Ten best Aztecs regardless of position

Jalen Mayden (18) evades the rush from Brady Anderson (42). (Don De Mars/EVT)

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Kenan Christon stiff arms Marcus Ratcliffe (Don De Mars/EVT)

Evaluation is the name of the game during SDSU’s fall camp. Every snap, every rep, every second is an opportunity for the coaching staff to learn which players will compete against Ohio on August 26.

The first nine practices are scripted to install the foundations of the offense, defense, and special teams. At the end of these previously planned workouts, head coach Brady Hoke will evaluate his lieutenants’ success as teachers. He and his staff will gauge what their players do well and what needs to be emphasized in the lead-up to the first game.

“We’ll go up tonight, and we’ve got 10-80-10, top ten, middle 80, and bottom 10, and we’ll rank every position and talk about them,” Hoke said after the first practice of fall camp. “That’s an everyday thing.”

The technique of ranking the entire roster and contrasting the top and bottom ten players against the 80 in the middle is a brilliant way to foster competition throughout the roster. Ideally, there would be enough competition among the players inside a particular position group to spur growth for fear of being passed on the depth chart, but this is not always the case.

Garret Fountain competes in a drill during practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Kyle Crum and Liu Aumavae have not realistically threatened Jalen Mayden enough to replace him as the starting quarterback, leaving SDSU’s QB1 without that extrinsic motivation. While Mayden’s intrinsic drive is terrific, comparing him to the best players from all positions provides the extra push that is lacking from the QB room.

SDSU does not make its 10-80-10 list available to the media. When asked for a copy, it refused, citing the volatility of the list. The players at the top of the roster evaluation are so close together that they change order sometimes daily.

In lieu of the staff’s internal ranking, EVT’s SDSU football writers made their own ranking. The success of the 2023 season hinges most on the players below.

10. DE Garret Fountain
2022 Stats: 41 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 fumble recovery

A reserve in 2022, defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix listed Fountain as someone he expects to lead his defense in 2023. SDSU’s top returning defensive lineman has bulked up the past two seasons after switching over from linebacker and now weighs 260 pounds. In practice, Hoke held Fountain up as a model for the rest of the line to follow. “That’s a Garret Fountain rep,” Hoke yelled out more than once last weekend.

9. RB Kenan Christon
2022 Stats: Rushing: 71 carries, 261 yards, 1 touchdown
Receiving: 9 receptions, 207 yards, 2 touchdowns

Health permitting, 2023 will be the year the hometown hero from Madison High School receives the opportunity to actualize his next-level potential. Blessed with game-changing speed, Christon has yet to impact games consistently. Expected to be the lead back for the Aztecs, he will try to prove that he is the featured back, who SDSU needs to give 20-plus touches a game. SDSU plans to utilize Christon as a kickoff returner and as a receiver this season as well.

8. CB Noah Avinger
2022 Stats: 36 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 interception, 3 passes defensed

Avinger has contributed at cornerback since he arrived on campus in 2021. A highly sought-after recruit, he is looking to make the jump from an inconsistent high performer to one of the best corners in the Mountain West. No longer an underclassman, Avinger’s athleticism and the physical maturity that comes with age suggest a breakout year could be ahead for No. 2.

Dez Malone (4) breaks up a pass in practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

7. CB Dez Malone
2022 Stats: 43 tackles, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed

The breakout performer in the secondary in 2022, Mattix wondered before fall camp if Malone coasted towards the end of the year and lost some of the ball-hawking skills that SDSU needs from its corners. Malone transitioned from safety last year and earned honorable mention all-conference honors last year. He has great size, moves well, and if he can couple his physical gifts with the competitive bravado that the best corners possess, Malone should have a great 2023.

6. Ryan Wintermeyer
2022 Stats: 55 successful field goal snaps, 68 successful punt snaps, 6 tackles

Wintermeyer’s prowess as a snapper has approached automatic status. A worry in each of his first two seasons as he assumed new duties, Wintermeyer enters the forgotten phase of his career where all long snappers belong. Special teams coordinator Doug Deakin utilizes Wintermeyer in the punt blocking schemes similar to how the NFL teams use their specialists. If he can find growth in his game during his third year as a starter, a professional career comes into focus.

5. Mark Redman
2022 Stats: 21 receptions, 233 yards, 2 touchdowns

In 2022, Redman earned second-team all-conference honors in his first year with the Aztecs. Blessed with good speed for the position, SDSU is expecting a huge leap in production out of their 6-foot-6 skill player. In offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley’s offense, two tight ends will be featured, and one of them is expected to be Redman. He has all the tools to be the Aztecs leading receiver in 2023.

4. QB Jalen Mayden
2022 Stats: Passing: 141/237 (59.5), 2,030 yards, 12 touchdowns,10 interceptions
Rushing: 69 att., 231 yards, 3 touchdowns

Mayden made honorable mention All-MWC as a QB in 2022 despite starting the season as a defensive back. Invigorated by his play, SDSU won five of his first six starts. In Mayden’s final two contests of the season, he looked like a safety playing QB. Entering 2023, the success of the team rests largely on the shoulders of No. 18.

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3. S Cedarious Barfield
2022 Stats: 49 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 interception, 1 pass defensed

Of all the players on the list, Barfield’s inclusion is arguably the most surprising. A role player to this point in his career, he has turned into the public face of the team. On advertisements and MW media days, Barfield is the player Hoke chose to represent the 2023 squad. Should his season match his offseason training efforts, he will be held up as an example for years to come of what is possible when an Aztec is completely dedicated to his craft.

SDSU is looking to Cade Bennett to anchor the line in 2023. (Don De Mars/EVT)

2. Cade Bennett
2022 Stats: Pro Football Focus Grades: Pass Blocking: 82.4, Run Blocking: 53.5

This week, the Outland trophy named Bennett to its watch list. Given to the best interior linemen on offense or defense, Bennett’s inclusion on the prestigious list signifies his movement from an unknown a year ago to among the top lineman on the west coast. Bennett’s task is to anchor SDSU’s line and revitalize a running game that grew stagnant in 2022 while breaking in two new starters on either side of him. Should he manage that while improving his own play, SDSU’s line would be vastly improved in 2023.

1. Jack Browning
2022 Stats: 20/25 field goals, 30/30 extra points, 68 punts, 46.1 yards punting average

Only one player in the country is on the preseason watch lists for the Ray Guy and the Lou Groza Awards, SDSU’s Jack Browning. He earned his way there with a spectacular 2022. Browning’s success has not gone to his head. He continues to work as hard as anyone on the team. He’s an athlete and excels in the weight room. Regardless of position, he is SDSU’s best player.

Honorable Mention
11. Cooper McDonald
12. Zyrus Fiaseu
13. Mekhi Shaw
14. Ross Ulugalu-Maseuli
15. Dallas Branch

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