Wanted: The Stud

Josh Hunter intercepts a pass. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU’s cornerbacks move through drills at practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

Aztec (AZ) safety, the namesake position of SDSU’s defense since former head coach and defensive coordinator Rocky Long was hired in 2009, is no more.

For over two decades, the AZ was synonymous with the 3-3-5 defense. Terrific players like Nat Berhe, Parker Baldwin, Dwayne Johnson, and Patrick McMorris struck fear into opponents as hybrid safeties/linebackers. Their versatility allowed SDSU’s defense to dominate.

Football is an ever-evolving game. The inflection points for the clashes between offenses and defense have changed since Long first brought his style to The Mesa. The spread and quick passing game negated frequent blitzing, while the universal prevalence of the RPO made tackling in space more important than bringing a ball carrier down in a phone booth. These dynamics made the AZ less consequential.

McMorris’ tenure at the position in 2021 and 2022 offers an illuminating example. As a junior, the Santa Ana native burst onto the scene as a first-year starter. He led arguably the most talented defense in school history with 90 tackles and four interceptions.

Expectations for his senior season were astronomical, but McMorris took a step back. His assumed NFL departure had to wait another year. He had 61 tackles and only one interception in 2022.

Eric Butler (34) competes with Xavier Hamlet (40) in a drill during practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

In reality, McMorris’ play did not drop off that much. Teams schemed away from him because they successfully attacked SDSU’s boundary warrior safety (BW) from the slot.

In 2021, Trenton Thompson played that role masterfully, leading the team with 15 pass breakups. After Thompson’s graduation, BW was a revolving door in 2022. McMorris’ experience shows how the former marquee position at SDSU lost significance.

Better reflecting where games are won and lost, new defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt’s 4-2-5 scheme emphasizes a different hybrid defender. SDSU is now looking for a “stud.” The position is aptly named because this defender will match up in the slot with an offense’s best playmaker. The moniker captures the moxie needed to embrace that challenge.

“We call him the stud here,” Schmidt said on an upcoming episode of The SDSU Podcast. “We typically put him on the (wide side of the) field. He’s one of our better cover guys. That guy, we think, needs to be a good blitzer, so he needs to be able to go forward as well as he can go back. He’s got to be an elite cover guy…for what we’re doing with him in the slot.”

Schmidt’s stud is a corner/safety who will be counted on to make plays all over the field. In every game, he could blitz off the edge, cover in man-to-man and zone defenses, support the run game, and work as a deep safety. Key to every defense is changing the look it gives an offense, and the stud’s versatility makes that possible. Schmidt said he will use the stud interchangeably at times with the boundary safety to hide his intentions.

“The stud to some people in some systems is similar to a nickel corner, but they are flexible,” safeties coach C.J. McGorisk said on a separate, future episode of The SDSU Podcast. “Those guys could come from (CB) coach (Demetrius) Sumler’s room. They could come from my room. They’re going to be a little different (from other safeties), maybe a little more coverability in that sense to play that position because you’re going to be on the slot a fair amount. Where it differs maybe a little less is with the run fit with our free and our rover (safeties).”

McGorsik also mentioned that against teams that run jumbo formations, the staff might sub in a bigger stud to help in the run game. Expect to see this variation against Wyoming and Air Force at a minimum.

Below are seven Aztecs who could prove to be the stud SDSU needs. They are mentioned in alphabetical order.

William Nimmo’s size could be an asset for the Aztecs. (Don De Mars/EVT)

CB Tayvion Beasley (5-foot-11, 170 lbs)

Beasley sat out last season after transferring from Colorado. In 2022, he played for Deion Sanders at Jackson State. He fits the profile of a more traditional nickel corner who could cover smaller, quicker slot wideouts. At JSU, he played corner inside.

His first career interception against Florida A&M came as Beasley dropped into a short zone, raced to the sideline while the pass was in the air, and when the WR bobbled the reception, was in position to make the play. Beasley is unknown as a tackler. If he excels there, he could be the stud.

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S Eric Butler (6-foot-1, 190 lbs)

In 2023, Butler flashed potential as an impact performer. Even with limited opportunities, he blocked punts, recorded key tackles for loss, and gave the defense a physical presence it needed. Now an upperclassman, Butler’s trajectory suggests 2024 could be an impact year.

In high school, he starred as a cornerback for national power Centennial High. If his cover skills re-emerge, he could be an ideal stud. It remains to be seen if he has quick enough hips to handle smaller, quicker receivers inside.

S Josh Hunter (5-foot-9, 180 lbs)

SDSU’s staff had trouble encapsulating the stud because a key of the position is the intangibles that player brings to the field. Josh Hunter’s feel for the game is terrific. He is a football player.

By the end of last year, he was the team’s best tackler. There is no question he could fill that role this season. His cover skills are the question. Can he blanket wide receivers well enough to be trusted as the stud?

Chris Johnson steps in front of a pass at practice. (Don De Mars/EVT)

CB Chris Johnson ( 6-foot, 180 lbs)

The best DB on the team, regardless of position, could be Chris Johnson. The talented SoCal athlete improbably worked himself into the rotation the past two seasons. His emergence likely hastened the transfers of Dallas Branch and Noah Avinger.

In spurts, Johnson has shown the physicality needed to help in run support while also showing terrific cover skills. Johnson has earned rave reviews this spring and has made plays, including recording a pick-six in the team’s scrimmage on March 23. Trained to work outside, a concern would be if Johnson’s techniques can translate to the slot.

S Deshawn McCuin (6-foot, 195)

McCuin has impressed the staff this offseason. He might be the best athlete on the team, looks lean and fast, and competes with swagger.

In 2023, McCuin filled the BW role for the Aztecs with mixed results. His pick-six against Hawai’i proved to be a difference-maker in a close game. He also had trouble in coverage at times. There is no denying his talent. Could 2024 be the year it all comes together for him?

S William Nimmo (6-foot-1, 200)

Nimmo’s size stands out. The UCLA transfer is bigger than his reputation as a cover safety suggests. He would add bulk to the back end. With the Bruins, he filled a similar role to the stud in limited playing time.

The biggest question mark is why he did not see the field more in Westwood. He stepped onto campus in 2019 and only started one game. The drop-off between the Pac-12 and SDSU is not steep enough to expect him to land the job.

DB Bennett Walker (6-foot, 190 lbs)

The only player on SDSU’s roster listed as a “DB” instead of CB or S might be a tell of how the staff envisioned him when they recruited Walker. He played a pair of seasons at nearby San Diego Mesa College after graduating from Patrick Henry.

On his JUCO film, he displayed many of the traits needed to play stud. He blitzed off the corner, covered on crossing routes, and was a willing tackler. After Mesa, he played one year at Eastern Michigan and had three interceptions. Bennett’s competed as an outside corner and how well he can cover the slot is unknown.

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