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San Diego State’s football potential has finally gone from theory to reality

Rocky Long’s Aztecs have won 10-plus games for three straight years and aren’t far from making it four.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State
Juwan Washington
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Almost exactly 10 years ago, the San Diego State program was bottoming out. Attendance was down drastically — from 28,336 in 2004 to 17,868 in 2007 — as were ticket revenue and donations. Head coach Chuck Long was 9-17 after two seasons, and talk of a contract extension was tabled. These were the most trying of times for a program forever considered long on potential but never anywhere close to fulfilling any of it.

The Aztecs began the 2008 season with a 29-27 loss to Cal Poly. They would lose 10 of their first 11 games that fall, and with buyout money barely procured, Long was fired the day after a season-ending win over UNLV.

It had been more than 30 years since SDSU had mattered. Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert had led the Aztecs to dominant seasons long ago, but since 1977 had ended, SDSU had joined the WAC and become irrelevant. They had made three bowls in three decades and hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since going 7-5 in 1998. Despite all of the talent in the area — your Marshall Faulks, La’Roi Glovers, Kyle Turleys, and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilas — SDSU was increasingly listless, filling a tiny portion of a cavernous NFL stadium.

A decade later, SDSU is increasingly relevant. The program made a good hire, then a great hire. Brady Hoke doubled the Aztecs’ win total twice, to four wins in 2009 and nine in 2010. When Hoke left for Michigan, Rocky Long took over and averaged eight wins per year over his first four seasons and has now averaged 10.7 over his last three. After bowling four times ever before the 2010s, they have played in the postseason every year this decade.

The progress has been slow and sure. Following back-to-back MWC titles, attendance was nearly 40,000 per game. The Aztecs disappointed by merely winning 10 games in 2017. There is talk of a new stadium to replace the aging fortress formerly known as Jack Murphy Stadium. One of college football’s most frustrating sleeping giants is lively.

There’s no reason to think this will change this fall. SDSU’s identity is as strong as ever, and the Aztecs get to reap the rewards of a 2017 youth movement.

  • Of 65 offensive line starts, 46 went to freshmen and sophomores. Two redshirt freshmen — left tackle Tyler Roemer and right guard Keith Ismael — each earned second-team all-conference honors, and SDSU actually improved by 26 spots in Off. S&P+.
  • Freshmen and sophomores also made 39 percent of the tackles (and 41 percent of havoc plays) for a defense that ranked 38th in Def. S&P+.

If you’re looking for reasons to worry, you can find them. The Aztecs have to replace 2,000-yard rusher Rashad Penny. Of course, they were also replacing a 2,000-yard rusher (Donnel Pumphrey) a year ago. Plus, junior-to-be Juwan Washington has produced per-carry averages that almost mirror Penny’s as an understudy.

Still, there’s no guarantee that the smaller-in-stature Washington is durable, and the receiving corps has to be rebuilt. While the defense is poised to move up the rankings again, the offense could shift back.

That said, SDSU won two MWC titles with lesser offenses. The hierarchy is crowded, thanks to Boise State and a resurgent Fresno State, and the Aztecs must play both on the road. But they’re going to play a role in the MWC race again.


SDSU has done a spectacular job of presenting itself as Southern California’s stylistic alternative. Long’s defense has done this for a while, fielding a speedy, hard-hitting 3-3-5 that confuses your quarterback and baits you into the running. But once Jeff Horton took over as coordinator, the Aztecs found a matching offensive identity.

The Aztecs play manball, running as much as possible (13 percent more than the national average on standard downs, 7 percent more on passing downs) and creating old-school slugfests. They force you to play their game, and even if you’re pretty good at it, they can still take you down. They beat Stanford last year, after all.

Despite the identity, they were perhaps a little too reliant on the big play last year.

SDSU ranked 84th in success rate but thrived on explosive plays, both from Penny and the wideout combination of Mikah Holder (14 yards per catch) and Fred Trevillion (24.2 yards per catch).

Penny and Holder are gone, but it appears the replacements are equally capable of big plays.

First of all, Trevillion’s back. The converted defensive back came out of nowhere; seven of his 12 catches came in the last four games, and four gained at least 39 yards. Holder was targeted by more than twice as many passes, and we’ll see how Trevillion handles a larger role.

Plus, a youngster will need to step up as a decent No. 2, be it a sophomore like Tim Wilson Jr. or Isiah Macklin, a redshirt freshman like Ethan Dedeaux or Isaiah Richardson, or even a true freshman like high-three-star signee JR Justice. Still, Trevillion’s explosiveness is off the charts.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Arizona State
Fred Trevillion
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Washington appears ready for a larger load. The junior from Kennedale, Tex., has averaged 6.6 yards per carry over his first two seasons and has proven almost as much as Penny had (7.1 yards per carry through three seasons as a backup) when he went from understudy to workhorse. And if he’s not capable of the same 20-plus carries per game, he’s got help: sophomore Chase Jasmin, redshirt freshman Kaegun Williams, and incoming freshman Zidane Thomas were all mid-three-stars prospects.

There is youth in the skill corps, but it’s got all sorts of upside.

In theory, so does the line. SDSU’s blocking stats were mediocre in 2017 — 60th in Adj. Line Yards, 72nd in stuff rate, 91st in rushing success rate — and while part of that might have been due to Penny’s all-or-nothing style (he didn’t mind sacrificing a two- or three-yard gain for a shot at a 50-yarder), it was also due to youth. But those responsible for 88 percent of last year’s line starts return, and only one starter is a senior.

With sophomores like Roemer, Ismael, and center Dominic Gudino, this line is going to be nasty for a while. It’s also enormous: the 14 players I listed here have an average size of 6’5, 308, and the new guys — 325-pound redshirt freshman Desmond Bessent, 355-pound true freshman William Dunkle — are among the largest.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at San Diego State
Christian Chapman
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Oh right, the quarterback.

It takes a rare system for me to make it this far without thinking about the signal caller, and that’s unfair to Christian Chapman.

The senior-to-be is entering his third year as a starter, and he’s done his best to bring stability; SDSU’s passing success rate has been higher under Chapman than before he took over, and he has managed a completion rate over 60 percent for each of the last two years. But he was asked to attempt barely 20 passes per game last year, and Penny and Washington combined for 32 carries per game.

The passing game is most assuredly an afterthought here. If Washington takes advantage of an expanded role behind a more seasoned line, then the Aztecs’ offense will look like it’s designed to look.


By SDSU’s standard, the defense slipped a little bit last year — after ranking 26th in Def. S&P+ in 2015 and 24th in 2016, 38th doesn’t sound quite as awesome as it should.

With youth an issue, especially in the secondary, Long and coordinator Danny Gonzales played things a little safer, opting for a little less aggression and a little more big-play prevention in the back. The Aztecs allowed fewer 20-yard passes per game but more 10-yarders, and thanks in part to the loss of their four best havoc guys in the front six, the sack rate fell a bit, too.

Returning personnel suggests we’ll see a rebound in 2018. Gonzales left to become Herm Edwards’ coordinator at Arizona State, but Long promoted linebackers coach Zach Arnett, and, well, this is Long’s defense. SDSU is going to contain run games and attack the pass.

New Mexico v San Diego State
Kyahva Tezino (44)
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The former shouldn’t be a problem. The line returns five of its top seven tacklers, including tackle Noble Hall, who led the team in non-sack tackles for loss. Ronley Lakalaka and Kyahva Tezino are back at linebacker, too, though there’s a gap at middle linebacker, where sophomore Andrew Aleki has to clear a high bar in replacing Jay Henderson.

If a new piece emerges at defensive end — either a JUCO transfer (Joah Robinett or Jalil Lecky) or a redshirt freshman (Mark Brown or Shane Irwin) — emerges to add a smidge of pop to the pass rush, the secondary will dominate.

Cornerback Kameron Kelly and safety Trey Lomax are gone, but the rest of the two-deep returns. That includes junior cornerback Ron Smith, whose 18 passes defensed ranked 10th in FBS, and safety Tariq Thompson, who picked off five passes as a true freshman. Plus, safety Parker Baldwin is the only senior in the rotation — whatever this secondary becomes in 2018, it’ll potentially grow even further in 2019.

NCAA Football: Boise State at San Diego State
Ron Smith
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

There is symbolism in SDSU’s special teams unit, where the Aztecs must replace one dynamic kick returner (Penny, who scored twice on 17 returns) with another (Washington ... who scored twice on 14 returns).

The punt returner job is also open, but SDSU ranked 34th in Special Teams S&P+ thanks to the combination of place-kicking and returns, and if John Baron II remains automatic under 40 yards and Washington indeed matches Penny’s explosiveness, the Aztecs should be fine here once again. (If punter Brandon Heicklen wanted to add an extra yard or two to his net average, that’d be all the better.)

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug at Stanford 20 -11.9 25%
8-Sep Sacramento State NR 24.7 92%
15-Sep Arizona State 57 2.7 56%
22-Sep Eastern Michigan 96 11.2 74%
6-Oct at Boise State 26 -9.9 28%
13-Oct Air Force 112 15.3 81%
20-Oct San Jose State 129 24.2 92%
27-Oct at Nevada 101 7.8 67%
3-Nov at New Mexico 111 10.2 72%
10-Nov UNLV 105 13.4 78%
17-Nov at Fresno State 44 -4.8 39%
24-Nov Hawaii 122 19.3 87%
Projected S&P+ Rk 55
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 69 / 48
Projected wins 7.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.1 (56)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 75 / 74
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 5.6
2017 TO Luck/Game +0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 60% (57%, 63%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 8.3 (1.7)

Depending on goals, SDSU’s 2018 schedule is either great or terrible. S&P+ projects the Aztecs as a favorite in nine of 12 games and a double-digit favorite in seven. That should give them an excellent shot at yet another season of at least nine wins and a shot at a fourth straight year of double-digit wins.

If the goal is returning to the conference title game, however, the schedule is tricky. Thanks in part to turnover at the skill positions, S&P+ projects the Aztecs just 55th overall, and with road trips to No. 44 Fresno State and No. 26 Boise State, they’ll either need an upset win or some luck.

So yes, following a disappointing 10-win season, we might be looking at a disappointing nine-win season. God forbid. And in 2019, the Aztecs will return a nasty offensive line, the deepest secondary in the league, and, potentially, a 1,500-yard (or more) rusher.

Ten years ago, SDSU’s potential was merely theoretical. Now the Aztecs are among the steadiest mid-major powers. A lot can change in a decade.

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