. “Let’s just start with the basics. Take care of the basics. … The spring was really about making sure you try to get as many guys reps as you can.” 

The influx of procedural penalties by the offensive lineman was a major problem, but one that plagued the unit in the first half of the season more so than the second. This was largely due to road games in hostile environments at Utah and Boise State.

“As a line coach, it’s an issue, and you can only drill it so many times in practice and find different ways to come up with drills that are going to help that,” described Goff. “But ultimately, the only thing that really curbs that is the game experience of knowing that that’s what they’re going to do. I think putting a bunch of young men in a different situation that they’re not accustomed to; that was part of it.”

Goff also attributed the second-half improvement to an offense more predicated on using the huddle than going straight into formation and calling plays and snap counts from there. With new offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley permanently in place, expect that to continue.

Ultimately, Goff teaches his players that it should not matter what the defensive line does pre-snap; every offensive player has the advantage because they know when the ball is supposed to be snapped.  

The final step Goff preached this offseason, especially with many inexperienced players getting first-team reps, was a heavier emphasis on results over technique.

“I think sometimes in my own self-evaluation as a coach, I realized that I was very much as a player a technician, and that’s how I had to play the game,” Goff remarked. “I can’t force them to play like me. So for me, it kind of was changing how I went about approaching that and trying to make it more result-based play. Let’s get the result, and then we’ll clean up the technique.”

According to Goff, this method can help simplify the process for the players, take some of the stresses and worries about perfect technique out, and get them to play faster. 

“Let’s set ourselves up for success so we can thrive and not just survive,” he added.  

Veteran Leadership from Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson 

Brandon Crenshaw-Dixon is one of the team’s best linemen. (Don De Mars/EVT)

With the loss of Uluave, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) becomes the most experienced offensive lineman on the roster, with two full years of starting experience. 

After starting at right tackle in 2021, BCD moved over and started at left tackle in 2022. Despite taking predominantly second-team reps during spring camp, BCD was listed as the starter at right tackle in the post-spring depth chart. 

Goff rationalized that maneuver because he already knows what BCD can do at both tackle spots, and he needed to see what youngsters Christian Jones and Drew Azzopardi could do alongside the starters and against the first-team defenders. 

Ultimately, Goff chose to slide BCD back to right tackle, where he believes BCD thrived in 2021. The goal for SDSU’s most seasoned lineman is inclusion on the all-conference team. 

Embracing a leadership role is one thing Goff has seen heavily from BCD during spring and summer workouts. 

“You got to take care of your job and do your very best, but once you start getting that comfort of playing that position, then now you really got to try to help the other (players),” Goff said about the importance of veteran leadership. “At a certain point, sometimes, it means more to hear it from a BCD or Ross (Ulugalu-Maseuli) or Cade (Bennett) of how to be better than from me. Sometimes that’s what is going to help those young players over the hump by hearing it from a peer and not a coach.”

Finding a Starting Center

Goff described the process of replacing a three-year starter at center as “starting over with a blank canvas that gets to paint itself.” While four players took reps at center over the course of spring camp, it is expected that Thomas Mirabella and Ulugalu-Maseuli will vie for the starting spot.

Thomas Mirabella doing footwork drills during practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Mirabella got the nod in the post-spring depth chart, while Ulugalu- Maseuli was listed as the starter at right guard. Dean Abdullah was listed as the backup at center. All three players started multiple games at right guard last year, and Goff expects all three to benefit from their versatility. Murao was rated as a top three center in the country out of high school and could push for time there as well.

Based on Goff’s comments, the competition for starting center is still wide open.   

“In spring and even in the summer workouts, you could see that they were disappointed that they didn’t execute the blocks the way they wanted to,” he recalled. “So to get them to continue to kind of go down that path of understanding that we got big shoes to fill there, they’ve been able to shoulder that, and we’re going to get the best one that’s out there.”

Abdullah, who Goff refers to as a “Swiss army knife,” has added weight in the offseason and is currently listed at 290lbs (after weighing 260lbs last fall). 

“(Abdullah) works hard, and I think that he is a guy that you feel comfortable with really being able to put him at any place,” Goff said. “Obviously, he’d be a very undersized tackle … but the one thing I do know is that he is a tough young man, and he will do everything he can for you and everything he can for this program.”

For Ulugalu-Maseuli, enduring a family tragedy earlier this year when his father passed away has sparked an urgency and seriousness in him that Goff had not seen before, and he believes has sharpened his focus on achieving his dreams.

“I think he now is taking that different approach of we live every day, but you only die once,” said Goff. “I think the maturity I’ve seen in him since the tragedy that happened within his family has really helped him kind of embrace that and realize that, ‘hey, this is my way to do something’ and to achieve his goal of playing in the NFL.”

Whether it will be as the starting center or starting right guard, 2023 will be Ulugalu-Maseuli’s first chance to show off his newfound approach. 

The next step for Cade Bennett

LG Cade Bennett waiting his turn for individual drills. (Don De Mars/EVT)

After only playing 36 snaps as a redshirt freshman at Oklahoma State in 2021, Cade Bennett entered the transfer portal looking for a permanent home. As a native Arizonian, San Diego was a city his family vacationed in frequently as a kid. SDSU recruited him out of high school. 

But the biggest factor in Bennett’s ultimate decision to transfer to SDSU may have been Goff.

“He’s great at slowing the game down for you and making you understand things,” said Bennett during Episode 75 of The SDSU Podcast when asked about playing for Goff. “He’s got that perspective. He played for so long. I really appreciate him. He’s done a lot for me and helped me develop into the player I am today. He really cares. He’s not going to take it easy on me. He’s going to go hard on me and make sure I’m always up to speed and always doing the best I can. He’s not going to let me slack, so I appreciate him for that a lot.”

Bennett’s father, Dave, who doesn’t miss a game, whether home or away, has seen his son grow happier since transferring to SDSU, crediting Goff’s impact.

“(Goff) has gotten a lot out of Cade, and I think Cade really respects and admires somebody like him, so it’s it’s been a good transition,” said Dave Bennett during Episode 75 of The SDSU Podcast. 

In his first year at SDSU, Bennett started every game at left guard as a sophomore, playing 748 snaps. According to PFF, Bennett did not allow a quarterback sack or hit on 367 pass-blocking snaps and gave up six hurries for a 99.2 pass-blocking efficiency rating and 82.4 pass-blocking grade. 

In contrast, Bennett finished the season with only a 53.5 run-blocking grade as the entire offensive line unit struggled to open holes for the running backs to run through. 

“We know we weren’t good enough last year,” said Bennett when asked about the unit’s approach to 2023. “We have been watching a ton of film as a unit with Goff, figuring out where things went wrong. Why this didn’t work, maybe we could change our footwork here. We’ve been meeting two to three times (a week) and just trying to figure out different ways. We were young. I’m not going to say that was an excuse, but I think we all realized we need to be better, and everyone’s pretty locked in right now, so I feel good about this group of guys we got.”

Individually, Bennett is focused on becoming a dominant blocker in all aspects, specifically staying low and running through everything and keeping his balance and hips straight. 

After a Second-Team All-Conference selection in 2022, Goff expects Bennett’s goal in 2023 to be to make First-Team and to advance his opportunity to play in the NFL.  

“Since Cade’s been here, he has done nothing but buy-in,” Goff remarked. “You just have seen how his body has changed and how as he’s maturing. He’s doing things better at a higher level. He just needs to realize, watching the film from last year, the things that he struggled with … and here’s how we’re going to try to think about how we can make ourselves be in that better position that’s going to make us even better.”

While Goff admits that Bennett is not the most vocal leader on the team, he has filled in that role alongside BCD and Ulugalu-Maseuli during spring and summer workouts. Bennett acknowledges his leadership style is more by way of example, showing teammates the importance of a strong work ethic and staying focused. 

His father provided a tidbit that shows Bennett’s leadership can go beyond strictly leading by example. 

“Josh Simmons sent me a note and thanked me because he said Cade helped him so much,” recalled Dave Bennett. “Helped him with the mindset, and that’s a nice thing to hear from another kid. I want him to be that leader too for the team and really help that line come together because that’s the difference. If they come together as a line, they are going to be a much better team.”

If Bennett, who has three years of eligibility remaining, makes the strides that he and Goff expect him to, he’ll head into next spring finishing up a college degree and the strong potential to hear his name called in the 2024 NFL Draft. 

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