SDSU’s tight ends key to making Sean Lewis’ offense go

Logan Tanner (89) blocks for Jaylon Armstead against Boise State. Tanner started the contest against the Broncos. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Leo Kemp leaps to celebrate his touchdown against Fresno State. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

With heralded QB recruit Danny O’Neil in town for an official visit, all eyes are rightfully on the quarterback’s Sean Lewis and new QB coach Matt Johnson will bring to The Mesa. While conventional wisdom suggests a high-profile transfer will be added to the mix, there is a stable of signal callers still in the program, who are coming of age at the perfect time to run Lewis’ offense for the next three seasons.

As important as Jalen Mayden’s replacement will be to the team’s success, another position will determine the offense’s ceiling next year. In 2024, SDSU’s attack will hinge on the versatility of its tight end room.

“We’ve always moved our tight end around a ton,” Andrew Sowder, former Kent State offensive coordinator, said on Run the Power, Episode 244. “That was one of our staples at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green a little bit. Having a versatile tight end that you can spilt out and play in-line or as an H-Back, if you have someone who can do that, you’re able to get into a ton of formations with the same eleven guys. Us being a tempo team, that is huge.”

Logan Tanner warming up against Colorado State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Sowder coached with Lewis at Kent State, serving as the offensive coordinator for five seasons. With SDSU still without an announced offensive coordinator and the number of former Kent State staffers Lewis has brought to San Diego, Sowder could be a fit as the Aztecs OC.

His remarks on a podcast from a few years ago make clear why the 2024 offense will need a versatile athlete at tight end to make the offense go. Aztec Fast is the name for SDSU’s new approach. As the moniker suggests, it depends on a quick tempo for success.

Not including the shortened 2020 season, Kent State averaged 72 plays in Lewis’ tenure there. During the same years, SDSU averaged 67. While those five plays may not seem significant, 72 plays a game would have ranked 50th in the nation in 2023, and 67 would have ranked 100th. In terms of one game, it is the difference of an extra drive.

Add in that KSU possessed the ball for about five minutes a game fewer, and the disparity between the two offenses grows. KSU played about 30% faster during the four seasons studied.

This quicker pace places pressure on the defense to call a play and react to Lewis’ designs in a short amount of time. It usually makes defenses very vanilla in their approach. The advantages that the tactic creates, however, can only fully be taken advantage of with the right player at tight end.

Using multiple formations and motions accentuates the impact of increased tempo. It makes assignment errors more likely. A skilled and versatile tight end allows Lewis to maximize this second advantage. One play, he could line up the tight end as a fullback, the next on the line of scrimmage flanking a tackle, and the next split out wide to create numbers in the short passing game. If the tight end is special enough, on the next play, Lewis could employ four wide receivers lined up all over the field.

In the chaos created by the varying looks, Lewis’ offense thrives. He can change blocking assignments to make bread-and-butter plays appear different and build countless wrinkles off the base packages. It makes playing QB simpler and sets up the big plays when the inevitable breakdowns occur.

Leo Kemp and Nick Gardinera could provide the versatile players Sean Lewis needs for his offense. (PJ Panebianco/EVT)

As was the case with the past regime, the most important role for the tight end is blocking. At Kent State, no TE had more than eight receptions in any of Lewis’ years there. This past year at Colorado, 6-foot-3 Michael Harrison caught 31 passes, but his slight, 215 frame, prevented the run game from getting going for the Buffaloes.

On SDSU’s current roster, three players profile like the TEs Lewis had at Kent State. In 2018 and 2019, Adam Dulka played a central role. He stood 5-foot-9 and resembles SDSU’s Leo Kemp and Nick Gardinera. Fullbacks in 2023, SDSU’s roster no longer lists the position. Kemp and Gardinera are presently listed as running backs but could make the switch to tight ends in Dulka’s image.

Sowder in the same interview above detailed how the staff liked converted wrestlers for their offensive linemen. Kemp, a top wrestler in high school, could fit the bill as a tight end. Gardinera came into SDSU as a running back before adding weight to compete at fullback. Kemp and Gardinera will both make a large leap in productivity as blockers after being novices at the job in 2023. They also have proven adept at catching the ball, so defenses would have to play them honestly.

In 2021, Kent State’s leading receiving tight end was 6-foot-3 Aaron Hernandez. He bears a size similarity to SDSU’s lone returning scholarship tight end, Logan Tanner.

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Last year, the Aztecs brought in Louisville transfer Dez Melton. Transfers from P5s are expected to play right away, but Melton never passed Tanner on the depth chart. When Jay Rudolph left the team, Tanner took reps as the third tight end behind Cameron Harpole and Mark Redman. Harople and Redman have transferred, leaving Tanner as the last man standing.

As he enters his third college season, it is likely Tanner’s physical maturity and experience will catch up with his skill level, which has been advanced since enrolling early in January of 2022. The redshirt sophomore could be primed for a breakout year.

Tanner offers far more upside as a receiver than Kemp and Gardinera. If his blocking ability can approach their level, Tanner could add an element to Lewis’ offense that the nation hasn’t seen, a tight end, who provides formational flexibility, terrific blocking, and is also a receiving threat.

The makeup of the tight end room remains in flux. Liberty High School (Arizona) TE/OL Ryan Wolfer and Evergreen High School (Washington) TE Arthur Ban are visiting SDSU this weekend. Wolfer and Ban are already committed to SDSU. However, the roster shakes out, a storyline to follow is watching who SDSU’s staff identifies for the position that makes the offense go.

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