At a press conference a week into spring ball last season, Brady Hoke detailed three points of emphasis for the rest of camp.
1. Acclimating the players with the new coaches on the staff.
2. Developing a new senior class into the leaders of the team.
3. Navigating the learning curve with the new offense.
Hoke and his staff never had a chance to work on those keys. SDSU canceled spring camp three days after the press conference. Though the coaches never made any, if ever there was a time where excuses were valid, it was last year.
“I think offensively as much as anything,” Hoke said when asked where missing spring ball last season hurt the team most. “Going through the quarterback battles and that competition. The terminology and learning a new language, offensively.”
Any educator, who has been teaching virtually, will tell you. Communication technologies, like Zoom or Twitter, may allow for the transmission of information, but they are often detrimental to forming relationships. From March until August, SDSU’s coaches may have been able to communicate the playbook, but they were seriously challenged in developing meaningful connections with their players.
As SDSU embarks on spring ball on Tuesday, the keys Hoke laid out last year are no longer a concern. Except for new offensive line coach Mike Goff, the entire staff is returning. Jeff Hecklinski’s second year as the offensive coordinator should allow his side of the ball to be further along compared to this time last year. Even the typical loss of a senior class is severely mitigated with the return of ten seniors from the 2020 team, including one of last year’s Team Captains Dominic Gudino.
While Covid still looms large – as the team’s two-week postponement of spring camp shows – the focus of this season will be more about what takes place on the field and less on the culture and environment a new coaching staff is trying to create. Though re-establishing the foundation is always part of spring camp.
“I learned a hard lesson in 1998,” coach Hoke said, “When we won the National Championship at Michigan in ’97, had three out of the four starters back on the defensive line. The one thing I did poorly, and I learned from it, is I assumed those guys knew the expectations and the standards. … You always go back to the fundamentals and the basics of how we want to play. Making sure everyone understands those standards and those expectations as a football team.”
Spring Camp Position Battles:
San Diego State has more talent on its roster than any team in the West Division of the Mountain West. Yet, three teams went to a bowl last season from the division, but SDSU was not one of them. Half of State’s losses were to division foes Nevada How did teams with less talent throughout the depth chart surpass the Aztecs in 2020? Superior quarterback play.
The game’s evolution has made the quarterback far and away the most important player on the field. It is increasingly more difficult to be an elite team without a dominant signal-caller. SDSU opens Spring Practice with an open competition at the position. The team’s ceiling will be determined by the winner of that competition, reaching his full potential in 2021.
Three players vying for that job – Lucas Johnson, Jordan Brookshire, and Jalen Mayden – are in camp. Johnson and Mayden are the fan favorites, but Brookshire improved dramatically each time he stepped onto the field last season. If none of them are able to establish themselves this spring, true freshman William Haskell could join the competition this summer.
“I have seen a tremendous competitor with all those guys,” Hoke said about the quarterbacks on the roster, “Those three quarterbacks with Brookshire, Lucas (Johnson), and Jalen Mayden, they have all been great competitors in everything that we’ve done. I’m really excited to see this competition unfold during the spring. They have all earned that opportunity. We’re all excited about what they all bring to the table.”
Early Predicted Starter: Lucas Johnson
Comment: The day SDSU announced Johnson’s arrival on campus, they also announced the cancelation of spring football. Now a full year in the program, Johnson should be better from day one in 2021 than he was at any point in 2020.
Jesse Matthews has established himself as a consistent and legitimate performer at the college level. Complimentary receivers around him, however, have proven elusive. How much of that is due to the subpar quarterback play is difficult to tell, but on paper, this position looks poised for a couple of breakout performers to emerge.
Kobe Smith has started two seasons at the position. He has 80 receptions and 926 yards for his career but took a step back in 2020. Elijah Kothe, Isaiah Richardson, Bj Busbee, TJ Sullivan, and Ethan Dedeaux are upperclassmen who have flashed potential at points in their careers. They will be pushed by exciting younger players. Brionne Penny, Ronald Gilliam, and Darius De Los Reyes are underclassmen who have been in the program and are ready to compete for time. Of course, the biggest name coming into spring camp is Tyrell Shavers. The former Alabama and Mississippi wideout brings a size and speed skillset rarely, if ever, seen on the Mesa.
Early Predicted Starter: Kobe Smith
Comment: A two-year starter, Smith will be tough to beat out for the top spot. Keep an eye on Elijah Kothe. Kothe showed good chemistry with Johnson in the latter’s only start of the season.
SDSU has an opening at guard with the graduation of Jacob Capra. Capra started every game last season at the position. There are several veteran options for new coach Mike Goff to choose from. Chris Martinez played in six games last season and started at right guard when Will Dunkle was unable to go. Dominic Gudino has played center and guard in his time on the Mesa. With upper-classmen vying for the position, the Aztecs should be able to find an adequate replacement for Capra.
Early Predicted Starter: Dominic Gudino
Comment: Gudino was expected to be the starting center, but the injury did not allow him to play last year. Alama Uluave took over for Gudino and played well, so look for Uluave to continue at center, and Gudino lined up next to him at guard.
The departure of Kyle Spalding to the NFL leaves a hole at tackle along the offensive line. Originally, it appeared SDSU would need to replace two tackles, but Zachary Thomas returns in 2021 for a second senior year. It will be interesting to see how Thomas is employed. He could be used as the blindside tackle for whoever wins the starting job. If Johnson or Brookshire start, he would play left tackle. If Jalen Mayden is the starter, he would stay on the right side. On the other hand, the open competition at quarterback could make it difficult for Thomas to slide back and forth.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Hoke said if Zach Thomas could play either blindside tackle position. “As we’ve gone through some walk-throughs, as we’ve gone through some individual drills, Zach can do both.”
The heir apparent at the tackle position is Jonathan Harrison from Carlsbad High. He was listed second on the depth chart in 2020 as a true freshman. Desmond Bessent was listed second at right tackle. There are intriguing names throughout the roster. This will be one of the fiercest competitions this spring.
“Having Dom Gudino back is really special.” Hoke said, “Having Zach Thomas back. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated those guys a year ago and their leadership. … I like Uluave and Martinez. Their contributions a year ago. Having that opportunity to gain that experience is important. At the same time, we’re going to have great competition. Des Bessent, Crenshaw Dixon, Jonathan Harrison, Joey Wright, young Capra. All those guys are going to help us become a better football team.”
Early Predicted Starter: Desmond Bessent
Comment: Bessent will be entering his senior season. Age and experience matter, especially on the offensive line. Bessent is 6’7” and should be ready to produce.
As its name suggests, the Aztec position is the key role in the 3-3-5 defense. Until a player steps up and proves he is able to handle the job, Aztec fans should be nervous. SDSU’s defensive front should be elite next season, but the defense needs a player to step into the void created by Dwayne Johnson to once again be among the best in the nation. Lots of exciting players are looking to step up. Patrick McMorris has played in 16 games in his career, including starting against Nevada last year. Segun Olubi played linebacker last season but is listed as an LB/S on the spring roster, which basically describes the Aztec position. Options beyond these two abound. The secondary is filled with upperclassmen who could step into a bigger role this year.
“I think there’s eight starters back defensively,” Hoke said “… we’ve got to replace three pretty good football players. I like the direction we’re going. Again, we’ll have great competition there.”
Early Predicted Starter: Patrick McMorris
Comment: Early last season, when Trenton Thompson was out of the lineup, Cedarious Barfield was inserted to start at corner with Tayler Hawkins sliding over to Warrior safety. Rather than copying a similar formula when Dwayne Johnson was out against Nevada, the coaching staff turned to McMorris, who filled in admirably against the Wolf Pack.
“I would say, ‘Not yet,’” Hoke said in response to the who is leading to replace the departed starters in the secondary. “The only one I would mention is Pat McMorris. He’s a guy that’s really stood out. He started the Nevada game when DJ (Dwayne Johnson) couldn’t, and I really thought he did a nice job, and then, has continued to work hard.”
Tariq Thompson leaves SDSU as one of the most productive players in program history. A four-year starter, replacing all Thompson did on defense, will fall to many players, not just one. There are a lot of talented upper-classmen in positions. Rashad Scott and Allan Mwata were listed second on the depth chart last season at the position. They will be pushed by highly rated recruits throughout the unit.
Early Predicted Starter: Rashad Scott.
Comment: If healthy, this is the time for Scott to make an impact. He has played in 23 games in his career, entering his senior season. Scott has been one of the most inspirational players off the field and is due to become one of the most impactful on it.
“The only one right now off the top of my head,” Hoke said when asked which players were not participating in spring camp, “and we’ll meet with our training staff tomorrow is Rashad Scott. He’s still rehabbing, still coming back. Everyone else seems to be (healthy).”
Darren Hall left early for the NFL because he earned a degree and had little left to prove at the college level. Hall started at corner the past three seasons and was a playmaking force for the Aztecs. On paper, Hall’s replacement is Cedarious Barfield. Barfield started the first three games last season. Barfield will be pushed by Dallas Branch. Branch was a “D Hall” type player at Long Beach City College, causing eight turnovers in his one season there. Keep an eye on Noah Tumblin as an under-the-radar candidate for the job.
Early Prediction: Cedarious Barfield.
Comment: It speaks volumes that Barfield started when Trenton Thompson was injured to start the season. He played well last year and makes an already physical defense even more imposing.
The Aztecs need a new punter this year. Tanner Kulijan was terrific in 2020 after he took over for Matt Araiza. Araiza began the season handling both the kicker and punter duties and is listed as a K/P this year. Jack Browning could push Araiza for the punting job. He showed a big leg for Grossmont Community College.
Early Prediction: Matt Araiza
Comment: Araiza was given a chance to be the kicker and punter last season. If he can prove that punting does not detract from his field goal kicking, Araiza will be able to fill both roles.