NCAA Football Preview - San Diego State AztecsAug 19, 2011 - 4:11 PM Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - 2010 SEASON IN REVIEW: After winning only two games in 2008, the San Diego State Aztecs made the leap to four victories a year later, but the squad dropped four straight to close out 2009 so there were still plenty of improvements to be made. Head coach Brady Hoke got SDSU off on the right foot a season ago with back-to-back wins over patsies Nicholls State and New Mexico State, and then swamped Utah State late in September in order to open 3-1. The Aztecs nearly knocked off BYU on the road the second week of October and had they done so would have been riding a six-game win streak a month later. After defeating the usual suspects in the Mountain West Conference, SDSU played tough against both TCU and Utah in back-to-back weeks and fell by just a combined nine points against the more established programs.
San Diego State crushed UNLV in the regular-season finale, 48-14, and then had to wait almost a month to take on Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl, a meeting which resulted in a 35-14 triumph. At 9-4 overall and 5-3 in conference action, SDSU was again heading in the right direction. However, that success also brought coach Hoke more and more attention as well and eventually he decided to head to Michigan to take over for the banished Rich Rodriguez. With Hoke matched with the Wolverines, the likely choice for the new SDSU head coach was defensive coordinator Rocky Long who, before arriving in California, was the top man with New Mexico where he built a 65-69 record overall and an even 41-41 mark versus the rest of the MWC, so he clearly has a budding knowledge of the conference.
"They (the administration) knew Coach Long was the guy for the job," says quarterback Ryan Lindley. "We knew that as players too. The situation went down the best way it could and we are all excited about what the future has in store."
Long pushed his players to rank 20th in the nation in pass efficiency defense (113.45) and had the group ranked first in the MWC and 13th nationally with 7.3 tackles for loss per outing as well.
OFFENSE: It may have taken them a little time to get into gear last year, but Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman clearly carried the load for the up- and-coming squad. Lindley was second in the conference in passing efficiency with a rating of 149.43 and is easily the top returning signal-caller from the teams that made up the MWC last season. Lindley will certainly get competition from Boise State's Kellen Moore for all-conference honors, but the senior has a leg up on Moore because he knows the MWC defenses more intimately at this stage. Lindley ranked 14th in the nation last season in total offense with 292.2 ypg and tossed 28 touchdowns, against 14 picks. Lindley is a streaky performer who during one four-game stretch threw 12 TDs, but similarly he had four straight games in which he tossed at least two picks each time out.
Perhaps making things easier on the quarterback this year will be the presence of Hillman who had some huge games for the Aztecs a year ago. An all- conference performer in his own right Hillman, who was first in the MWC and 10th in the country in rushing with 117.9 ypg and was named the MWC Freshman of the Year, ran for 228 yards in games against both Missouri and Navy, posting a combined five TDs in those appearances. Of his 17 touchdowns, four came in the second week of the season against New Mexico State, so some of that production can be chalked up to weak competition. Nevertheless, coach Long sees great potential in Hillman's progress.
"Ronnie has as good of quickness, speed and getting in and out of holes as any one that I have been around. He is not quite as powerful or break as many tackles as some of them, but he makes more of them miss and he outruns more of them."
A solid group of returnees along the offensive line will be a comfort to both Lindley and Hillman, but the area that does need some revamping is in the receiving corps after losing both Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson who combined for 136 catches, more than 2,500 yards and 18 TDs. No one else on the team had even 30 receptions last year, so Lindley will now have to identify some new favorites in his arsenal.
"You have two great guys that were awesome talents in DeMarco and Vincent , but I am excited about the young guys," coach Long says of the transition at wide receiver. "To see them build up and I know their best football is yet to be played. They have a ton of talent and a ton of potential. The sky is the limit."
DEFENSE: Five times last season, the Aztecs held opponents to less than three touchdowns, but for the most part the defense wasn't anything real special for the program as it ranked fifth in the Mountain West and 36th nationally with 22.1 ppg allowed. Unfortunately for SDSU this time around, there are only five returning starters on that side of the ball, which means coach Long has some changes happening. On a positive note, the Aztecs bring back linebacker Miles Burris who is a preseason All-MWC pick after leading his team in total tackles (80) and stops behind the line of scrimmage (20), as well as sacks (9.5). So dominant was Burris, his TFLs were more than twice as many as anyone else on the roster, as were his sacks. With all those hits coming in the backfield, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Burris was also responsible for four of the unit's eight forced fumbles as well.
When it comes to defending the pass, the Aztecs came up with 10 interceptions a season ago, with six different players responsible for making those picks, but only three of those players are slated to return. At the top of that list is Leon McFadden who not only logged two INTs, he also recorded a team-high 12 pass breakups, not to mention 55 total tackles to place third on the team in that category. McFadden has already been recognized as a preseason all- conference performer, so it will be important to surround him with teammates who can also get after the ball when opponents choose to stay away from McFadden.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Of all the teams in the Mountain West, San Diego State might be the one that has the most solid kicking game, based on the past performances of placekicker Abel Perez and punter Brian Stahovich. Named a preseason All- MWC First Team selection, Stahovich booted the ball 53 times in 2010 and landed more than one-third of those inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Stahovich averaged a huge 45.4 yards per punt, of course his season-best 89- yard effort absolutely had much to do with that lofty number. Perez, an All- MWC Second Teamer in his own right heading into 2011, connected on 77.3 percent of his field goals last year to earn the respect. In the preliminary versions of the SDSU depth chart, the team didn't have kick returners identified, but one has to think that Brandon Davis and Larry Parker could again be key participants even though they are listed primarily as defensive backs heading into the campaign.
OUTLOOK: The change in coaching for the Aztecs should serve to strengthen the defense, especially since the offense doesn't need much re-tooling.
"The number one reason I am doing this is that it is a great opportunity and I see potential," notes Long about his transition to head coach. "I saw how happy the players are and the improvement they made the last two years and I thought it was going to be really sad to have them start over again."
There's no question that SDSU could make it to October undefeated, given that the early portion of the schedule has the Aztecs pitted against Cal Poly, Army, Washington State and Michigan, although the meeting with their former head coach is on the road in Ann Arbor. San Diego State opens conference play on October 8 when they host mighty TCU. Catching Wyoming and New Mexico at home in back-to-back weeks should certainly bolster SDSU's win total, but hosting Boise State and Fresno State down the stretch are far from easy battles and they could be the games that could burst the team's postseason bubble.
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