Picked 4th in the Mountain West—Development is the Key as Aztecs Begin Fall Camp

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Win22. It’s been a while since the Sons of Montezuma have updated that battle cry on the football field.

Memories are the back to back Championships of 2015 and 2016. Though 2021 yielded the most wins in program history, the sting of a blowout Championship game loss left an unsavory taste to an otherwise Championship-like season in Carson.

This 2023 San Diego State football team will begin it’s first day—Friday, July 28th—in attempting to climb up the Mountain West Conference and achieve that 22nd Championship.

They are picked to finish 4th in a conference with no more division seperating it’s teams.

On Thursday in the teams official Fall camp report day, the theme of the day was undoubtedly, ‘Development‘.

I think this football team has done a really good job developing in the Summer and the Spring, and obviously we got some more to do … before we play Ohio University August 26.” Head coach Brady Hoke opened up his press conference to the local San Diego media with.

Obviously we want to win championships … we haven’t done that since 2016. So we have a lot of work to do and I’m excited about whats ahead of us.

What’s ahead of them for the season is a favorable schedule featuring 3 of the first 4 games at home, and 4 of the first 6, in front of the friendly crowds at Snapdragon Stadium. The unfavorable aspect of those first 6 is the big time competition they’re up against.

Ohio University right out the gate will be as tough as they come, as all Aztec Nation remembers from the Bobcats 27-0 whoopin put on the Aztecs back in the 2018 Frisco Bowl.

Following up against Idaho State gives a week to be heavy favorites in before four straight giant challenges in UCLA, at Oregon State, Boise State, and at Air Force.

If the Aztecs can’t develop properly from the start in Fall camp, the trek to the top may be more comparable to that of Mt. Shasta than Cowles.

“We made some coaching changes a year ago,” highlights coach Hoke. “I’m excited about those changes. I’m excited about coach Doug Deakin and what he’s done on special teams. From not just a San Diego State standpoint, but you look at who he’s brought in, recruited, and who he’s developed.”

Who he has developed is Mountain West preseason special teams player of the year, Jack Browning. The senior kicker/punter out of West Hills High in Lakeside, CA had a breakout season a year ago, all while replacing Ray Guy Award winner Matt Araiza.

Not an easy task replacing a Punt God—but with Browning being able to lock down all three field goal, punting, and kickoff roles with no drop-off, that not only reflects his own dynamic abilities as an athlete but also validates coach Hoke’s praise of coach Deakin. He truly has made SDSU’s special teams group ‘special’.

Kurt Mattix our defensive coordinator is the best coach I’ve ever coached with and I knew that a long time ago. The way he handles his room, the linebackers, the defense and then his knowledge.” said coach Hoke.

It’s been a seamless transition so far with the signature Aztecs defense that Rocky Long instilled just over a decade ago. Mattix will however have one of his toughest tasks since arriving to San Diego State during a worldwide pandemic changing season.

The Aztecs have lost three of their veteran defensive line starters to graduation (Jonah Tavai, Keshawn Banks and Justus Tavai). Mattix will rely much on senior defensive lineman Daniel Okpoko, Wyatt Draeger, Oklahoma transfer Samuela Tuihalamaka and Garret Fountain.

Working his way up the ranks Fountain has learned much from his predecessors. His commitment to the process and his standout strength has made him primed for a breakout season. As noted by Hoke, when Garret is in the game, he just makes plays.

Cooper McDonald, Kyron White and Vai Kaho are the only seniors leading a deep and tough linebacking core. Some young guns to be excited about—Brady Anderson, Zyrus Fiaseu and New Mexico transfer Cody Moon each bring a different skill set to go with superb athleticism.

The back end of the secondary might be the most experienced of all led by senior safeties Cedarious Barfield, Devaughn Celestine and senior corners Noah Tumblin and Dallas Branch.

Overall, there are five returning starters on defense and seven on offense.

I’m really excited about Ryan Lindley. This will be Ryan’s offense so it will be a little different from what you saw last year.” coach Hoke spoke on his former quarterback back in his first stint on the Montezuma Mesa.

When you coach guys and then now you’re working with them and you hire them, they’re like your sons. From what he did since I was the head coach here in 2009-10 and how he’s gone out and blossomed—his knowledge of the game and what he’s doing, I think he’s done an excellent job.

Coach Hoke focused not only on each coordinator’s high football IQ, but their relationships with their players. That ability to form relationships plays a big hand in their development and fundamentals in their players under their respective groups.

Development and fundamentals is how we want to play the game.

In terms of leadership from the players, the focus turns to QB1 Jalen Mayden.

I think he’s better, I think he’s different, I think he knows the offense. I like his development that he’s had so far.” coach Hoke spoke on his starting quarterback. “The one thing I’ve kind of told him he’s got to be more decisive and be a little bit more confident in what you’re doing.

Confidence and decisiveness in and out of the pocket was something that jumped off the screen with Jalen Mayden when brought in last season in a desperate situation.

Though impressive performances made the headlines, overall there was still room for a lot of improvement. The season ended poorly with blowout losses to Air Force and a disappointing downturn against Middle Tennessee State.

I’ve never played quarterback, but I just think he’s got to not be afraid to make a mistake. No one’s played a perfect game. Ryan Lindley is the all-time leading passer here. He made some mistakes. I think it’s gonna be a good year.

With a full off season under his belt, not without some hiccups in a difficult Spring game performance, Mayden will need to command this new look offense and get the many playmakers involved early. The focus will be more about re-establishing a run game that was uncharacteristically inconsistent all of last season.

How good the running back room has been. Kenan’s (Christon) leadership has been 2nd to none. We’re really excited about him. I think the physicalness that I think he gained a little bit because what he’s done body wise and in the weight room.

Kenan Christon runs for a touchdown in Hawaii Bowl

Last season’s log-jam at the running back position left few opportunities for Christon’s dynamic play making ability to fully shine. That should not be the case this season as the feature back in a 1-2 punch and kickoff return specialist.

But that should not take away from the depth of this group. It’s a war of attrition when it comes to the backfield and new RB coach Jimmy Beale has some studs.

When talking about current guys taking the next level,” Coach Hoke detailed, “We’ve got a good room. I think there’s some guys who need some development. You know Armstead, I think Jaylon, he’s the guy if you’re talking about the next level. I think Kenan, Martin Blake he’s a walk on—he’s well respected in that locker room and he can be physical at the point of attack. How you get them all on the field, well that’s our job.

And that will be the delicate balance for coach Lindley. How to reinvigorate the run game but also install healthy passing game concepts that can get the ball to the playmakers in space when the defense stacks up on the run.

We’re gonna be more like Utah. How they play personnel wise. If you look at our roster we got some tight ends on our roster. We got them there for a reason.

Mark Redman, Jay Rudolph, Dez Melton provide the senior leadership, while Logan Tanner, Cameron Harpole, and JC transfer Max Difilippo round out the versatile group.

Wide receiver may be the biggest unknown of all. Back is breakout pass catcher Mekhi Shaw. But Aztec Nation wants to see more from Brionne Penny and Josh Nicholson.

6’2″ freshman out of Pasadena Baylin Brooks has been receiving praise in the off season, and it will be fascinating to see if by week 0 Western Carolina transfer Raphael Williams Jr.’s highlight tapes can match his performance in the red & black this season.

With so many questions in the air for the receivers, one thing’s for sure, the games are won and lost in the trenches. This team will only go as far as the offensive line will allow.

Gone is the anchor center from last year Alama Uluave, and redshirt freshman Josh Simmons transferred to Ohio State. The line is now young in those spots and the only senior is Brandon Crenshaw Dickson. The preseason accolades have been making their way towards Cade Bennett and with another season to hopefully improve in with no injuries, Ross Ulugala-Maseuli should share in on some of those recognitions next pre-season.

With so many questions that can only be answered come August 26 vs Ohio, there is one oath made by coach Hoke that stands out for this new look Aztecs:

We’re gonna do what our guys do best, not what we think in our mind will do best. It’s about what the players can do and the players know, not about what we know and we can do.

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