Seven months to the day before their first game against Texas A&M Commerce and more than an hour before sunrise, the Aztecs made their way onto the synthetic practice fields behind the Fowler Athletic Center on Wednesday morning. SDSU’s Head of Football Performance, Jeff Sobol, led the team in a workout aimed at coupling superior effort with great attention to detail.
Held a few weeks after the start of winter conditioning, the practice was a true look at the off-season grind. Every athlete is ready to compete on Day One, but working with that same energy at this point separates those with greater mental toughness.
“Today was about attention to detail, attitude, and effort because a lot of teams over the course of winter training can go really hard, but I need high effort and high attention to detail, and making sure we’re stacking that all together,” Sobol told EVT after the workout. “Effort is great and we always want that, but we also need effort with high attention to detail. We need to be able to apply the concepts the coaches are going to teach them and do them at a high level. It just can’t be effort all the time. Effort will win you some games, but we need them both.”
This work, mostly done away from the public eye, is just as essential as the on-the-field efforts in spring and fall camps. The scoreboard was off on Wednesday, but the Aztecs competed with all the teams on their upcoming schedule.
Chief among Sobol’s aims was the establishment of the team’s culture. Having worked with head coach Sean Lewis for years, the morning exercises teach the “Alpha” mentality and the focus of daily “plus-one” improvement. If enough of SDSU’s players stack those plus-one days consecutively now, they will be greatly improved under the lights of Snapdragon Stadium.
“It’s just tremendous from a confidence standpoint, from a physicality standpoint, from a mentality standpoint,” Sobol replied when asked how what he does connects to play on the field. “It checks a million different boxes. … trying to translate what they learned in the meeting room and coming out here and applying that, it’s the same thing (as the season). Teaching them how to handle their bodies, take care of themselves.”
“They’re going to get the results that they want. The more they put in it, they’re going to get the results. Giving that mentality to be that alpha mindset of improving and competing on a daily basis. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Sobol arranged the team in rows of seven that stretched 15 wide across the practice field. They were primarily grouped by position, with some athletes competing away from their rooms to spread the squad out equally. QBs Kyle Crum and Javance Tupou’ata-Johnson, for example, were two rows away from AJ Duffy, Tobin O’Dell, and Danny O’Neil.
Throughout the hour-plus session, the players, like a well-choreographed theater troupe, moved through the various activities in seven waves. The athletes, not Sobol, chose which wave they went in. Organically, the veterans moved to the front as line leaders. Kenan Christon, Cody Moon, Garret Fountain, Christian Jones, and Dean Abdullah were among the 15 pacing their rows.
As returning captains, Christon and Fountain’s leadership was evident. Setting an example was clearly on their minds. At one point, Christon, displeased with one of the reps, yelled, “Dean, not our line,” reminding Abdullah of the importance of modeling for the teammates that followed them.
“We have a lot of really good kids that are ready to learn, ready to grow, and ready to change what has happened here in the last year,” Sobol explained. “There’s a bitter taste in a lot of guys’ mouths that have been around. Guys like Garret and Kenan that came back for a reason. They don’t want to leave here with that taste in their mouth. Things like that, we can really build on. And having their leadership has been awesome.”
Given the newness of Sobol’s designs to nearly everyone on the field, one measure of the success attained in winter conditioning thus far was that only one drill needed to be repeated. Occasionally, individual waves were called back to repeat an exercise.
Sobol’s skill in teaching the concepts in previous practices was evident in how the players met the expectations. At one point the strength coach encouraged the Aztecs with a simple message that everyone says they want to win, but champions put action behind their words.
Attention to Detail
Attention to detail was seen throughout. On one drill, Sobol instructed the players to high-knee in five-yard increments. It was not a race, he reminded them forcefully before they began. Simulating the discipline needed on a snap count, Sobol would blow his whistle to signal another set. One player drew Sobol’s ire by false-starting on a rep.
The Aztecs were mostly dressed in black shorts and a black top. Some chose to wear red, a few others gray, and some shed their shirts altogether despite the chilly San Diego winter morning. In years past, the athletes worked out in colors mandated by the staff. A new detail under Sobol is the opportunity to wear any team-issued attire.
After the slower, focused reps, the athletes competed in a handful of suicide sprints, which matched up players from the same position group. Focus was paramount here as well. As each wave ran to the designated spot, the players waiting for their turn reminded those in the drill to switch which foot they touched the corresponding line with.
Deshawn McCuin stood out in this drill. His quickness and ability to change direction was terrific. After finishing first by a step, he yelled, “You can’t beat me” to one of his teammates. Duffy also excelled in this portion. His suddenness as a runner stood out.
Wednesday was OL Saipale Fuimaono’s first workout with the team. SDSU announced the Allan Hancock College transfer on signing day, but he was just cleared to participate. He was by far the quickest lineman in his group.
True freshman RB Anthony McMillian is huge. He is listed as the biggest running back on the roster at 225 pounds. He looked decidedly bigger than Lucky Sutton, who is known as a big back. McMillian’s key to seeing the field will be utilizing that power while improving his quickness. He finished last on the suicide sprints among his cohort.
Transfer LB Owen Chambliss stood out for his explosiveness. DE Kenneth Jiles’ ability to turn his hips impressed. DE Brady Nassar had great speed for his size. WR Louis Brown’s stature and strength were also noticeable.
Cranking up the dial
At the end of every day, Sobol and his assistants debrief about what they saw during workouts. This helps Sobol craft every winter conditioning from the ground up, tailoring it to the needs of his players.
Friday is the scheduled end of the evaluation portion of winter conditioning. Sobol has been building up the routines and intensity for what comes next. That the coming weeks will be the hardest portion of this eight-week phase of the football calendar should not veil the challenge of these first weeks.
Sobol compared his method to cranking up a dial. With the first portion of winter conditioning nearly behind them, the Aztecs will be increasing the intensity.
Boise State, Cal Berkeley, Washington State, Oregon State, and the rest of SDSU’s opponents are all putting in similar work to what the Aztecs are accomplishing. There is an invisible competition between all of these schools. Whichever group wins at the start of 2024 will likely emerge victorious at the end of the year.
“We’re all here for a reason,” Sobol said concluding his interview. “We’re all here on the same mission together. We put a lot of time into this and sacrifice a lot to be here, so we’re going do it right. There’s no reason to coast and just go through the motions.”
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.