The fullbacks at SDSU are the real Aztec Warriors

Nick Bawden leads SDSU onto the field. He was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the 2018 NFL Draft. (Kent Horner/Getty Images)

Spread the love
Chad Young (left) and Dakota Gordon during their time at SDSU. (Credit: Derek Tuskan/SDSU Athletics)

With all due respect to the safeties at SDSU over the years, the true Aztec Warriors during the program’s rise from futility to national prominence were the team’s fullbacks. More than any other position, these players embodied the culture created by Brady Hoke and Rocky Long. Tough, competitive, hard-working, and irreverent, the attitude of these young men spread throughout the program. 

The fullback position at SDSU should be renamed “Aztec Warrior.”

“When I talked to coach Lindley on the phone, he gave me three specific names to watch film on (and said), this is how we want you to play the game,” 2023 FB commit Leo Kemp told EVT on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Football Podcast.  The names were Chad Young, Nick Bawden, and Dakota Gordon. I watched their film, and I absolutely loved their style of play of running downhill, running through people, bringing the hit. I really enjoyed that and seeing that’s what they want me to be.”

Jay Rudolph runs after the catch against San Jose State. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Beginning in 2019, the school went away from the position.  They favored a second tight end playing that position, and while Nolan Givan and Jay Rudolph excelled in the role, it has not been the same. SDSU lost its identity.

Without players like Young, Bawden, and Gordon leading the way, SDSU’s running backs as a whole softened. Since 2019, there has not been an Adam Muema, Walter Kazee, or Chase Price type back who frequently fought for extra yards. The rugby scrums that used to be commonplace for the team, where the ball carrier kept moving his legs long after the initial movement stopped, have all but disappeared.

“For me, I want to make sure (the offensive players) know, ‘you’ve got to hold your water in this thing too,’” SDSU offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley said on Episode 64 of The SDSU Football Podcast. “Don’t just think we’re here to service the defense. You’re here to impose your own will.’ It ain’t just we’ve got to react to what they’re doing. The beauty of offense is you should dictate the tempo.”

Whatever one thinks of the offense that SDSU ran before 2019, it dictated the pace and style of play to the opposition. The Aztecs were the aggressors, pounding the defense into submission and fourth-quarter collapses. In moving to the spread, they hoped to keep this identity while simplifying the reads for the offensive line and quarterbacks. It did not work.

Leo Kemp from Paso Robles High School will be a PWO at SDSU. (Paso Robles Daily News)

Not only did the passing game fail to improve enough to carry the offense, but the Aztecs lost what made it one of the more unique teams in the country. One way to accomplish Lindley’s stated goal to make the defense respond to his offense is to recapture the magic of the fullback at SDSU.

As the spread has taken over the sport, the profile of linebackers has changed. Teams prefer lighter, faster players at the position that can move sideline to sideline to counter the offense’s designs to get their players the ball in space. Without bulk, these athletes are susceptible to a power-running game with a fullback running toward them with a full head of steam. Schematically, it would force the teams on SDSU’s schedule to adjust to the Aztecs.

The 2023 team, in particular, should benefit from a skilled fullback. Jalen Mayden has been at his best in the play-action, and the fullback signals a run to the defense. Mayden has thrived when safeties and linebackers are forced to take their eyes off the Aztecs’ signal caller because of the movement of the offense. Not only did the tactic create clean pockets for him, but he was also able to escape and use his legs because the play-action led to more off-script opportunities with the defense out of position.

“It sounds like they expect from me what they had from a lot of good fullbacks in the past,” Kemp said. “They gave me film to watch on them. How they run through the hole. How they meet people. They don’t catch people. It’s a very physical position, which I love to hear. It’s very versatile; it sounds like. I’m catching the ball out of the backfield, but blocking is a big aspect of it, opening up holes.”

I'd like this amount to  

Mayden’s strength as a passer has been targeting the middle of the field. Those routes take time to develop. Pausing the pass rush and pounding the middle of the line with a fullback should buy time for the receivers to get open. SDSU’s best skill position players complement what Mayden thrives at. Mark Redman is the rare tight end who can legitimately run away from defensive backs. Mekhi Shaw catches passes in traffic with the best wide receivers. Raphael Williams’ speed should play well on crossing routes.

SDSU’s offensive line should also benefit from a blocker to help behind them. In the run game since 2019, unless the line blocked well or the QB made the correct read, the play went nowhere. A skilled fullback can pick up a missed assignment. Prior to 2019, SDSU’s fullback was often the primary running back next to the QB to pick up extra defenders or assist the line in their efforts in pass protection. 

Nick Gardinera has bulked up considerably since arriving on campus. (Don De Mars/EVT)

When the post-spring depth chart came out a few weeks ago, it listed hometown hero Nick Gardinera as the only player at fullback. In practice, the Scripps Ranch High star showed really good hands out of the backfield, competitive blocking, and skillful inside running. He was so skilled the team was able to move Martin Blake to running back. Blake played fullback last year when Jeff Horton utilized it in the second half of the season. 

As the staff looks to revive the position at SDSU, they are making it a priority in recruiting. Fullback is an opportunity for walk-on athletes like Gardinera to contribute. When Lindley decided it would be featured in his offense, Doug Deakin, the area recruiter for the Central Coast of California, immediately reached out to Kemp to offer him a Preferred Walk-On (PWO) position. When Kemp visited SDSU, they were without a running backs coach, but once they hired Jimmy Beal, one of his first calls was to Kemp.

Deakin did a masterful job in identifying Kemp. He profiles as someone who can grow into an Aztec Warrior in the mold of Young, Bawden, and Gordon. Kemp is a multisport athlete at Paso Robles High School. He played H-back in the football team’s Wing-T offense, rushing for over 1,600 yards and 20 touchdowns his senior season. He is a varsity golfer. He also worked his way to being one of the best wrestlers in the State of California before giving up the sport to focus on football.

“Just battle,” Kemp replied when asked what wrestling taught him. “You have no excuses. If you’re put on your back, you can’t blame your coaches or your teammates. That’s on you. Wrestling is just toughness. Who’s going to break, and who’s not going to break. There’s just nothing like it. It’s like fighting, but it’s just so technical. It’s an art form.” 

Leo Kemp after winning a wrestling title. (Credit: Paso Robles Daily News)

Wrestling should translate to what he will be required to do at SDSU. He will be asked to bulldoze into players potentially dozens of times a game. It takes someone who marches to the beat of his own drum to answer that call. Kemp is that person. 

At 13, he began to show cattle. Over the course of a year, he bought, raised, and trained an animal in order to show it on the auction block. Tipping cows is the cliché activity for country folk. Kemp flipped cows, making over $10,000 on one transaction alone.

This endeavor did not get in the way of his pursuit of excellence on the gridiron. Multiple times a week, he trains with Joe Protheroe to improve his speed, flexibility, and strength. Protheroe starred as a fullback in Cal Poly’s triple-option attack and left the school as its all-time leading rusher.

Kemp plans to bring that work ethic to the Mesa in the summer and, along with Gardinera, bring the position back to its former glory. How frequently they will be called upon is still unknown, but the return of the fullback to SDSU is one of the stories to keep an eye on in 2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *