February 26, 2011

Aztecs out to make noise in new MWC

After more than a decade of mediocrity, San Diego State finally broke out.

The Aztecs won nine games, including the Poinsettia Bowl. Each of the four losses came by six or fewer points. The turnaround from 4-8 to 9-4 and San Diego State's first bowl appearance since 1998 was enough for Michigan (after striking out with Jim Harbaugh and others) to hire Brady Hoke as coach.

While Hoke is gone, San Diego State is hoping it doesn't need to start from scratch. The Aztecs promoted defensive coordinator Rocky Long. He knows the terrain, as he was 65-69 in 11 seasons at conference foe New Mexico. Long led the Lobos to bowls in five of his final seven seasons.

As the Mountain West changes its lineup over the next two seasons (Boise State joins this season, while BYU and Utah are gone), San Diego State will try to stake a claim as one of the league's better programs. The Aztecs' nine wins last season were the most since they won 10 in 1977.

Here's a look at San Diego State heading into spring practice.

Ryan Lindley should push Kellen Moore to be the top QB in the MWC.
COACH: Rocky Long
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in Mountain West. Beat Navy 35-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
SPRING DATES: Feb. 26-March 24.
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (7): T Tommy Draheim, G Nik Embernate, TE Gavin Escobar, T Kurtis Gunther, RB Ronnie Hillman, C Alec Johnson (moving from G), QB Ryan Lindley. DEFENSE (5): LB Miles Burris, S Brandon Davis, LB Jerome Ketchum, T Jerome Long, CB Leon McFadden.
SPECIAL TEAMS (2): K Abel Perez, P Brian Stahovich.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: San Diego State could have the top offensive backfield in the Mountain West outside of Boise State. As with Boise State QB Kellen Moore, Aztecs senior QB Ryan Lindley will be a four-year starter. Lindley passed for a career-high 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, though he still has work to do in improving his accuracy (57.7 completion percentage) and cutting interceptions (14). A major reason for Lindley's career year was a balanced offense. Ronnie Hillman was a revelation, leading the conference in rushing (1,532 yards, 17 touchdowns) as a freshman. Lindley and Hillman will operate behind a line that returns four starters. Defensively, San Diego State returns its top player in OLB Miles Burris, who led the Aztecs in tackles (80), sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (20).

HELP IS NEEDED: The Aztecs have an established quarterback, running back and offensive line, but who is going to catch the ball? Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson combined for 2,572 yards and 18 touchdowns. They're both gone, leaving sophomore TE Gavin Escobar as the top returning receiver with 323 yards and four touchdowns. There also is depth at tight end with Alston Umuolo returning from a hip injury that kept him out of all but two games last season. Defensively, all three Aztecs who started at end last season are gone, as is MLB Marcus Yarbrough. The Aztecs run a 3-3-5 set, and three starters have to be replaced in the secondary, as well.


DE J.J. Autele: Autele will be in line to grab one of the starting end jobs. As a backup, Autele had 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He was used sparingly in his first three seasons, so now is his time to take on a bigger role.

C Alec Johnson: San Diego State was blessed with consistency on the offensive line last season, as the same five guys started all 13 games. No lineman was more consistent than C Trask Iosefa, who started 49 consecutive games. Johnson will slide over from left guard to try to replace Iosefa.

WR Ezell Ruffin: Hoke originally envisioned the speedy Ruffin (6 feet 1/190 pounds) playing running back, but Hillman's emergence made that unnecessary. With Brown and Sampson gone, Ruffin is needed at receiver anyway. He redshirted last season, but the Aztecs already list him as a starting receiver.


WR Dominique Sandifer: Sandifer closed 2009 on a hot streak with 23 catches for 271 yards over the last six games. But those numbers were better than he in produced in all of 2010. Part of that is because Brown and Sampson both topped 1,200 yards. Sandifer needs to show he can produce as a go-to receiver. Ruffin and fellow redshirt freshman Jay Waddell impressed in bowl practices and on the scout team. They'll keep the pressure on Sandifer, a junior.


San Diego State has struggled to put a consistent product on the field throughout the program's history. Despite losing Hoke, Long at least provides some consistency on the coaching staff and he knows how to get a Mountain West team into a bowl. The Aztecs have reason for optimism with players such as Lindley, Hillman and Burris, but they need to beef up some spots on defense and find some receivers this spring to ensure they will continue to be factors in the new-look MWC.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.


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