San Diego State completed practice day 5 of 15 for spring camp on Tuesday afternoon. EVT writers Andre Haghverdian and Paul Garrison were on hand and spoke to head coach Brady Hoke afterward.
“I like how the energy has been,” said Hoke about the first five practices. “I really like how (the coaches) are coaching their guys. But we are a young team at a lot of places and have a lot to learn.”
Here are some of our observations.
Several players were notably absent from the practice field, including starting QB Jalen Mayden and RG Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli, among others. Hoke stated the team moved this week’s scheduled Wednesday practice up one day to Tuesday, which created school commitment conflicts for several players.
He also added Ulugalu-Maseuli’s absence was due to a recent death in the family, but he was expected back for the two practices at the end of the week. Other players that were not seen at practice include LB Kyron White and WR Jacoby Kelly.
JUCO OL transfer Kyle Stanback was at practice but in street clothes as he has been throughout spring camp. Hoke said it was a health situation, and they were awaiting further medical testing. “He’s a great kid, and he’s frustrated, and I’m frustrated,” said Hoke without divulging any further information.
Hoke said Tuesday’s practice was sloppier than the previous four, and that likely had to do with two redshirt freshmen and a pair of walk-ons under center. There were three false starts, and two of them were due to the QB’s cadence being out of sync. Hoke said that pressure to perform without Mayden was a positive for the young signal callers.
Defensive Line Development
The biggest turnover in personnel on the Aztecs from 2022 to 2023 is on the defensive line. Four of the top six players, including all three starters, are gone. The one returning player with extensive playing time is Garret Fountain. Heading into his second year as a defensive end, Fountain is poised for a monster year.
The other five spots along the line on the two-deep are wide open. Young but inexperienced returners such as Dom Oliver, Darrion Dalton, and Ryan Henderson are trying to show what they can do, while senior returners without meaningful playing time, such as Dylan Taylor, Wyatt Draeger, and Daniel Okpoko, are hoping for one last shot.
“The defensive line reminds me a lot of 2019,” said Hoke. “Cam (Thomas) was a sophomore, Keshawn (Banks) was a sophomore. Jonah (Tavai) wasn’t here yet. Myles Cheatum was the only senior we had.”
Dalton has been the most surprising, earning first-team reps at defensive tackle throughout the first five spring practices.
“He’s doing good,” Hoke said when asked about Dalton. “I’ve always liked him, but (I) didn’t know how quick he was going to get there (maturity-wise). I like what he has done.”
Oliver moved over to defensive end from outside linebacker towards the end of last year’s fall camp, which impacted his ability to see the field during the season as he acclimated to a new position. The staff loves the pass rush ability he brings to the position, which he showed off in a beautiful spin move in pass rush drills on Tuesday, drawing praise from his teammates and coaches.
“He can be something different,” said Hoke about Oliver’s ceiling. “Again, it’s a maturity thing. I got to get him to gain weight, that’s the biggest thing. He’s at about 240 and needs to be at about 250.”
While making those comments, Hoke pointed over to the corner of the practice field where Oliver, Draeger, and LB Vai Kaho were working on technique drills even though the practice had technically ended.
During double-team drills, it was still evident who was the lead defensive end and who was still trying to get there. On one rep, Oliver’s attempt to break up a tandem block by two offensive linemen failed, leading to Hoke telling him what he did wrong and then immediately asking Fountain to get up there and show him how it is supposed to be done.
To add to the competition at the position in spring camp, SDSU brought in four transfers (three JUCO and one FBS) in the offseason. Tupu Alualu has been the best defensive lineman on the field, while Talib Salahuddin has shown flashes.
“I really think (Alualu) is going to be a really good player for us,” remarked Hoke when asked about the new linemen. “(Salahuddin) has long arms, so we are excited about him. They just need Aztec training. They need coach Hall. They had winter, but they need the full stuff. They are going to help us.”
The lone FBS transfer at the position, Samuela Tuihalamaka, has struggled in limited individual and team drills so far. Hoke provided a possible explanation, stating that Tuihalamaka primarily played a 2-gap system at Oklahoma State while SDSU does things much differently along the line that he needs to get used to.
Offensive Line Shuffle
With Ulugalu-Maseuli out, Dean Abdullah played right guard with the first team. Abdullah started three games in that position last season when Ulugalu-Maseuli was out with an injury. Walk-on Tiger Yu stepped into the second team center role to replace Abdullah’s spot and held up very well. He played physically and only had one bad snap.
Similar to the first practice of the spring, Christian Jones (LT) and Drew Azzopardi (RT) were on the first team throughout practice, while veterans Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson and Joey Wright competed with the second team. Azzopardi did well during one-on-one pass blocking/rushing drills with the defense, including one tremendous rep against Cooper McDonald.
After the conclusion of this second week of practice, the coaching staff will reevaluate every player and make changes to the depth chart accordingly. Who the first team tackles are next week could show a lot about how the coaches feel about the quality at those two key positions.
Redshirt freshman Laakea Kapoi took second-team reps at left guard during team drills. On a blocking drill where he was lined up as the center but not actively performing the drill, he dropped the ball in the pathway of the blockers and was chewed out by offensive line coach Mike Goff for putting his teammates in danger. Kapoi did not make that mistake again.
Perhaps SDSU’s best offensive lineman in 2022 looks to be head and shoulders above the rest of the unit so far in 2023. LG Cade Bennett earned Second Team All-Conference in 2022. Despite playing through multiple injuries towards the second half of the season, Bennett still finished with an 82.4 pass-blocking grade per Pro Football Focus, putting him in the top 30 in the country among guards with at least 200 snaps.
Bennett was impenetrable during one-on-one drills on Tuesday, stoning starting defensive end Garret Fountain on two consecutive reps. Bennett’s and the rest of the offensive line’s run blocking should improve in 2023, playing more under center in lieu of shotgun and providing the running backs more options.
Running Back Rotation
Offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley spoke glowingly about the two redshirt freshmen running backs, Lucky Sutton and Sheldon Canley, prior to the start of spring camp. During the first practice, both received a fair share of reps and carries in team drills. During practice five, both were relegated to fourth and fifth on the depth chart during drills.
On one handoff drill, Canley went too soon, and new running backs coach Ron Gould asked him (not so nicely) what he was doing and made him do it again. Canley succeeded on the second attempt.
Kenan Christon continued to receive first-team carries, with Cam Davis and Jaylon Armstead behind him. On the first carry in 7-on-7 drills, the offensive line opened a gaping hole on the left side, and Christon sped threw it for a big gain.
The running backs spent a large portion of practice running routes and catching passes from the quarterbacks as the new coaching staff looks to unlock that resource in 2023 after the previous staff talked about doing so without it materializing.
The coaching staff spent a lot of time with special teams’ details on Tuesday. The first team drill of the day practiced running the field goal team on the field and getting an attempt off before the running clock elapsed. The drill started with the offense running a play and then running off the field while the field goal unit ran in to set up.
While most teams are able to stop the clock, either via a timeout or a spike, before the end of a half or game field goal attempt, circumstances sometimes dictate the need to rush the unit out there while the clock is ticking. Practicing these situations over and over should help prepare the team if the opportunity presents itself in a game.
On a separate drill, the offense worked on the quarterback kneel-down to center the ball for a better-placed field goal attempt. Zechiarah Ramirez continues to be the primary field goal holder for Jack Browning, while Browning holds for backup kicker Gabriel Plascencia.
Special teams coach Doug Deakin and the rest of the staff spent considerable time with the linebackers and tight ends on kickoff return blocking drills. The five primary kick returners during this drill were Raphael Williams, Jr., Josh Nicholson, Brionne Penny, Kenan Christon, and Cam Davis.
- This was the second practice in full pads during spring camp
- During the team’s usual stretching routine, an almost unbearable screeching sound could be heard every few seconds; turns out it came from a whistle held by defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix meant to fire up the players as they prepare to start practice
- A common reminder by Lindley to the offense during team drills: “Communicate! Talk out there!”
- Mayden’s absence gave Kyle Crum reps with the first team, while Liu Aumavae took second-team snaps
- On one play during 11-on-11, Cooper McDonald made contact with Crum and may have said something to him afterward, causing Crum to shove McDonald. It was a play that showed the redshirt freshman’s competitiveness to not allow a veteran to rattle him.
- TEs Logan Tanner and Jay Rudolph spent most of the practice stretching with the athletic trainers and did not participate in any drills; in their absence, Cameron Harpole saw more action and had some good moments in team drills
- The offense spent time running tempo (no-huddle) in 11 personnel, with Mekhi Shaw moving to slot receiver and Josh Nicholson taking his place as an outside receiver
- Walk-on WR Mikey Welsh had one of best catches on the day, a nice one-handed grab during 11-on-11
- Brionne Penny had a couple of receptions during 11-on-11 as well, one on a curl and one on a bubble screen where he broke a tackle for a good gain
- New Mexico transfer LB Cody Moon took some snaps with the first team on Tuesday after being primarily on the second team in the first spring practice; the slender linebacker spoke about wanting to become a better pass rusher and showed off a nice spin move during one-on-one drills to beat the left tackle inside
- LB Trey White splashed on several plays in 11-on-11 drills, including sneaking into the backfield and dropping Canley for a loss on a rush attempt
- New Zealand Williams has undergone an amazing body transformation and now looks like a LB after transferring over from DB after last spring camp; he is tall and big and ran with the second team with Kyron White out
- S Josh Hunter crashed into a fence and appeared to hurt his arm; he was looked at by the trainers and returned to full practice. He had an interception in team drills.
- Texas transfer S JD Coffey III is still learning the signals. On one play during 11-on-11, he was supposed to be in the deep middle of the field but went elsewhere. When he went to the sidelines, Coffey asked safeties coach Kyle Hoke and his teammates about it. He didn’t hide his mistake but used it to learn the right way.
- One-on-one drills between WRs and DBs were fierce, first from the 40-yd line and then from the 5-yd line. For the first drill, cornerbacks coach Demetrius Sumler would call out to the defender what coverage they were in right before the snap, and the DB would need to listen and decide where they should be on the receiver on the fly.
- Dallas Branch played very physically and looked sharp; he jumped a slant inside and beat the WR for an interception at the goalline
- Eric Butler struggled to cover the slot WR across the middle of the field, giving up two touchdowns to Williams, Jr.
- The team ended practice with a situational drill: down 9-7 with 51 seconds remaining, the offense had a 1st and 10 at their own 37 with one timeout left
- 1st team offense moved the ball past midfield but ran out of time and had to throw a hail mary that fell incomplete
- 2nd team offense was unable to move the ball, and a sack by Ryan Henderson on 3rd down thwarted the drive
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.