Part two of this three-part piece on The Aztec position and how important it is for SDSU football.
One of the most important positions San Diego State needs to replace in 2021 is The Aztec, a hybrid position between a linebacker, safety, and at times a cornerback.
THE Aztec…Part I detailed the past decade of dominance from this position as Nat Berhe, Na’im McGee, Parker Baldwin, and Dwayne Johnson took successive turns as THE Aztec. What qualities did they possess that the next Aztec will also need to continue the legacy?
There are five key characteristics: versatility, communication, audacity, instinct, and intelligence. Part II of the series examines the first three of these qualities. Part III details the final two and offers parting advice for this year’s group of players working for the honor of being THE Aztec.
The Aztec position is the most unique in football. On one play, the Aztec could blitz the QB from the ‘A Gap’ and on the next could be responsible to keep all eleven players in front of him from the deep middle third of the field. From being a presence in the box to support the run game to covering every skill position player an offense possesses, the Aztec does it all.
“I’d say my favorite part about playing Aztec would be the versatility.” Parker Baldwin, SDSU starting Aztec from 2016 – 2018, said. “I had the opportunity to do it all, cover receivers like a nickel, play in the box like a linebacker, and play in the deep half and deep middle like a free safety. The defense is schemed up for the Aztec to make a ton of plays. Although it’s a lot of pressure, it’s a lot of fun.”
Dwayne Johnson, the Aztec, the past two seasons, agreed. “My favorite part of playing the position was I had the opportunity to play everywhere from the line of scrimmage all the way back.” At his NFL Pro Day, Johnson echoed a similar sentiment. “I don’t know where my future will be in the NFL. Here, I played that role (at SDSU). I played safety. I played outside linebacker. I played nickel (back).”
Whoever emerges from the group vying for the role will need to be able to play all of these areas at an elite level. The 3-3-5 simply is not as dynamic or effective if it has to hide the Aztec in one of these areas.
Employing the Aztec allows the defense to disguise its intentions. Most defenses substitute personnel to match the number and type of skill position players an offense is using. SDSU does not have to do this. When an opposing quarterback sees the same defenders with two tight ends as he does with four wide receivers, it potentially hides the type of coverage he is playing against.
Likewise, blocking schemes are built around properly identifying the middle linebacker. With a versatile player like the Aztec who could also play middle linebacker, it makes it harder for the center or the quarterback to identify the person their blocking schemes are built around. Misaligning the protection can create mismatches for the defense or leave defenders unblocked altogether.
Finally, the Aztec allows a defensive coordinator to win the numbers game when calling blitzes. By being able to hide which part of the formation he is overloading, a defensive coordinator can free a defender to attack the quarterback with no one left to block him. In the middle of this chess match is the Aztec.
“When I came in as a freshman, the secondary at the time was extremely tight,” Baldwin said. “Their communication was off the charts, and that’s something that I struggled with a lot early on. But as the player who plays in the center of the defense, you’re the bridge between the secondary and the linebackers/ defensive line. Na’im (McGee, Aztec 2014 – 2016) was an extremely good communicator.”
The ideal Aztec knows he is the best football player on the field. Nothing that transpires on the field shakes that confidence. When a player depends on instinct, mistakes happen. Yet, to follow up errors with no hesitation, as if the mistake never occurred, is the audacity the Aztec must compete with every snap.
Each of the Aztec safeties during the past decade played with this quality. Nat Berhe’s nickname is “The Missle” because he attacked ball carries with reckless abandon. “Na’im played with a lot of swagger out there,” Baldwin said. “Parker taught me to take my shots as the show. Don’t second guess your moves. When you see it, take the shot.” Johnson said. For the past two seasons, Johnson has been the heart and soul of the team as the defense audaciously pursued perfection.
Coaches at every football level try and teach this quality to their players, even in the NFL. Dan Quinn, the current Dallas Cowboys Defensive Coordinator, called Baldwin into his office early in the preseason during Baldwin’s rookie season with the Atlanta Falcons. “(Quinn) told me I need to stop thinking so much. He was right. Analysis leads to paralysis. He went on to tell me: ‘sometimes you’ve gotta go out there and say forget the play, I’m making something happen.’” To reiterated the point, Quinn showed Baldwin an Ice T video with the audacious name “F!#* It.” (Viewer Discretion is Advised)
Of all the tasks Safeties Coach Kyle Hoke and Defensive Coordinator Kurt Mattix need to accomplish this spring, none is more important than instilling this level of belief in the next Aztec.