Young players tested at SDSU Scrimmage

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

On Saturday, August 13, EVT writers Paul Garrison and Andre Haghvedian attended SDSU football’s practice, which included a scrimmage with a full officiating crew.

The following are responses to several key questions from both, plus additional notes both writers compiled. 

“We tried to give as many snaps as we could (to the younger players) ,” SDSU head coach said when describing the point of the practice. “Want to look and see how they react in tough situations. … we’re going to be young in some depth positions and we’re going to be young up front.”

What were your overall takeaways from the scrimmage?

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Andre: The players were really excited and anxious to put on the pads and hit each other. And they did. The physicality was there from the start. While typically at this stage in camp, the defense is ahead of the offense, the gap was not as wide as it has been in the past for SDSU. That could have been because of transfer QB Braxton Burmeister, who continually made plays out of the pocket when the initial play broke down, or because star safety Patrick McMorris sat out of the scrimmage due to rest and the starting defensive lineman played very few snaps. Either way, the offense is leaps and bounds ahead of where it has been at this same juncture in the prior two years. 

Paul: The scrimmage was very competitive. There was a lot of energy from both sides. Braxton Burmeister jumped out. Chance Bell had a huge run. Brionne Penny made a big play (even if it was called back due to a penalty). Jack Browning was terrific in the kicking game. Defensively, young players throughout the roster saw a lot of time. At its most competitive, the scrimmage was the first team offense of 2022 against the first team defense in 2023 or 2024. 

“I think number one like normal, the defense is ahead of the offense,” Hoke said. “I think that’s true everywhere. I think there were some pretty good signs of life, though, in there with what the offense was doing. I think Braxton, obviously, gives us a lot of juice and does a heck of a job … we just have to keep getting better every time we take the field.”

Who is the one player SDSU cannot afford to lose?

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Andre: The QB is the typical answer to this question for any football team. In this case, however, I am going with the player who holds the ball to start every offensive play, center Alama Uluave. The super senior’s decision to return for one more year is the most important decision for the football team for 2022. This was further evident during Saturday’s scrimmage when the backup centers struggled with poor snaps. Coach Hoke commented after the scrimmage that he and OL coach Mike Goff will be doing additional drills with the centers prior to upcoming practices to get it fixed. Add in the fact that Uluave is responsible for setting the protection for the rest of the offensive line pre-snap, Uluave is the one position on the team where there is no adequate replacement. 

Paul: As Andre pointed out above, the QB is the obvious answer, and for good reason. The gap between Burmeister and the rest of the QBs is noticeable. The Virginia Tech transfer’s confidence is outstanding. He expects to make every play. His touchdown pass to Tyrell Shavers in the scrimmage was NFL quality. Shavers was blanketed by Noah Avinger. Long before Shavers tried to separate, Burmeister lofted the pass and it dropped into Shavers’ hands at the perfect moment. It was an elite play. He is the only QB on the roster who can make that kind of pass. 

Is Will Haskell closer today to Braxton Burmeister or the other freshmen QBs on the team?

Andre: The separation between Burmeister and the other three quarterbacks was very evident during the scrimmage. Therefore, I would say that Haskell is closer to the other freshmen than he is to Burmeister at this point in time. Haskell is the clear-cut backup on the depth chart, taking more snaps and drives during the scrimmage and making enough plays throughout to earn that distinction.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Paul: Burmeister is on a different level than the rest of the QBs. The assumption is that Haskell will be the starter next season almost by default, but that is not the reality of the position. If the season ended today, I would expect the coaching staff to be active in the transfer market.

Liu Aumavae, Kyle Crum, and Haskell are all ahead of the curve as freshmen. Aztec Nation should be excited because when you have three players who have already shown flashes of brilliance, odds are one of them will be the QB of the future. The competition to be that person is a lot closer than fans realize.  

Who is one player who helped themselves at the scrimmage?

Andre: DE Daniel Okpoko started with the first unit with Justus Tavai sitting out the scrimmage and played a large number of snaps throughout. He was consistently around the ball and did not make any glaring mistakes. Coach Hoke specifically mentioned Okpoko in the post-scrimmage interview as someone that has impressed him throughout the first week of fall camp.   

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Paul: RB Chance Bell was given the star treatment at the scrimmage. He only played sparingly but had one of the plays on the day. During fourth down drills, where the offense needs three yards to get the first down, Bell broke off a huge run before being caught from behind by CJ Baskerville. As he has throughout camp, Bell showed again that he can be a difference maker.

Bell’s skill was known before Saturday, of course. Why he helped himself is none of the backs behind him distinguished themselves. Bell accomplished in only a couple of snaps what his teammates were unable to do with many more opportunities. 

“I think number 90, Okpoko,” Hoke said when asked who stood out to him. “Dan, I think, he’s a lot better than he was in the spring and last spring.” 

Who was the best field goal kicker, punter, and kickoff specialist?

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Andre: The best overall kick of the day came from newcomer walk-on Zechariah Ramirez, who punted a ball over 60 yards. I believe that was his only kick attempt of the scrimmage. Jack Browning and David Delgado traded off attempting field goals and point-afters. Newcomer walk-on Jarrett Reeser’s kickoff attempt went out of bounds. Overall, Browning was the most impressive taking into account all three roles. 

Paul: Zechariah Ramirez’s kick was great. Listed at 5’10 150lbs, he looked like one of the football coaches’ children mixed in with the actual players. From our vantage point from the opposite side of the field, he was not visible behind the linemen when he came in to kick. Standing on his own goal line, he blasted a ball 70+ yards in the air. That was the best kick of the afternoon. Jack Browning would win my vote for the best kicker at all three phases. If Saturday is an indication, the kicking game will be fine in 2022.  

Which true freshmen jumped out at you?

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

Andre: All four true freshmen in the secondary played a lot of snaps, but most notable was safety, Eric Butler. At times, Butler lined up with the second unit due to the absences of McMorris and Kyron White. He flashed consistently. Butler has great size (6’1”) that probably gives him the edge early on over fellow freshmen safeties Josh Hunter (5’9”) and Max Garrison (5’10”). On one pass attempt by Haskell into the end zone, Butler got into the passing lane and tipped the ball straight into Jaylen Mayden’s hands for an interception.  

Paul: CB Chris Johnson did a really good job on Saturday. He intercepted Liu Aumavae on a pass near the goal line. Eric Butler and Josh Hunter both played well too. Martin Blake had a touchdown run in red zone drills. 

“He has,” Hoke agreed when asked if Butler has caught the coaching staff’s eye. “He’s a good football player out there. He’s got to keep proving that every time he takes the field, but he’s done a nice job.”

Which player, who is down on the depth chart, that Aztec fans should be excited about?

Andre: OLB Dom Oliver was listed as the 4th SAM linebacker on the post-spring depth chart, but Aztec fans will hear his name called a lot over the next four seasons and likely this season as well. His pass rush ability off the edge is unlike any other current player on the team. Coach Mattix told EVT that they will look to get Oliver snaps in pass-rushing situations that could include him lining up as a DE instead of OLB. He made several plays off the edge during the scrimmage that ended with coach Goff directing unpleasant remarks toward his offensive linemen.  

Paul: TE Gus McGee showed well on Saturday. It seems like he is good for a few receptions every practice. With Jay Rudolph not playing, Aaron Greene was the number two tight end, but it was McGee who was split out wide, catching balls against DBs. There is clearly something he needs to improve upon to earn more time, but all the QBs appear comfortable throwing him the ball. He is a very exciting player. 

This and That …

– Former SDSU Director of Player Personnel, Matt Razzano, was on hand to take in the scrimmage. Razzano left SDSU to embark on a non-sports-related profession earlier this year

– SDSU’s depth was on display Saturday. The scrimmage was high-level football and about ten regulars did not participate fully including TJ Sullivan, Justus and Jonah Tavai, Jay Rudolph, Kyron White, Patrick McMorris, Chance Bell, Michael Shawcroft, Garrett Fountain, and Keshawn Banks. After practice, only Sullivan and White were mentioned as being injured. 

– Former SDSU warrior safety, Tariq Thompson, was also on hand at the scrimmage. The fact that he is not on an NFL training camp roster at the moment seems surprising. “They looked pretty good and if they stay the course, they have a chance to have a great year,” Thompson said of the scrimmage. He added that “a lot of people on defense” stood out to him.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

– The scrimmage was a learning experience for the staff too. GA Daniel Bleske warmed up the WRs. Bleske normally works with the QBs. He did a great job, at one point offering these encouraging words, “young guys, play confident.” Bleske certainty modeled that, stepped up, and coached confidently. 

– There were a lot of penalties called by the officiating crew during the scrimmage; coach Hoke said after the scrimmage that he asked the officials to call a lot of penalties to help the players get better. SDSU had refs out earlier in the week and they hardly threw a flag, which prompted Hoke to make his request. 

– Aaron Greene was the second tight end with Jay Rudolph not playing. Greene provided a physical presence as the H tight end.

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– The play of the scrimmage was mentioned above. It was the touchdown pass from Burmeister to Shavers down the right end zone sideline; the pass beautifully led Shavers to the sideline where only he could catch it. Shavers finished it off with a sliding catch just as he slipped into the end zone. 

– Hometown hero Nicholas Gardinera nearly took a kickoff to the house. SDSU was practicing kickoff coverage so his exploits were concerning for the team, but they reflected very well on him. He showed good patience and vision and broke a tackle before racing down the sideline closest to the parking structure.  

– Safety Kyron White did not play in the scrimmage, nursing a broken finger on his right hand. Coach Hoke noted that he will likely have a brace or cast on it that will allow him to play while the fracture heals.

– With McMorris and White out, redshirt freshman Jatavious MaGee played well at Aztec safety. He ran with the starters and showed good versatility in man and zone coverage while playing strong in the run game. His best play was knocking a perfectly thrown five-yard pass away from Mark Redman. Redman who is five inches taller and forty-five pounds heavier tried to use his body to shield MaGee away, but the young safety got his hand on the pass. 

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

– True freshman and hometown hero LB Trey White made one great play, covering a running back on a flat to the left sideline, he made a big tackle as soon as the back caught the pass. The play drew a large roar from the sideline.

– Brandon Crenshaw Dickson (BCD) started and played strictly at LT during the scrimmage, with Josh Simmons and Jonathan Harrison splitting duties at RT. Coach Hoke would not commit post-scrimmage to it being a permanent move, stating that they are trying to find the right mix of five linemen to have as starters.

– The point of the scrimmage was to get tape on the younger players in game situations, so BCD’s move to LT might not be significant. Saturday could have been more of a try-and-see than where the staff thinks BCD fits best. 

– Noah Avinger and Dallas Branch started at CB with Noah Tumblin and Dez Malone as the primary backups. After practice, Hoke said corner is not a position the staff would like to rotate.

– With TJ Sullivan injured, Darius De Los Reyes took most of the snaps with the first unit in the slot. The limited reps Brionne Penny had with the first team were on the outside in place of Matthews. 

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– It was not OT Zavier Leonard’s best day. On two different occasions, he made a mistake and was yanked out before the next play by coach Goff.

– WR Philippe Wesley made some nice catches, made some defenders miss in space for extra yards after the catch, and caught one ball in traffic before getting hit hard. He held onto the ball and kept the chains moving. 

– Will Haskell throws a great deep ball. He works especially well with Penny, who is best winning 50/50 balls. The duo had a great hookup for what would have been a TD, but a penalty wiped it out. Penny beat Tumblin in the air, shook off the tackle, and scored. The penalty was particularly egregious because it was an illegal man downfield during fourth-down drills. Haskell only had the ball a few seconds before completing the pass so someone clearly lined up wrong. 

– Haskell’s running ability looked elite against the third team but disappeared against the second team, which reflects one of the differences in the defense. Younger players chase ball carriers, better players head them off at the pass. 

– Haskell made an incredible spin move to avoid Vai Kaho on a rush but threw the ball right to Tumblin afterward.  The corner dropped the interception, but it showed the next evolution in Haskell’s game. If he threw the ball away in that situation, his spin move alone saved the team ten yards, and that by itself is a winning play. 

– Haskell’s improvement is subtle but noticeable. On a two-point conversion instead of avoiding the rush by running outside, he climbed the pocket, allowing the receiver to move across the field to a wide-open spot for a conversion. Haskell showed very good pocket presence there. 

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– One of Haskell’s best passes was a slant to Mekhi Shaw after evading the rush. Shaw beat his man from the opposite side of the formation to get open and pick up a significant amount of yards after the catch.

– Haskell also threw a nice slant route early in the scrimmage, but Penny dropped the pass. It probably would have been a TD. In the Spring Game, Penny scored on a very similar play. 

– If Haskell can reduce his turnovers, SDSU will be fine at backup QB. The offense will be different with him at the helm, but he is confident and does some special things that the coaches can build around. 

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

– Darrion Dalton stood out on the defensive line. He made one stop in traffic on third and short. Like a veteran, he put his fist in the air signaling fourth down, and walked back toward his sideline.

– SDSU’s secondary of the future looks fantastic. All the true freshmen looked like they belonged and they clearly understand their assignments. Eric Butler took reps at warrior safety with the second team. Josh Hunter was a sure tackler.

– Only two drives were designed to go the length of the field on Saturday. Both ended in field goals after defensive penalties kept the drive going earlier on. 

– Sheldon Canley showed some escapability. He was met in the backfield and eluded some players on one carry. On another, he made Max Garrison miss in the hole before Hunter finished the play, but only after Canley made a nice gain. 

– A couple of personal fouls kept drives going. One was a facemask on senior Adonis Brown on third and eight. 

– Dominic Oliver has great timing and explosion. He came off the edge, perfectly timed the snap, and completely blew up the running back a second after the handoff. It brought an eruption from the sidelines. Oliver spent most of his time dropping into coverage on Saturday because that is where he needs experience. 

– CB Chris Johnson had an interception off Liu Aumavae. It was a bad decision by Aumavae, but Johnson located the ball and attacked it like a division-one player should. It was an explosive play for a true freshman.

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– Before the scrimmage, the team ran 7-on-7 to warm up. The QBs were 8-9 with most of the throws check downs to the backs and tight ends. The only incompletion was a drop by Redman on the first snap of practice. He followed it up with a terrific leaping catch in traffic on the next play. 

– Jack Browning had a 60+ yard punt. On the play, Josh Nicholson dropped the ball, picked it up, and was met and tackled by long snapper Ryan Wintermeyer.

– All but one field goal attempt was made.   

– TJ Sullivan might be injured, but he still was involved in the practice. He was among the group relaying the plays with hand signals to the offense. It shows his character to help the team in any way he could. 

– The RBs were used in the passing game like never before. They were not always successful but did convert some important plays. If that threat is there, it is one way to stop teams from blitzing the young offensive line. 

– Vai Kaho is too aggressive at times, but when he gets to hit, it is something to watch.

– An example of Alama Uluave’s leadership: on a red zone attempt, Avinger faked like he was going to blitz. Josh Simmons pointed him out. Loudly, Uluave yelled, “he’s not coming, you have 43.” Helping to simplify the game like that is exactly what SDSU needs from their star lineman. 

– Walk-on defensive lineman Dylan Taylor was the first sub in the game. Later, he recorded a sack.

– The offense employed an empty backfield at times with the running back lined up wide.

– Non-football play of the game. Haskell threw an ill-advised slant that Butler tipped into the air at the goal line and Jalen Mayden intercepted. Mayden returned the pass for a pick-six. Haskell would have had a chance to run him down, but the refs blew the play dead to keep the practice moving. Haskell stopped his pursuit. Mayden kept running. Sitting down on the sideline, Burmeister leaped up and showed off his 4.3 speed. He closed the twenty-yard gap with Mayden and made a swipe at the ball as the safety crossed the goal line. Mayden’s muscle memory from his QB days took over as he protected the ball perfectly from the strip. 

– RB Kenan Christon did not have an opportunity to show what he could do in the open field. He was bottled up most of the day. Like all of his teammates, he got work where he needed it. He had trouble running between the tackles. 

– The McDonald brothers played the entire scrimmage. Cooper looks to have cemented himself at the SAM position and Caden played well from the MIKE.

– Lucky Avinger had a tough TD run in the red zone, carrying a few players into the end zone.

– Jesse Matthews had two great catches on the afternoon. He caught a three-and-a-half-yard route on fourth-down drills where the offense had one play to pick up three yards. He caught it in a lot of traffic. Matthews also converted a two-point conversion. He caught a low throw from Burmeister on a screen, turned up, and was laid out by CJ Baskerville as he crossed the goal line. He held onto the football and from his back, signaled TD with outstretched arms to Baskerville. His teammate helped him up, and Matthews gave the young safety a respectful tap on the helmet as they parted. 

– Matthews also played good defense on his own. On the first RPO of the scrimmage, Burmeister missed him on a slant, Matthews did well to get a hand on it and knock it away from the defender. 

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

– LB DJ Herman played well on Saturday, making a pair of tackles for loss. After this second, he pumped his fist, channeling the move Junior Seau made famous. 

– The QBs ran for a few touchdowns, but only one would have likely ended up as scores in the regular season. Still, they clearly still have that option as they move deep into their opponent’s territory. The QB run was one of SDSU’s best red zone plays in 2021. The Aztecs QBs scored seven rushing touchdowns last year. On those attempts, a 22-yard scamper by Jordon Brookshire was the longest run. 

– With so many young players on the field, the coaching staff afforded themselves a luxury they will not have on gamedays. Multiple times their team was set up incorrectly and the staff yelled out from the sidelines to correct it. With thousands of fans in the stands, that will be tougher to do in the season. The scrimmage on the 20th should give them a closer approximation to the real thing. Coaching from the sideline was a terrific teaching tool (it is called scaffolding among educators) for the younger players. 

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