Tom Shanahan writes exhaustively about Aztec football at AztecSportsReport.com. He kindly answered these questions from the Purple Wimple, about SDSU and the upcoming match with TCU.
Purple Wimple: What strengths for SDSU play into TCU weaknesses?
Aztec Sports Report: Does TCU have a weakness? If they do have a weakness on defense, San Diego State offensive coordinator Al Borges will find it. The Aztecs have a balanced offense that complements itself very well and is explosive at exploiting a run defense or pass defense when opportunities arise. For example, two weeks ago Wyoming loaded up against the run and limited Ronnie Hillman to 44 yards rushing. But with the Wyoming defense committed to the run, senior WR DeMarco Sampson caught seven balls for 175 yards with TDs of 59 and 56 yards and senior WR Vincent Brown caught five balls for 144 yards. Brown didn't have a TD, but he had a 53-yarder that set up a TD. Both Sampson and Brown are NFL prospects, so last week Colorado State focused on them. Brown had only three catches for 40 yards with no scores and Sampson only two catches for 23 yards with no scores. But Ronnie Hillman ran 31 times for 151 yards and one touchdown.
PW: Would Ronnie Hillman have been able to run as wild as he has in 2010 behind 2009's SDSU o-line?
ASR: San Diego State's running game is better this year for two reasons: 1) the offensive linemen are stronger after two off seasons in strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman's program; and 2) Hillman says he's more mature, mentally and physically, after having gone through spring football and offseason condition.
PW: It was reported in the leadup to 2010 that the Aztecs told Brady Hoke after their first loss in 2009 that "this is where we usually give up." Clearly that attitude is gone on the Mesa; what chased it away?
ASR: The players say from day one, Hoke talked to them about winning a Mountain West Conference title. The players bought in last year, but they had a very weak senior class from many players recruited by Tom Craft no longer being with the program -- mostly for academic reasons. So even though a new attitude was established last year, they lost fourth-quarter leads to Wyoming and UNLV that was the difference between a 4-8 record they finished with and a 6-6 record they could have had. This year, San Diego State fans are excited about six wins earning bowl eligibility two weeks ago for the first time since 1998 and seven wins clinching a winning season for the first time since 1998, but Hoke and his players have basically shrugged their shoulders and say they have bigger goals than a bowl game or a winning season. [note--Yesterday when asked if he was excited about playing in the Poinsettia Bowl, Hoke said without hesitating or smiling, that the MWC champ played in Las Vegas, and that’s where he was hoping to play a bowl this season.]
PW: Ryan Lindley's numbers have not taken a big jump over last season's. Does this surprise you, and why?
ASR: Lindley is still adjusting to playing under center in a pro-style offense after playing a spread offense his redshirt freshman year and in high school, but he's actually having his best year. For some reason, there is a perception among fans that Lindley isn't having a good year. I think this has to do with some untimely interceptions in the Missouri and BYU 3-point losses. But if you look more closely at his numbers, this is his best season. His QB rating is 137.01, up from 123.44 in 2009 and 117.01 in 2008. His yardage total is 2,426 with three games to play after throwing for 3,054 yards last year and 2,653 in 2008. Also note that he's on pace for his most passing yards in a season, even though his attempts are down because this year the Aztecs have a running game and they don't have to pass. Before the Air Force-SDSU game in the sixth game of the year, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, in an unsolicited comment, said Lindley was "the most polished quarterback we've faced this year." Air Force hadn't played TCU yet, but it's still an interesting quote, especially since it wasn't the usual coach-speak in response to a question.
PW: Back to the o-line: how many injuries is SDSU from a depth-chart disaster? Does recruiting seem to be addressing depth up front?
ASR: SDSU has been injury-free upfront, but the starters as well as the depth have improved in Brady Hoke's second year as head coach. LT Tommie Draheim was motivated in the offseason by SDSU recruiting JC transfer Riley Gauld as a LT and the Aztecs consider him one of their most improved player. He held off Gauld for the starting job, although Gauld is a talent that turned down Tennessee. At LG, Alec Johnson was a starter last year before he got hurt and his backup, Mike Matamua, gained some starts last year. At C, Trask Iosefa is a fourth-year starter, but his back up and heir apparent is Alec Johnson. At RG, Nik Embernate is SDSU's best road-grader as a second-year starter. His backup, Jimmy Miller, hasn't played, but he's another player the coaches say has made big strides in improvement. At RT, Kurtis Gunther, similar to Draheim, was motivated by SDSU bringing a JC transfer to start. The JC transfer, Juan Bolanos, was behind Gunther in fall camp and ended up leaving the team before the season start. Gunther's backup, similar to Miller, as has little experience but is considered improved.
PW: Vincent Brown and Dominique Sandifer are the MWC's best WR tandem, and are well known. Who is a less famous, but dangerous, target for Lindley?
ASR: Redshirt freshman Gavin Escobar is a big target at 6-6 with good hands and speed. He will be a star in this conference. He had to replace Alston Umuolo, a preseason All-MWC pick, when Umuolo was lost for the season with a hip injury after the third game. He has responded in a big way with 16 catches for 192 yards and three touchdowns. He's averaging 12.0 yards a catch with a long of 45.
PW: If Hillman goes down, who fills in on the ground?
ASR: Walter Kazee, who had two 100-yard games as a true freshman, was the backup until hurting his hamstring three weeks ago at New Mexico. Since then, fullback Brandon Sullivan, who was the team’s leading runningback the last two years, has played backup in addition to starting at fullback or in a split backfield. Hoke considers Sullivan one of the team's unsung heroes.
PW: Who are the exciting playmakers that are redshirting this season?
ASR: Wide receiver Ezell Singleton was ticketed to play as a true freshman. He is an explosive receiver and return man that they also were considering using as a quarterback in Wildcat formations. But he got a head ding in fall camp and ended up redshirting. Running back Adam Muema was a 2,000-yard rusher in high school that had a freak injury last summer that limited him in fall camp. He will be a good complement to Hillman next year as a bigger back.
PW: Have you noticed any uptick in recruiting buzz as the Aztecs prepare to bowl for the first time in since 1998?
ASR: It's too late for three four-star recruits from San Diego high schools: DT Mustafa Jalil has committed to Cal, DT Christian Heyward appears to be leaning toward UCLA, and Vista CB Stefan McClure wants to compete in track in college and SDSU doesn't have a track program. But the two 2011 recruits from San Diego that I've talked say there is a big difference in the attitude of San Diego high school players in general—recruits and non-recruits. If SDSU gains credibility with the general community, it's going to pay off with big recruits down the road.
PW: Is Chuck Long still around in San Diego?
ASR: Chuck was hired this season by new Kansas coach Turner Gill as the offensive coordinator. The SDSU fans that were glad to see him go, have been quick to point on message boards Kansas's results when the Jayhawks have struggled to score such as the 6-3 loss to North Dakota State.