Stage One of building or rebuilding a football program:
1. Bring in players who fit your system.
2. Experience growing pains while either your players are young or the last system's players adapt to a new style (if, indeed, there is a new style to which to adapt).
3. When your players are experienced, say, in Year Two, Three or Four, you win some games.
Unless you are either coaching at a school that has historically brought in loads of blue-chip, quick-impact recruits, or unless you are one of the rare coaches capable of bringing in recruits of higher caliber than your program (and conference) are accustomed to seeing, you are all but guaranteed to have to follow these three steps. Maybe you get lucky and find more talent in the cupboard than you anticipated, and maybe things gel quickly. But regardless, when the first round of difference-makers heads for the door, they have to be replaced.
Stage Two of building or rebuilding a football program:
4. Bring in a new batch of players to succeed the ones who just left and hope they are good enough to continue the momentum they built.
Needless to say, quite a few more coaches have succeeded in Steps 1-3 than they have in Step 4. San Diego State head coach Rocky Long entered Stage Two this spring, gearing up for what he hopes is a reloading process. An incredible running back (Ronnie Hillman), a longtime starting quarterback (Ryan Lindley), a majority of the offensive line (four of seven players with starting experience), all three starting defensive linemen, the leading tackler at linebacker, the leading tackler in the secondary, and even a great punter all either finished their eligibility or left early for the NFL this winter. And now we find out how strong the bones of Long's program (a lot of which he inherited from program building predecessor Brady Hoke a little over a year ago) really are.
Almost all of last year's second string returns, and quite a few interesting redshirt freshmen (and a couple of high-profile transfers) enter the rotation this fall. But after Stage One set a high bar (SDSU attended back-to-back bowl games for the first time in its history in 2010-11), Stage Two now begins. And the start was rather inauspicious; injuries decimated the two-deep this spring, and the spring game took place in what was apparently something between a hail storm and winter weather.
According to Long, it was "pretty bad." Hopefully he doesn't believe in omens.
The Aztecs will be running Long's 3-3-5 for the third season this fall, and in theory, the offense could thrive simply because of the presence of a good quarterback (Ryan Lindley) and a potentially great running back (Ronnie Hillman ... shudder). I do not know what SDSU's long-term prognosis may be with Long (after all, he did not exactly leave New Mexico in good shape upon his departure), but this strikes me as a short-term hire, and in the short-term, this could work out well. That is, as long as an incredibly inexperienced receiving corps doesn't drag them down. Their leading returning wide receiver has exactly four more career catches than I do. […]
There is quite a bit to like about this team -- Lindley, Hillman, an experienced offensive line, options at linebacker, deep(ish) secondary -- but the two holes are glaring. It isn't hard to assume a drastic dropoff in the receiving corps, and the defensive line is alarmingly thin. The schedule is built in with six likely wins -- Cal Poly, at Army, Washington State, Wyoming, New Mexico, at Colorado State -- and another bowl bid is likely (95%, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011), but because of these extreme weaknesses, it is difficult to gauge their ceiling.
Rocky Long has built a strong track record through his career (among other things, he is the winningest coach in New Mexico history), and under his leadership it is rather likely that, at least in the short-term, the upward momentum Brady Hoke built should at worst plateau. Despite being located in a relatively fertile recruiting area, San Diego State has never been to back-to-back bowl games, but that should change in 2011. Whether Long can sustain this newfound power over the long haul, we'll see. But then, two years is pretty "long haul" when it comes to SDSU's football history.
In the short-term, Long was indeed a strong hire as Hoke's replacement. His first Aztecs squad did regress a bit from its 2010 form, but that was almost to be expected. The receiving corps was completely decimated with the losses of DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown, and the receiving corps indeed slipped from 24th in Passing S&P+ to 89th. The defense, however, did improve a bit, and as a result, the Aztecs' record slipped only from 9-4 to 8-5. The offense improved slightly as the season progressed (from 26.5 Adj. Points per game in the first five contests, to 27.5 in the next four, to 28.9 in the final four), and SDSU took advantage of a relatively easy schedule. In the last two years, they have now won one fewer game than they had in the previous five combined, and they have been to as many bowl games as they attended between 1987 and 2009. It did not take Brady Hoke and Rocky Long a long time to rebuild this program, and the swiftness of the surge got them a Big East invitation. But now another rebuilding effort must take place.
Technically speaking, San Diego State returns six starters from last year's offense, certainly not a terrifying total. Conference mate Boise State, after all, returns just four. Still … when your five starters lost include your most explosive player since Marshall Faulk (Hillman), a quarterback who has started more games for you than anyone in your history (Lindley), and an all-conference left tackle (Tommie Draheim), suddenly six begins to seem miniscule. And if not for a couple of well-timed transfers, it would be pretty easy to predict overall offensive collapse for the Aztecs.
Transfer No. 1: quarterback Ryan Katz. Oregon State's starting quarterback in 2010, Katz was injured and "Wally Pipp'd" by Sean Mannion in Corvallis last fall. Having already graduated, he announced his intent to transfer to SDSU in January, and he will be eligible immediately. Playing in the aforementioned horrific spring game weather, he completed just five of 23 passes in the Aztecs' final scrimmage, but he played reasonably well for Oregon State in 2010 (aside from his propensity for taking sacks), and he proved more capable than any of SDSU's Lindley replacement candidates this spring.
Transfer No. 2: receiver Brice Butler. The No. 79 overall player in the 2008 recruiting class, the Georgian signed with USC and caught 20 passes for 292 yards in an intriguing freshman season. But his looks were marginalized in two seasons under Lane Kiffin; he caught just 21 passes in 2010-11. He also announced his transfer to SDSU, and, having also graduated, he too will be eligible immediately. Butler was one of SDSU's best playmakers this spring despite playing with a torn labrum, and while his chances were minimal as a Trojan, he still produced a decent stat line: a career 62-percent catch rate and 8.4 yards per target.
So the quarterback situation might not be a complete disaster. And with the addition of Butler and the return of productive tight end Gavin Escobar and last year's top two wideouts (Colin Lockett and Dylan Denso), the Aztecs' receiving corps could improve quite a bit over last year's patchwork unit. But what about the running game? While last year's backup, Walter Kazee, sat out this spring with a knee injury, a foursome of backs got the shots at replacing Hillman's 24 carries (and two receptions) per game: sophomore Adam Muema (6.0 yards per carry in 2011) and redshirt freshmen Brandon Wright (a high three-star signee in last year's class), De'Saan Hardwick and Chase Price.
No matter how competent the new batch of runners may or may not be, backs may have trouble finding holes. Only two starters -- second-team all-conference center Alec Johnson and guard Nik Embernate -- return on a line that ranked just 82nd in Adj. Line Yards last season, and both were injured this spring. The black hole on the line made it very difficult to gauge performances of other units during the spring, as the running lanes were hit-or-miss and the quarterbacks were never comfortable in the pocket.
Though it could have been because the offense was incompetent, the defense looked quite strong this spring, continuing on a steady ascent that began when Rocky Long came to San Diego as Hoke's defensive coordinator in 2009. Utilizing Long's oft-confusing 3-3-5 defense, the Aztecs have improved from 113th in Def. F/+ in 2008, to 90th in 2009, to 68th in 2010, to 63rd last fall. The Aztecs improved significantly as a given game progressed -- they ranked 101st in the first quarter, 83rd in the second, eighth in the third and seventh in the fourth. They got after the quarterback, they broke up passes, they attacked from all sorts of angles (18 different Aztecs recorded at least 1.5 tackles for loss), and they were well-conditioned enough to keep it up all game long. They struggled to stop drives on passing downs, but they had one of the best standard downs defenses in the country.
Like the offense, the defense returns six starters; and as with the offense, the five starters lost were relatively significant. Gone are all three starting linemen, an incredibly underrated linebacker (Miles Burris had 19.5 tackles for loss in 2011, more than all three starting linemen), and one half of an aggressive duo of cornerbacks (Larry Parker defended 16 passes last year, one fewer than his counterpart, Leon McFadden). Still, the second string was filled with interesting, young prospects, some of whom shined when given the opportunity. Ends Jordan Thomas and Dontrell Onuoha combined for 5.0 tackles for loss among their 28.5 tackles last year; they appear capable of matching the production of Larry Gibbs and J.J. Autele up front, though Onuoha may face some lost time due to a misdemeanor assault charge stemming from last season. (Interesting subplot for 2012: running back Brandon Wright was to testify against Onuoha if the case had gone to trial.)
At linebacker, starters Jake Fely and Nick Tenhaeff return, though it appears Vaness Harris and, potentially, three-star sophomore Josh Galvert, will be tasked with replacing Burris. They combined for 6.5 tackles for loss among 25.5 tackles, so they do have some playmaking potential. Burris was fantastic, but the Aztecs have a deep batch of linebackers from which to choose.
The secondary could be incredibly experienced. Among last year's top seven defensive backs, only Larry Parker is gone; his production could easily be replicated by Josh Wade, who was expected to start in 2011 before missing the season with injury. If he is ready to roll, the SDSU secondary could be the Mountain West's deepest, especially if redshirt freshman safety Darius Guillory continues to shine and demands a spot on the field. If the defensive line holds up, the back eight of the defense could be fantastic.
With so much turnover in personnel, a bowl bid of any type would be a sign of wonderful program health. But it is probably difficult for SDSU fans to look at the schedule and 'settle' for six wins or so. Home games versus Army, North Dakota, San Jose State, Hawaii, Colorado State, UNLV and Air Force, none of whom are projected to rank higher than 93rd, suggest that anything less than 7-5 might be a little bit annoying.
San Diego State had what we will politely call an up-and-down spring, and they seemingly must replace every major difference-maker from their back-to-back bowl seasons. But a look at what's left suggests that this squad should still be better than almost any recent SDSU team besides those from 2010 and 2011. And a ridiculously easy schedule should help the Aztecs stay in the land of bowl eligibility. There is a world of potential in players like Brice Butler, Adam Muema, Brandon Wright, Gavin Escobar, Alec Johnson, Jordan Thomas, Jake Fely, Vaness Harris, and Leon McFadden; solid recruiting could begin to rear its pretty head this fall as well. Still, when proven pieces walk out the door, potential alone will not do much good. Stage Two has tripped up many a coach, and Rocky Long certainly has some work to do.