THE Aztec…Part III

Credit: SDSU Football

Credit: SDSU Athletics

This is Part III in a series detailing the most unique position in all of football: THE Aztec.

Part I examined the history of the position and the players who made it special.

Part II detailed three of the five characteristics the new Aztec in 2021 must possess to continue the Aztec legacy. I

n this final section, the final two qualities are examined. The article ends with advice for the new Aztec from the players who came before him, Parker Baldwin and Dwayne Johnson

Instinct

Most defensive coordinators, when they want to stop the run, bring in bigger players. When they want to stop the pass, bring in smaller ones. SDSU does not substitute like this. Instead, they use the Aztec in every role. Disguise and confusion do not fully explain why SDSU is more successful using a hybrid player than substituting a between a traditional linebacker on running downs and a defensive back on passing downs. The secret to SDSU’s success lies in the intangible quality the Aztec must possess: instinct.

“You’re looking for guys who have a natural instinct.” Coach Hoke said when asked what the staff is looking for from the Aztec. “You want instinctive football players. Pat McMorris, who started and played against Nevada when DJ had to miss, I really think he has that ability. I think he has that burst. As we go through spring, we’ll identify those guys. Now and then, one of your safeties is a guy who could do a good job. Trenton Thompson and Segun Olubi really have that instinct also.”

“I think the most important attribute for any football player is instincts, and especially so for someone who’s playing Aztec,” Baldwin added. “You don’t necessarily have to be a bigger safety like Dwayne or I. If you have the instincts to play in the box and aren’t afraid of contact, you can do it.”

How does a player smaller than a linebacker take on offensive lineman and tight ends to make tackles in the run game? Instinct. How does a larger player cover faster, quicker receivers in the slot better than a third corner, whose been playing that role his whole life? Instinct.

Credit: SDSU Athletics

For the players competing for the position this spring, this quality will show up in the scrimmages and likely nowhere else. Johnson was a Red and Black Game All-Star from his first snaps because he had ‘it.’  He possesses that God-given instinct to make plays like when he jarred the ball lose to start the rout of UCLA in the Rose Bowl.

Intelligence

The final quality might go without saying. Anyone who has listened to an interview or had the opportunity to speak with Johnson, Baldwin, McGee, and Berhe knows the cutting intelligence these men possess. They speak beyond clichés offering analyses of substantial breadth and depth. On the football field, this allows them to key in on what the offense is doing because they can predict what is coming.

“Another thing that Na’im taught me, whether he knows it or not, was to anticipate better. He was very good at anticipating plays based on formation/personnel. It’s not enough to react. You’ve got to anticipate what the offense is going to do. The best players in the game run multiple scenarios through their head before the play even starts based on what they see out there.”

While the hard work of film study is paramount, intelligence goes beyond merely spending time in the film room. Those who with trained minds see past the unimportant and pick up the keys that can actually be used in the game. During the game, intelligence allows for quick recall of what was studied from a different perspective to be translated into the present. In a matter of seconds, the Aztec must-see, remember, translate, and communicate with his teammates, all without a pause that might make him a moment slower to make the play himself.

The five key characters the Aztec must have is versatility, communication, audacity, instinct, and intelligence. Berhe, McGee, Baldwin, and Johnson had all of these qualities, which made each of their runs as the Aztec special. Can the next Aztecs duplicate their success? Each time the baton was passed to the next player, the pressure of breaking the Aztec legacy existed, but this year’s group has an added unknown. This will be the first Aztec Rocky Long did not choose and develop.

In the race to be the next Aztec, coaches have mentioned five players: Patrick McMorris, Segun Olubi, Trenton Thompson, Kyron White, and New Zealand Williams. It is very possible more than one from the group emerges in the competition, and a committee of players replaces Dwayne Johnson. Whomever it turns out to be, Coach Mattix will build the defense around his strengths.

“The most important thing I learned in one year (as the defensive coordinator) is how personnel-driven this defense is.” Mattix said.

What advice do the former Aztec safeties have for the next Aztec? Johnson was coy about offering specifics because he is still working to properly passing the baton to the next player and has privately given his advice. In short, “Just play: hard, fast, and physical.” Johnson said.


Johnson’s mentor at the position expounded on the same sentiment, “I’d say first and foremost, be you! Know what you’re good at, and play to your strengths. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. And secondly, don’t think just go…guys need to find their balance between making a play and staying within parameters of what their job is supposed to be.”

Summing up his time learning under Baldwin and then stepping into the starting role, Johnson said, “Yes, sir! It worked out well.” Aztec nation is hoping history repeats itself.

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Paul Garrison
My earliest sport's memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.

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