Monday was the start of spring camp at SDSU. Over the next five weeks, the Aztecs will hold 15 practices culminating in the spring game on March 23 at Snapdragon Stadium. As much as anything else, the competition in camp is designed to help the staff evaluate the quality of its team.
Before the first practice, the coaches ranked their top 44 offensive and 44 defensive players. As they lay the foundation of their instruction at the beginning of camp, the players are given time to stand out from their peers. Following the second week of practice, the staff will reevaluate the team and reorder the lists. Finally, after the spring game, a depth chart will be established to let the players know where they stand as they look to earn time in the fall.
EVT writers Paul Garrison and Andre Haghverdian were on hand to observe Monday’s practice and spoke with head coach Brady Hoke, safety Patrick McMorris, and tight end Mark Redman afterward. Here are the full observations from the first practice.
What stood out to you from today’s practice?
Andre: After last season’s disappointing performance, the coaches have spoken a lot about getting back that “edge” that they seemed to have lost in 2022. If day one of spring practice is any indication, the coaches are making that a priority. SDSU practice has always moved fast, but Monday seemed even faster, and the coaching staff was more vocal. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations after just one day of spring practice that includes 16 new players to the program, but it is no surprise that the offensive line versus defensive line individual drill was the most compelling of the day. It was our first chance to see many of the defensive linemen who will battle for playing time for the first time as Aztecs against the returning offensive linemen.
Paul: San Diego State competes with a lot of energy and pace. The controlled chaos of the practice always impresses, though there were a few more hiccups than in years past. In one session, the WR did not move to where they were supposed to be on time, but that was corrected quickly. The staff clearly emphasized getting the most reps possible. It was also noteworthy how much attention players buried on the depth chart get compared to practice during the season. Walk-on DL Mohamed Mohamed hit a blocking sled without the proper technique, and Hoke engaged with him just like he would do with Jonah Tavai or Cameron Thomas on game days the last two seasons.
“It was good to see the new coaches,” Hoke said. “I enjoyed that part of it. Good first day. We gotta keep stacking those. You want to know how your team is going to react, (and) what their intensity may be. You see who (the leadership) may be. Defensively, Garret Fountain and Pat (McMorris) are two guys that have played enough snaps and really live the part.”
What surprised you about today’s practice?
Andre: In my spring camp preview of the offense, I discussed the possibility of moving Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson back to right tackle (where he started in 2021) to protect Mayden’s blind side after the departure of last year’s starting right tackle, Josh Simmons. Crenshaw-Dickson did, in fact, take snaps at right tackle throughout practice, but the surprise was that it was on the second team. Redshirt freshman Drew Azzopardi took 1st team reps at RT and did fairly well. Hoke said afterward not to pay any attention to the depth chart yet, but it has to be surprising for a two-year starting lineman to suddenly be taking reps behind a redshirt freshman.
Paul: Kyron White did not look lost one bit at LB. He is only listed as 210 pounds, but the defense did not lose any of its physical presence by having basically an extra DB on the field. If White can pull off the position, it could be a boon for the defense, especially against spread offenses. Of course, talking about physicality without full contact is probably pointless, but it surprised how natural the switch looked for him.
“Speed,” McMorris said when asked what White can bring to the linebacker position. “He is fast. He can get to the ball. He has that second gear. We compare him mostly to (Segun) Olubi, who we had a couple (of) years ago, who was a guy who had that relentlessness to get (to the ball) and make plays.”
Which player looks the most like an NFL player running around?
Andre: Dez Malone looks to catapult himself into All-Conference consideration after taking over as the lead starting cornerback midway through last season. At 6’2, 200, Malone has the size to play cornerback at the next level and looks to be in even better shape than he was last year. During early cornerback drills, Malone effortlessly attacked and jumped slant routes from his fellow cornerbacks.
Paul: Mark Redman leaped out as someone who can play at the next level. Returning after an all-conference season, Redman played big and fast. He also showed terrific bend for someone his size. In one team rep, he caught a pass on a diving attempt just after breaking on an in-route. He was bookended by a pair of defenders, but it did not matter. Like Jesse Matthews a year ago, Redman was the emergency target for the QBs.
Lucky Sutton also jumped out as someone who looks the part. Tall, fast, and very athletic, Sutton stood out from his peers. On one rep, he ran a short out and caught a bullet that was thrown high. The leaping grab brought a few oohhs and aahhs from his teammates. Sutton is a redshirt freshman, so it is not fair to list him here, but he was a name thrown around as someone who impressed during Phase One.
“A big thing about what we want to get done is (player) development,” Hoke said when asked if Spring is about individual work or building a team for the fall. “There are enough young guys in there, and there are some older guys who need to be better for us to win.”
Which new player impressed you?
Andre: Defensive lineman Tupu Alualu was the most impressive new player I saw. During 1v1 drills, he rarely got stood up by the offensive linemen. On one rep, he bulldozed Rambo Mageo and caused him to fall on the ground drawing commentary from the rest of the offensive and defensive linemen and a few onlookers. Listed at 6’1 and 285 lbs, Alualu’s physical stature reminds me of Jonah Tavai, a short, stocky player with the ability to beat linemen with his versatility, both in moves and where he can line up. On 11v11 drills, he lined up as the left defensive end.
Paul: Of all the new players that we watched on Monday, local safety Marcus Ratcliffe stood out. He looks capable of playing in the middle of the field right now. There are a lot of athletes vying for time on the backend, but none has the physical presence Ratcliffe possesses. His name was brought up around the field as someone who has done well so far this year. His decision to enroll early looks to have paid off.
“I don’t know if I have an opinion just yet (on them),” Hoke said about the new defensive linemen, but then added, “They had a good winter. There are definitely some guys that, right now, I am glad we recruited them. But that doesn’t mean anything except that the first day was pretty good.”
Which side of the ball impressed the most?
Andre: It’s hard to answer this question after one day without pads and very few 11v11 reps. The defensive line impressed in individual drills against the offensive line, so I would give them a slight edge on Monday.
Paul: The defense appeared ahead of the offense, but not by much. On the other hand, no real football was actually played today, so it is challenging to say. On this first practice, there was nothing to report that will make anyone feel better about SDSU’s offensive line.
“I have no idea right now,” said Hoke when asked after practice which side was ahead. “It was a good first day, though. I thought the guys hustled around. Got on and off the field. Played pretty smart, and sometimes we don’t do that in these situations, but I thought we did (today).”
Lots of new faces. Glean, anything about them?
Andre: Two of the newest scholarship players, safeties Jelani McLaughlin and Marcus Ratcliffe, are early enrollees from the freshman class of 2023. For guys who should still technically be high school seniors, they fit in very well with the rest of the safety room. Ratcliffe, with his 6’3 height, is the only safety taller than 6’1.
Paul: Raphael Williams is fast. He really looked the part of a speedster. It will be interesting to see how well he can get out of his releases once the full contact begins. Like Williams, all of the WR are relatively small, so 6’5 D’Andre Edwards stood out as well. Finally, the overall size of the defensive line stood out. SDSU’s line is never huge, but the staff seemed to have adequately replaced in girth what they lost last year.
“Get them developed and make sure they know where they are at,” McMorris said when asked about the safety room. “San Diego State is a little bit different. Having them situated and (getting) to know the program in a sense. It’s a different program for most, so getting them in that mindset, getting them to know what they are doing and how to do it.”
Who is someone fans aren’t talking about much but who could earn time?
Andre: Based on last year’s depth chart, it was expected that Nassir Sims would get the first crack to start at defensive tackle. With his departure from the team due to medical retirement, Darrion Dalton took first-team reps at defensive tackle ahead of Oklahoma State transfer Samuela Tuihalamaka. While it is too soon to make an assessment of the DT competition, Dalton held up well, while Tuihalamaka struggled during drills against interior offensive linemen.
Paul: OL Christian Jones was running with the first team at left tackle. He is potentially the nicest person on the roster and was playing guard last year. At the time, it looked odd to have someone 6’9 inside, so seeing him at tackle looked more natural. There’s a lot of time between now and fall camp, but if he is the starter at LT, he will become one of the focal points of the offense.
“Some of that is overrated,” Hoke said when asked whether Mayden’s blind side being the right side will impact who starts at LT and RT. “A good football player is a good player. I don’t think that makes a big deal, personally.”
What stood out from the new coaches?
Andre: The biggest aspect that stood out was hearing the different voices command their respective positional units in individual drills. Redman cited “communication” when asked what he has enjoyed the most from Lindley so far as the OC. WR coach Jonathan Krause is soft-spoken, but that did not stop him from providing articulate and detail-oriented instruction when explaining specific drills. There were some drills that the new coaches ran that may not have been what the prior coaches had the players perform in practices in years past. One drill had the receivers run “fake-out” routes against a tackling dummy before taking off to the right, simulating how to get off the line of scrimmage against press coverage.
Paul: Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley’s approach was different in many ways than his predecessor. He spent a lot of time in the defensive backfield watching the eyes of his QBs instead of their footwork. There was considerable emphasis on making reads. Lindley also spent time explaining drills to the entire unit instead of just focusing on individuals. Lindley was very complimentary towards skill position players when they made tough plays.
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“Yeah, probably, I would say so,” Hoke said when asked if the new coaches give spring camp a new feel. “Everybody has different personalities that we have, and they bring a lot of different experiences, especially with Ron (Gould), he’s been around a lot of football, a lot of good football. With Bojay (Filimoeatu) being a defensive line coach, I appreciate those guys. Jonathan (Krause), the energy that he brings is kind of neat because he can run with them still.”
Which positional group is the deepest at this point in the year?
Andre: Six of the seven tight ends from last year’s roster returned in 2023, and zero newcomers were brought in. Add in the fact that they were only one of two offensive units that retained their positional coach, and they are undoubtedly the group that brings the most continuity to spring camp. It is no surprise that Hoke and Lindley have spoken at length about utilizing all the tight ends more in the offensive game plan, with 12 personnel becoming their primary package. Redman earned Second Team All-Conference in his first year at SDSU, but he expects his production to increase as he works on getting faster and accelerating away from defenders more in 2023.
Paul: The easy answer is “the secondary,” but the question specifically asks for one position. Cornerback and safety are incredibly deep. CB has five players who saw time last season and Jelani Whitmore, who should press for inclusion this season. Safety, meanwhile has all three starters returning, a transfer from Texas, and promising youngsters like Josh Hunter, who has created a lot of buzz this year already.
Since SDSU only needs to field a pair of players at the position, corner is the choice for the deepest position on the team. If White and New Zealand Williams were still at safety, the scales could be tipped in that group’s direction. Tight end also bears mentioning in this regard. The competition in the middle of the field should be fierce for the Aztecs all spring.
“You could even say we are the most veteran (positional unit) on the team,” said Redman. “I think we are really set there. There’s a lot to build off (last year), so we are excited (about) that. When you get challenged by the coaches stating they expect more from the group in 2023), it’s a good thing. That means that there’s a lot of high hopes for (us), and we hold ourselves to a high standard in that room.”
What did you notice about the staff addressing penalties?
Andre: At the start of 11v11 drills, it appeared the staff put the offensive players through a snap count drill aimed to draw the offensive linemen or tight ends to flinch before the snap. While the team has undoubtedly utilized these drills to correct false start issues in season, to see it drilled on the first day of spring practice shows how much attention the staff is paying to it.
Paul: When redshirt freshman Logan Tanner committed a false start early in practice, TE coach Savai’i Eselu yelled, “There is a standard in this program. Live up to it and go beyond it.” Pre-snap penalties were heavily emphasized on day one after too many were committed in 2022.
“Personally myself, I probably had three or four false starts, and it starts with us,” Redman said when asked about the attention the coaches are paying to correct the procedural penalties from last year. “(The coaches) can say don’t do this, but when it comes down to it, they are not the ones playing the game. It’s on us. It’s all a mental mindset thing. I think it is a big thing that I am going to work on this year. Putting in some new snap counts, you really just (have) to pay attention to the whole play call and snap count, and everything goes together. When it comes down to it, it’s not much on the coaches, it’s more on the players because they are the ones that are in the game.”
- Several returning players changed numbers in the offseason
- S Patrick McMorris to 2 (from 33) – “Just wanted something new. I wore number 2 in high school. I came in at 2 (initially at SDSU before giving up the number to Matt Araiza) and wanted to end my career at 2.”
- RB Jaylon Armstead to 2 (from 38). Armstead looked trimmed down in his new uniform.
- CB Dez Malone to 4 (from 32)
- TE Cameron Harpole to 86 (from 49)
- In addition to Nassir Sims mentioned above, K/P Jarrett Reeser is a player from last year no longer on the roster.
- The spring roster includes 16 new players (nine on scholarship and seven walk-ons) Juco transfer Gabriel Placencia was not on the roster provided to the media, but he was practicing wearing number 46.
- While Jalen Mayden took 1st team reps at QB as expected, Liu Aumavae played mostly with the 2nd team, while Kyle Crum was with the 3rd. Aumavae was very impressive in drills. During one team rep, he showed good feet, avoiding the rush before completing a pass.
- QB mobility on passing plays was an emphasis; one session was a “scramble drill” where players moved to the correct depths on the field, and on their own, QBs worked on quickly resetting feet after running.
- The offensive line performed individual drills with a miniature volleyball, something that was seen at spring practice last year. The ball is held together between the player’s palms as they explode out of their stance and perform a pass-blocking rep. The goal of the drill is for the player to not lose their hand placement (and, in turn, not drop the ball) while focusing on their footwork.
- The third-team offense had a gap on the offensive line since the team does not have enough players to fill a third-team OL without keeping first or second-team players in.
- WR Nino Remigio, the younger brother of Nikko Remigio, who played at Fresno State last year, is an incoming walk-on from Saddleback College; Remigio is small (5’11, 165) but took reps as a punt returner throughout practice. He also has the honor of being the first player to wear 45 after Jesse Matthews.
- The tight ends all looked very good. They are athletic and have good hands. The key will be making catches with contact.
- Max Garrison and Jatavious Magee looked good at aztec safety; their development allowed Kyron White to move to linebacker.
- Utilizing the talent and athleticism of an experienced secondary will likely lead to more safety blitzes in this year’s gameplan, per Hoke, something McMorris said he would love to do more.
- Backup kicker Zechariah Ramirez was the primary holder on FGs for Jack Browning, while Browing held for newcomer Gabriel Plascencia on the 2nd team.
- The team trotted out a huge line of punt returners on the day: Williams (5), Shaw (83), Barfield (3), Nicholson (85), De Los Reyes (84), Davis (29), Malone (4), Avinger (17), and Whitmore (35).
- The starting offense during 11v11 drills:
- QB Mayden, RB Christon, WR Shaw, WR Penny, TE Redman, TE Rudolph
- LT Jones, LG Bennett, C Mirabella, RG Ulugalu-Maseuli, RT Azzopardi
- The starting defense during 11v11 drills:
- DE Fountain, DT Dalton, DE Alualu
- LB McDonald, LB White, LB Kaho
- S McMorris, S Barfield, S Celestine, CB Malone, CB Avinger
- Highlights from 11v11 drills:
- New Zealand Williams made an interception.
- Redman had a nice diving catch, picking the ball up just before it hit the ground.
- Harpole made a couple of receptions in traffic, one on a tipped ball by Magee that Crum dropped in very well.
- Texas transfer JD Coffey had a nice pass breakup.
- Aumauve threw an on-time sideline pass to Rudolph.
- Josh Hunter had a pass breakup.
- Sheldon Canley had the best run of the afternoon, set up by a nice block from backup center Tiger Yu and included a cutback to the right for a big gain before the whistle stopped the play.
- Barfield should have had an INT off Mayden but dropped the ball right into Shaw’s waiting hands.
Avid sports fan and historian of basketball, baseball, football and soccer. UC San Diego and San Diego State alumni living in America’s Finest City. Diverse team following across multiple sports leagues, but Aztecs come first in college athletics.