Two burning questions for SDSU football following scrimmage

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Vai Kaho delivers a blow in SDSU’s scrimmage. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

SDSU held a soft opening of Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday evening as part of their annual Fall Scrimmage before a crowd of season ticket members, students, and players’ families and friends. 

Brady Hoke is all smiles inside Snapdragon. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

As the Aztecs turn to preparation for the opening game against Arizona on September 3rd, here’s a look at two key questions. 

Given the injury to senior wide receiver TJ Sullivan, who starts at the third wide receiver position (H-WR)?

Off of a strong spring performance, senior TJ Sullivan arrived at fall camp listed as the starter at H-WR. While the starters at Z-WR (Jesse Matthews) and X-WR (Tyrell Shavers) were apparent as soon as the 2021 season ended, the battle for H was up in the air at the start of spring camp. Typically, the H in SDSU’s system has been a smaller, shiftier receiver who can be utilized in bubble screens, quick outs, or on jet sweeps lined up from the slot position. BJ Busbee (5’8, 155) and Ethan Dedeaux (5’9, 185) fulfilled that role in 2021.

Jesse Matthews tries to bring in a high pass. Credit: Rashad Griffin

But Sullivan’s performance in the spring elevated him to starter at the position despite not fitting the typical mold to play the position given his 6’0 and 200 lbs. frame. Some felt that Brionne Penny’s highlight-filled three-touchdown performance in the spring game would catapult him to that third starting receiver role, but he was listed as the backup to Shavers at X. 

Sullivan tore his ACL during the second week of fall camp and is out for the season. 

It is evident through scrimmages in the spring and again on Saturday night that the coaches feel Penny’s 6’3 height and skill set are best suited playing on the outside. Penny has responded by catching five touchdowns combined in the spring game and Saturday’s scrimmage.     

Mehki Shaw eludes two defenders. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Sophomore Mekhi Shaw (5’10, 170) played the H position with the first unit on Saturday. Fellow sophomore Darius De Los Reyes (5’9, 170) played the H after the first drive and saw several targets from Will Haskell, including a short out and a bubble screen. He dropped a pass down the middle of the field later in the first half but rebounded by catching an 18-yard touchdown from Liu Aumavae in the second half.   

Redshirt freshman Phillippe Wesley II (6’0, 185) led all receivers with five receptions for 79 yards playing out of the Z position on the outside but flashed an ability to make defenders miss in open space that could be valuable for the H position. 

Phillippe Wesley eludes a defender. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Ultimately, the coaching staff has quality replacements to start at the H position in Shaw, De Los Reyes, and Wesley II. One possibility that EVT writer Paul Garrison proposed during the live streamed scrimmage recap episode was starting Penny on the outside and sliding either Shavers or Matthews (where he projects to play in the NFL) to the slot.  

In 2021, Matthews (6’0, 190) lined up in the slot in 213 out of 655 snaps (33%). But that percentage grew dramatically towards the end of the season when Matthews’s production boomed, including 24, 28, and 31 snaps in the slot in the final three games, respectively (45% of plays lined up in the slot).      

Brionne Penny hauls in a TD pass. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

According to Pro Football Focus (PFF) advanced stats, 56% of Matthews’ targets and 58% of his receptions came between the numbers in 2021, including 16 receptions on 20 targets and two touchdowns with a route depth of fewer than ten yards. While running a route between the numbers does not necessarily assume that the player was lined up in the slot, nor does it preclude outside receivers to run a route inside, it provides evidence of Matthews’ ability to work the middle of the field as well, if not, better than on the outside. 

In contrast, Shavers (6’6, 210) only lined up in the slot for 74 of 478 snaps (15%) in 2021 and saw 39% of his targets and 55% of his receptions between the numbers. 

Given Penny’s ascension and Sullivan’s injury, it could be a viable option to move Matthews to H in order to have the three best wide receivers on the field at the same time.  

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Will the Aztecs start a true freshman on defense for only the fifth time since 2009? 

Prior to the start of last season, only two true freshmen (cornerback Leon McFadden in 2009 and safety Tariq Thompson in 2017) started for the Aztecs on defense since 2009. That number doubled last season after cornerback Noah Avinger, and safety CJ Baskerville started multiple games. 

This year’s Aztecs have six true freshman defenders vying to be the fifth.

Ryan Henderson (96) rushes the passer. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Defensive Line: Listed at 6’3, 260, Ryan Henderson surely has the body to play defensive line in Division I immediately. In limited snaps, he made two spectacular plays during Saturday’s scrimmage, stopping a run for a seven-yard loss and sacking fellow true freshman Liu Aumavae. On the sack, Henderson flew into the backfield so quickly that the referee did not have a chance to blow his whistle before Henderson made contact with Aumavae. With news at the start of fall camp of the departure of defensive linemen Deven Lamp and Pa’a Ewaliko from the team, the opportunity for Henderson grew slightly. With the returning talent of the defensive line and the recent news of redshirt freshman Dom Oliver moving to the unit, it seems Henderson will have to wait until next year for playing time. 

Trey White (47) takes on Drew Azzopardi in SDSU’s Scrimmage. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Linebacker: Trey White also made plays in Saturday’s scrimmage, including a four-yard tackle for loss. The Eastlake High star is expected to become a key contributor to the Aztecs’ future success with his all-around ability, but the linebacker unit is the deepest and most experienced unit on the team, making the possibility of White starting one game this season very unlikely. 

Secondary: Three safeties and one cornerback make up the secondary class of 2022 and provide the best opportunity for becoming a starter. It is not a coincidence that the previous four true freshmen to start all played in the secondary. It is a position that allows talented high school graduates to step in and play without the concern of size or strength being paramount. 

Eric Butler (34) and Chris Johnson (21) enter the field. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Despite the Aztecs having three talented starters at safety to start the season, the depth behind them lacks experience. This opens the door for the three incoming safeties to potentially snag a spot later in the season in the event of an injury to the top three guys. While Josh Hunter, Max Garrison, and Eric Butler have played extensively in the two fall scrimmages to date, Hunter and Butler have received snaps with the second unit and shown why they were so heavily recruited.

Josh Hunter (24) pursues Will Haskell. Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Perhaps the player with the highest odds of starting on defense as a true freshman is cornerback Chris Johnson. He has played with 2nd and 3rd units in the recent scrimmages and held up well. The Aztecs have four cornerbacks competing for the two starting spots. At the moment, Noah Avinger and Dallas Branch look to be the starters, with Noah Tumblin and Dez Malone as the backups. The first three players received extensive playing time last season but battled inconsistency. Avinger and Branch are coming off off-season shoulder surgery. Malone moved over this offseason from safety, and the depth behind them is limited. If the four players mentioned continue to struggle with consistency and contesting 50/50 balls, Johnson can work his way to starter with his preparation and quality in practice.

2 thoughts on “Two burning questions for SDSU football following scrimmage

  1. Look at the TICKET PRICES for a college game…..mountain west at that. No draw whatsoever!! And you have to pay OVER $200 for a decent seat… $200 bucks! Use to pay maybe $40.00 for a good seat. Son went to SDSU, I support the school, BUT I will NEVER pay those stupid prices for a MOUNTAIN WEST game that has ZERO draw to it. Hope those boys like playing in front of a home game with empty pricy seats.

  2. Great article! My one burning unanswered question is what is happening with the investigation from the alleged attack on the underage girl at the off-campus party by Aztec football players? 5 players are still under investigation. Of course justice is most important, but it’s like the elephant in the room no one is taking about. San Diego sports always makes me fear when the rug will be pulled out from under us next.
    But I can’t wait to watch football from our season tix at Snapdragon.

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