San Diego State held a scrimmage on Saturday. It was the first dress rehearsal of fall camp as the Aztecs prepare for their August 26 clash with Ohio. Held on the practice field behind Parking Structure 7 with a full complement of referees, the defense dominated all afternoon.
Led by a quartet of young safeties, SDSU’s defense actually outscored the offense 9-3 before Jalen Mayden and company scored touchdowns during red zone drills.
Warrior safety Josh Hunter had the play of the game. Quarterback Kyle Crum took a quick three-step drop and fired a short pass to the outside. Hunter read the play, jumped the route, and returned the interception.
As they would on every turnover, the refs blew the play dead. When they did, Dallas Branch was in front of Hunter with Crum the only offensive player between them and the goal line. Despite the whistles, Hunter ran in for the score and was mobbed by his teammates. It was the only touchdown on the afternoon before the red zone drills at the end of practice.
Hunter’s interception was one of numerous plays made by the underclassmen in the safety room. Marcus Ratcliffe started at aztec safety and was fantastic. Tall, fast, and with good instincts, he leveled Mekhi Shaw on a short reception as soon as the receiver caught the pass. Ratcliffe sprinted from the middle of the field to the sideline and put his shoulder into Shaw’s chest for the explosive tackle.
Later in the scrimmage, Jalen Mayden missed Shaw on a shallow crossing route. The throw sailed high, and Ratcliffe intercepted the pass.
Eric Butler spent some time with the starters, with Cedarious Barfield only playing limited snaps. He was an imposing presence blowing up ball carriers in run and pass defense. Max Garrison, likewise, made some sudden, downhill stops that quickly ended potential positive possessions for the offense.
While defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix came off the field in much better spirits than his counterpart, offensive coordinator Ryan Lindley, he has a very difficult job for the rest of camp. He needs to figure out ways to get Butler and Hunter on the field while Ratcliffe and Garrison figure to split time at aztec.
Analyzing Mayden’s Day
SDSU head coach Brady Hoke simulated different situations that he wanted his team to master before the season. The scrimmage had a similar structure to iterations in the past. In the first quarter, the offense started with the ball on its own 35. The second part, they took it from their own one. After a break, they switched sides and competed in multiple series that started just outside of the red zone before finishing with a segment that began first and goal from the five.
Throughout, all six QBs on the roster saw action. Though Mayden received the most work, he hardly had time to develop a rhythm or face the momentum swings that occur in every game. Evaluating his performance was further challenged by the fact that he was wearing a green jersey and was not allowed to improvise as effectively as he is capable of.
In this context, Mayden’s afternoon could be characterized as solid before falling off later. His first possession stalled after three plays when the offense failed to convert a third and one. Hoke gave the first-team offense another set of downs, and Mayden responded by converting a pair of first downs and driving the ball into the defense’s territory. Ultimately, the drive ended with a severely missed 52-yard field goal by Jack Browning.
Mayden’s final drive in the opening quarter led to a 58-yard attempt by Browning. Hoke chose to kick from that distance so the special teams could practice covering a field goal. Predictably, the attempt fell short, and starting CB Chris Johnson caught the ball in the back of the end zone. He returned it and was met by snapper Ryan Wintermeyer at the one.
During these drives, the offense competed with the defense and looked competent. Mayden avoided the big mistakes that plague him at times. He was effective as a runner, surveyed the field, found open receivers, or threw the ball away when he needed to.
Unfortunately, the error-free football did not continue. In addition to the interception mentioned above by Ratcliffe, Mayden threw an inexcusable pick backed up in his own endzone. The drill’s design is to teach the offense how to get one first down when it has the ball at its own one. With Mayden at the helm, the offense moved the chains on three of four attempts.
On the one miss, Mayden threw a gift to starting LB Vai Kaho. Mayden locked on his tight end, who was double covered. The only Aztec who had a chance to catch the ball was Kaho. It rivaled Crum’s pick-six as the worst pass of the day.
Unlike previous years, Mayden did not use the pocket well on Saturday. He kept multiple plays alive with his feet, but he was often moving backward or toward the sideline instead of moving up in the pocket. He had a rep late in the game, where he stepped up to avoid the rush and found Cam Harpole near the goal line.
How Mayden navigates the pocket is going to be a key for him this year.
The Tightest Tight Ends in the Mountain West
Mayden’s day was decidedly more difficult because Hoke chose not to use the team’s best receiver, Mark Redman. Redman was suited up and competed in seven-on-seven warmups and some special teams, but not during the live portion. Even with his absence, the depth of the tight end room was evident.
Harpole and Jay Rudolph started. They were spelled by Logan Tanner and Dez Melton, respectively. Max Difilippo and Hudson Mitchell also saw action. No matter who competed, they were the center of an offense that frequently used multiple TEs in its attack.
In addition to Harpole’s reception, Rudolph had a catch that went for a first down. Tanner arguably has the best hands in the group, and he made strides in the scrimmage.
On his first of at least two receptions, he had a pair of defenders hanging on him. He still made the catch, using only his hands to bring the ball in. Unfortunately, he made a freshman mistake and fought for extra yards.
With all the traffic around him, he was not able to bring the ball to his body. He absorbed the third defender’s blow, but the fourth jarred the ball loose, and the defense recovered. If he had just gone down immediately, the reception would have been a positive for the offense.
Later in the game, Tanner showed he learned from the mistake. With possession at their own one, Crum threw a 15-yard pass down the middle to Tanner. He threw his TE open, and Tanner had the skill and athleticism to turn and make the grab. He secured the ball with two hands and went to the ground, content to have won the possession.
Not only does every TE have the ability to catch, but they also were strong at the point of attack. There are players throughout the conference who would compete for time on the two-deep at SDSU, but it is hard to imagine a room with as much depth as the Aztecs possess.
Winning in the Trenches
Heading into 2023, SDSU has questions on the offensive and defensive lines. With both groups an unknown, it is challenging to gauge their effectiveness because they are playing against each other. It is possible both struggle in the regular season and only look competent now because both units are subpar. Judging by what took place on Saturday; however, the lines will not be major weaknesses.
Starting DE Garrett Fountain injured his right arm on Wednesday and was wearing a sling on Saturday. During the scrimmage, he was stretching the injured arm under the guidance of the athletic trainers. With him out, Ryan Henderson started alongside Wyatt Draeger and Tupu Alualu. They provided strength at the point of attack, made a few plays in the backfield, and competed well against their first-team counterparts.
On the offensive side of the ball, LT Christian Jones and RT Drew Azzopardi started alongside RG Dean Abdullah, LG Cade Bennett, and C Ross Ulugalu-Masueli. Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson (BCD) also played with the starters. BCD rotated mostly with Jones at left tackle but also had one series at right tackle in place of Azzopardi. When BCD played with the second unit, he competed at left tackle.
The first team did not dominate at any point, but they gave as much as they got. They converted in the short-yardage game, provided some good pockets, and opened holes for the backs. Their outcomes were a mixed bag, but nothing out of the ordinary for most units.
Depth is where the defensive line had a decided edge. Walk-on Keion Mitchell dominated the second team during the reps he received. He played next to NT Darrion Daulton and DE Brady Nassar. The second unit offensive line of RT Joey Wright, RG Myles Murao, C Tommy Mirabella, LG Tiger Yu, and BCD were overmatched.
The difference for the offensive line is catastrophe would have to strike for that second unit to play together. Whoever does not start at tackle will provide excellent depth in the event of an injury. Similarly, Murao had limited reps with the first team and provides a capable backup at either guard. Mirabella or Abdullah can be solid centers if needed.
With the caveat that the true test will come against Ohio on August 26, it appears the worst fears for SDSU’s front have not come true. While it is unclear just how good they can be, they should be competitive.
- Redman was not the only absence. CB Dez Malone and LB Zyrus Fiaseau were also held out. There were no interviews postgame, but the assumption is the trio did not play because they are SDSU’s best players.
- Kyron White was also missing from the practice, but not for the same reason as those above. Clarity on White’s situation could come as soon as Monday.
- In Malone’s place, Johnson and Branch started at corner. They were spelled by Noah Avinger and Noah Tumblin.
- Crum looks more advanced as the backup QB compared to Liu Aumavae. Aumavae still has the look of a young signal caller, who the game has not slowed down for yet.
- Crum had some nice moments including a very nice ball to Brionne Penny on 3rd and 8 that went for 25 yards.
- The offensive play of the day was a screen pass to Martin Blake from Tobin O’Dell. It went for 50 yards.
- Blake continues to make plays. Statistically, he would have easily been the best running back. It will be interesting to see if he can get a chance in a real game. He always produces in scrimmages.
- Kenan Christon had a nice afternoon. His touches were limited, but he caught the ball, ran inside, and made guys miss. He looks to be pushing for featured-back status.
- Cam Davis backed up Christon, but Jaylon Armstead moved above him after Davis fumbled.
- Warrior safety JD Coffey got called for targeting against WR Pierce Brown. It was one of multiple times Coffey laid the lumber.
- Javance Johnson looked like someone in his first scrimmage. He wore a green jersey for the first time in camp. On the afternoon, he had one good run on a bootleg. When he dropped back, he did not pass the ball but scrambled or was sacked. He only threw one pass. That was a deep ball that sailed past the intended receiver. S Jatavious Magee laid out for a great interception.
- Johnson was the 5th QB and was not decidedly better than O’Dell, the sixth signal caller. In fact, on the screen to Martin, Johnson was replaced mid-drive for missing too many reads. O’Dell’s first snap led to the big play.
- Technically, the offense did not have any points outside the red zone drills. Following Martin’s screen, O’Dell had three reps from the five to get a score. The offense did not convert. Rather than attempt a field goal on fourth down from the two, Hoke elected to save time and let the first team start a new drive back at the 35.
- Crum gifted the defense a safety. He dropped a handoff in the endzone, and a running back jumped on it.
- Lindley laid into the QBs at the Gatorade break. He was rightfully upset with the rash of turnovers his unit had.
- According to NCAA guidelines, players, who are coming back from injury, need to have a few non-contact practices under their belts before being allowed to play in contact periods. WR Baylin Brooks was working out with the WRs, but could not play. WR Josh Nicholson was not in a walking boot, but he was limping around. DE Daniel Okpoko was in pads but did not play. Raphael Williams worked out on the side with the athletic trainers.
- DE Kenneth Jiles was in uniform for his first practice. He went through some drills without pads on.
- CB Sam Dunnell looks even bigger with pads. He worked with the CBs in drills but did not play.
- WR Tyson Berry has improved a lot since the start of camp. An RB in high school, he did not catch the ball smoothly during the first practices but looked like a wideout on Saturday.
- Penny continues to make plays while leaving others on the field. His effort on a deep ball from Aumavae was suspect. He also allowed Johnson to knock down a pass because he did not properly shield the CB from the ball. He was also open more than any other WR and would have led the unit in yards.
- Darius Hyde caught a TD during red zone drills.
- Nicholas Gardinera had a nice TD run but did not look ready to block as a fullback.
- Before practice, Mattix blew a whistle repeatedly. The sound of it is hard to describe. One of the refs described it as a pterodactyl swooping to attack its prey.
- Fourth-string NT Jaliel Jackson had a sack. He is short but stout. He has the look of former stalwart Jerome Haywood.
- Walk-on Joseph Hall had a TFL and a sack in two of three consecutive snaps. When he made the sack, he gave a salute. Hall spent time in the Marines before coming to SDSU.
- In the sequences, Hall was so effective he forced an offensive line substitution.
- Jordan Napier had an interception.
- Armstead has some wiggle for a man his size. He made Coffey miss in the hole and finished with a nice gain on one run.
- Overall, the running backs caught the ball significantly better than in years past.
- Brady Anderson continues to impress. Anderson had a sack and stopped a third and short. He backed up Cody Moon.
- SDSU’s next scrimmage is the annual Fanfest next Saturday.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.