Sean Lewis’ defenses will be improved at SDSU

Sean Lewis' energy in practice is unparalleled. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Sean Lewis at the Aztec Fast Showcase. (Credit: Cedric Jones/EVT)

SDSU head coach Sean Lewis turned 38 last month on April 11. In Lewis’ lifetime, Kent State, the school he previously led as head coach, has had a .500 or better record only seven times. Three came during Lewis’ five-year tenure.

This context is important in understanding why, last off-season, so many universities coveted someone as young as Lewis to lead their programs. His 24-31 lifetime record as a head coach is unimpressive at first glance, but winning at Kent State makes his resume stand out.

Lewis’ offense is his claim to fame and the reason for the Golden Flashes’ turnaround. After putting up 12.75 points in 2017 before Lewis arrived and a pedestrian 23.9 points in his first year, KSU averaged 32.1 points over the next four seasons.

With Lewis in Colorado last year, Kent State ranked dead last in the nation, averaging just 12.5 points each game. The Buffalos meantime improved by 16.7 points per game over their 2022 average with Lewis as the team’s playcaller.

Lewis’s time in Kent would have had even greater success if not for a defense that was among the worst in the country. As Lewis’ losing record would suggest, KSU gave up more points during Lewis’ five years than it scored. In total, Kent State allowed 176 more points.

2022 was the only season KSU gave up fewer than 30 points per game. Only three times in those five seasons did the Golden Flashes hold FBS opponents under 20 points. On the positive side, KSU finished in the top 10 nationally in takeaways in 2021.

Due in large part to a ball control offense that kept the Aztecs off the field, SDSU’s defenses have statistically been among the best in the country over the past 15 years. If units under Rocky Long and Brady Hoke had been forced to play more snaps, their high rankings would not have been so lofty.

With Lewis leading the program, the definition of effective defense on The Mesa will change. There are reasons to believe SDSU’s defense under Lewis will be better than what he had at Kent State.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be loyal to winning,” Lewis said on Episode 132 of The SDSU Podcast. “We’re not going to sacrifice or compromise one area of the game just for another area. And, we’re still going to be a well-rounded football team that’s going to be able to stop teams defensively, limit those explosive plays, generate some explosive plays, and be dynamic within special teams.”

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Better Scheduling

Digging deeper into Kent State’s defensive deficiencies reveals a more nuanced picture. As a way to supplement its athletic budget, KSU played three buy games each full season with Lewis as head coach. At the expense of its players, the Golden Flashes lost 12 road games to power five schools by a combined 338 points (28.2 points per game).

Lewis was an impressive 14-3 in his final four seasons at home with Kent State. His road record during that time was only 7-16. As Aztec fans know well, when a winning culture is reversed, teams win consistently at home before finding consistent victories on the road. The money-making murderer’s row Lewis was forced to take his team through never allowed his squad to gain momentum early in the season or find the confidence to win outside of Dix Stadium.

Playing opposite a fast-paced offense will certainly present challenges for SDSU’s defense, but not having to travel to Washington, Oklahoma, and Georgia like Kent State did in 2022 will give them a chance to adjust. Physically, the Aztecs will be in better shape to compete all year. There’s a reason the schools flushed with cash pay such high fees for games: it helps their athletes excel on the field.

SDSU has access to better athletes

If playing one-fourth of your schedule on the road against power five teams wasn’t bad enough, the money KSU received from those games did not return to the football program. Lewis changed that slightly.

Prior to the start of the 2021 season, Lewis inked an extension with Kent State. Part of the contract stipulated that at least $200,000 of the money gained through the buy games had to go to the football budget. KSU earned $5.2 million in 2022 from the Huskies, Sooners, and Bulldogs. Only a fraction of that was used to bolster Lewis’ program.

According to USA Today, SDSU’s athletics had $65.9 million in revenue in 2022. Kent State had $28.6 million. That 37.3 million dollar gap is roughly the same as what existed between the Aztecs and UCLA at the time. More resources mean more advantages for recruiting.

San Diego is also a much better destination than Kent, Ohio, which is a suburb of Akron. America’s Finest City is known as paradise. Akron is where Lebron James was born. Athletes spend an inordinate amount of their time working on their craft—the place where they spend their leisure time recharging matters. In a day and age where self-care is more important than ever, living in San Diego is important.

Wherever Lewis has been, he has emphasized what he has instead of focusing on the deficiencies. When asked about the defense at Kent State, he never spoke negatively about the players or coaches there. Objectively, though, the caliber of athletes Lewis can attract to SDSU should be higher.

Defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt (left) and interior line coach David Lose (right) at the Aztec Fast Showcase. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Defensive Coordinator Eric Schmidt

The staff Lewis assembled at SDSU has a Kent State feel to it in the offensive and special teams phases. Defense is a different story. No one on that side of the ball has a prior history with Lewis. In some ways, that could seen as a reset of the type of defense Lewis needs to complement his offense.

Much of the hope for improved play centers on defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt. Brought to The Mesa from UW, Schmidt will be calling defenses at the FBS level for the first time. He has extensive experience as an FCS defensive coordinator and an FBS special teams coordinator.

“The thing that came first was finding a man of good character,” Lewis said. “You’re going to have someone in a leadership role, and power’s one of those things. What’s the old phrase? ‘Power corrupts.’ It’s a heck of a drug, so you need to make sure you’ve got a man of tremendous character to be in a position to lead. That was first and foremost, so we did our due diligence. … coach Schmidt really separated himself from all the guys that I visited with that came in front of me. He was head and shoulders above, and I’m really happy that we got him here.”

The 4-2-5 scheme

For all of the magnificence of SDSU’s 3-3-5, the defense the past two seasons was subpar for long stretches. In 2022, they played a forgetful first half of the year. Last year, their struggles with tackling haunted them throughout their schedule.

2021 was the last year the Aztecs defense was truly dominant. Following that season, starting linebacker Segun Olubi described SDSU’s scheme as more of a 4-2-5 than a 3-3-5. His idea had merit. With Jonah Tavai at DT, flanked by Keshawn Banks and Cameron Thomas, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix could create a potent four-man front by placing SAM LB Caden McDonald outside either end.

The 4-2-5 brings several advantages to SDSU. Most importantly, it puts two EDGE rushers on the field, raising the overall athleticism of the defense while utilizing pass rushers in that role. EDGE Dominic Oliver was a pass-rushing specialist in the 3-3-5 but can be an every-down defender in the 4-2-5. Putting pressure on the QB with four defenders is the best way to stop modern, spread offenses.

Having two interior linemen should also help. The best defense against Lewis’ offense is to keep it off the field by pounding the rock and draining the clock. SDSU should be able to counter the inside run game better with an extra defensive tackle rather than a linebacker on the field. They also should occupy the interior of an offense better, making the reads for the linebackers and safeties behind them simpler.

Sean Lewis at the Aztec Fast Showcase. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Another positive of the switch is the way it allows the Aztecs to cover the slot. Teams clearly chose to attack that portion of the field the past two seasons. With a 4-2-5, there are more ways to help a nickel DB with a second cover safety over the top of him. The depth that warrior safeties in the 3-3-5 played at also made covering inside more challenging.

Olubi emphasizing that SDSU played essentially a 4-2-5 was not done haphazardly. He was trying to tell NFL evaluators that he had experience in the type of defense played in the NFL. The final advantage of the 4-2-5 is that what Schmidt is asking his players to do is what defenders are asked of at the professional level. That should be another recruiting advantage over the previous system.

Overall, the 4-2-5 will likely be more vanilla than the 3-3-5 but should give up fewer explosive plays. The Aztecs will look to win more decisively on first and second down so its EDGE rushers can pin their ears back on clear passing downs. Every scheme has its benefits, but Schmidt’s should complement Lewis’ offense well.

Lessons Learned

SDSU’s defense will be superior to what Kent State played because of Lewis’ values and track record of improvement. His “Be the Alpha1” mantra is about each individual as the leader of his life, working daily to improve in the margins so that in the moment of need, he or she will be equipped to rise to the occasion.

His ability to walk into the situation at KSU as a 31-year-old and establish a culture among 18-23-year-olds was amazing. By age, his players were his peers, but he commanded the respect of a head coach not because he had the position but because he earned it by his actions.

“A bunch of lessons learned,” Lewis explained. “It’s that shift from early on as a really young, dumb head coach and a former offensive play-caller – that was exclusively my job, and you thought about the game that way, and hey, we’re going to go out and outscore people. Again some hard lessons learned and being able to grow as a coach, pivot, and transition to this head coach mindset to be able to win the games a lot of different ways, to manage the game.”

“I’ve had some really smart people that I’ve been able to tap into to help me grow in that regard as well. So, you know, when the opportunity presents itself, there’s nothing more important than winning. You’ve got to be loyal to winning and do what’s required to win, whatever that looks like within each week and within each game.”

Among the lessons learned during his tenure in Kent was how much practice time is needed for a defense to run properly. At KSU, Lewis was forced to limit how hard he practiced his players early in the season because of the pounding they took in the non-conference. This lighter load led to some issues excelling as the season progressed.

KSU ran a 3-3-5 during Lewis’ time there. Seeing how the opposition schemed against him made him prefer a four-man front. Experience is the best teacher. If the message acquired is accurate, college football could see Lewis’ offense teamed with a devastating defense. The results would be lots of wins for the Aztecs in 2024.

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