For the first time in as long as I've been paying attention to college football, San Diego State's questions and worries are not centered on its running game. Rather, its attention is focused on new starters on the sideline, not the field. Five new coaches are on the scene following Brady Hoke's departure for Michigan after last season.
Four Aztec coaches remain from the Brady Hoke staff—new head coach Rocky Long, quarterbacks coach Brian Sipe, receivers coach LeCharles McDaniel and cornerbacks coach/recruiting coordinator Tony White. New at the Mesa are offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, assistant head coach/running backs coach Jeff Horton, OL coach Dan Finn, DL coach Osia Lewis, LB coach Kevin McGarry and safeties coach Daniel Gonzales.
Veteran starting offensive lineman Tommie Draheim says that the carryover from the last year's coaching staff "makes things lot a lot easier for us." He'd know; this is the third new staff he's played for in college. About the change in coordinators, new head coach Rocky Long said. "It was important to bring in someone who understands the way we do things so there transition would be extremely minimal. Very little is going to change." Incoming Ludwig's offensive outlook evolved from his playing days in the mid 1980s for outgoing offensive coordinator Al Borges. "Al was one of my mentors," Ludwig said. "Al really set the foundation for my whole coaching philosophy. Many of the things I refer to today are the core fundamentals and concepts of offensive football that he taught me 20 something years ago."
Borges remembers Ludwig. "Quiet, unassuming, but never really made mistakes. I've followed his career very closely and pretty much know everything he's been doing. I'd say we're a lot alike."
Ludwig's philosophy centers, like Borges's, on a tough power-run game. "90 percent of the terminology is going to be the same. I'm the one with the learning curve. I've seen these guys on film, I like what I see, and I'm very excited to get out on the field with them and start working."
Ludwig's first priority--take a moment and appreciate how unlike the SDSU that Brady Hoke inherited in 2009, a weak group that couldn't run the ball--is establishing a rapport with quarterback Lindley, who is starting a fourth year—with a third offensive coordinator. "(Lindley) makes some throws I've seen on tape that I haven't seen since David Carr at Fresno State in 2001. I'm excited to work with him and to put him in the best position to succeed in his career." Lindley is optimistic. "I think it's going to be a pretty easy transition," Lindley said. "It's comforting to know that he's not a spread-option guy or now we're running the wishbone. There's going to be some different twists. But we're excited for what he's bringing." After the spring game, Lindley's enthusiasm was still high, and he was on a first-name basis with the coach. "It's been great," Lindley said. "[Ludwig] brings different ideas to the table, especially about how to use our speed on the outside. It's an exciting time for me, because Andy is an outstanding coach and coordinator."
Lindley has SDSU's passer records in his sights. He's second all-time in career passing yards (9,537), completions (724) and is tied for second in career touchdown passes (67), and needs 1,888 yards, 186 completions and three touchdowns to own all three categories. Sophomore QB Adam Dingwell, who redshirted last year, and Jake Bernards, last year’s backup, are vying for the number two spot in 2011.
Ludwig's second priority is finding guys to replace Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. "It's a huge part of what we're doing the spring," Ludwig said of identifying wide receivers. "The biggest thing is those were talented guys (Brown and Sampson) on the outside that helped Ryan [Lindley] and Ronnie [Hillman]. Now Ryan and Ronnie have to help those wide receivers become better players. It will be fun to watch it play out." One facet of SDSU's passing game Ludwig wants to develop is the deep ball. "I'm good with that," Ludwig said. "If you've got a guy that run and get it and a guy that can throw it, it's all good. I know you won't see it unless we can complete the deep ball, but I haven't worked with a guy like this (Lindley) since David Carr at throwing deep balls."
Four receivers top the list to fill Brown and Sampson's shoes: Dominique Sandifer, Ezell Ruffin, Jay Waddell, and Dylan Denso. Of the four, only Sandifer has taken a snap in a college game.
Long is not yet impressed. "Do I think we have enough athletic ability in the program? Yes," Long said. "Do I think they are anywhere close to being the players they need to be so that we have balance? No way. Not even close. They have to make a whole lot of improvement in spring and fall camp if we expect to be any good on offense." Jay Waddell hears his coach. "I thought I would come in and play right away," Waddell said. "Then I saw VJ and DeMarco and how they work every day in practice and I was like 'dang.' It takes a lot of work to be that successful. I think it was to our advantage to see them work and now we can come in and follow in their footsteps."
Junior Dominique Sandifer is SDSU's only wide receiver with many snaps until his belt. Ludwig noticed Ruffin and Waddel from film before drills began. "They jump out at you in the drills we do," he said. "They have a lot of athleticism and speed. What I want to see is their route running ability, their ball skills and their ability to run after the catch. Seeing them work out is very impressive, but I want to see how that transfers over in spring practice." Lindley agrees. "Those guys are raw, but they are talented," the senior said. "I'm excited for their progression. I think the big thing for them is to be able to run routes the exact same way even when they are tired and sucking wind. And they'll get there."
Helping out are SDSU veteran tight ends, especially Alston Umuolo and Gavin Escobar, who can split wide and go deep. Last year Escobar (6-6, 245) was third on the team in receptions. "To have four tight ends of this caliber is a dream come true," Umuolo said. "I remember springs in the past when there were only two of us (tight ends) on the roster, period. It's amazing to have such skilled tight ends now. We're learning together and coach Ludwig is learning that much more about us. I'm really excited about what this offense is going to be this year."
SDSU returns tremendous experience on the line, 71 starts' worth. Only center Trask Iosefa graduates, having started 49 consecutive games. The plan is for Alec Johnson to move from left guard to center — leaving a position battle with Emilio Rivera and Mike Matamua for that starting spot. Guard Nik Embernate and tackles Tommie Draheim and Kurtis Gunther also are back. "This is a group that’s really experienced and is used to working with each other," Johnson said. "I think that’s going to make it easier for Coach Finn to step in. Right now, we’re learning what he’s all about and he’s learning us."
Johnson was originally recruited to play center. "It's an easy transition for me back from center to guard and now back to center," said Johnson after Saturday's practice. "As a center, you have to know all the plays. I know the offense and what everyone is doing. I like playing guard or center. I don't really have a favorite position. I just want to play." His experience at guard won't be wasted. "I can give him (the right guard) tips once in a while and help him out."
Of course the big guys are blocking for Ronnie Hillman again at runningback; Adam Muema and Walter Kazee are vying for backup, but Kazee was injured in the spring game and his status for fall is unknown.
On defense, the secondary looks settled. The coaches tinkered with moving cornerback Leon McFadden back to receiver—the position he was recruited to play—"in case our immaturity at wide receiver pops its ugly head up and in critical situations we can put a more mature athlete in there," Long said. By the end of spring drills, McFadden was back at cornerback. Starting opposite him is junior and returning starter Josh Wade. Andrew Preston's replacement at Aztec appears to be Khalid Stevens. J.J. Whittaker also would have been coming off his redshirt season after missing last year with a knee injury, but he's suffered a second knee injury in the spring and his status for next fall is in doubt.
At linebacker are two senior returning starters and a third player that was a part-time starter. The OLBs are seniors Miles Burris, a first-team all-concerence pick, and Logan Ketchum, a second-year starter. The middle linebacker is junior Rob Andrews and Marcus Yarbrough, both starting last season at various times. The three starters combined for 168 tackles.
On the d-line, both starting ends graduated in 2010, but look for tackle Jerome Long to return to end, where he started his college career.
Two years ago the Aztecs were learning Long's complicated scheme and last year Long added to the blitz packages. But this year the returning players not only have a bigger playbook from two years ago, they understand the defense well enough to teach the younger players. Ketchum says the coaching changes haven't slowed them down. "We're much further ahead than last year," Ketchum said. "The new coaches are familiar with Coach Long and the terminology and how the defense works. They're teaching it well. We're playing fast and we're not slowing down for anything. When I'm out there I can barely tell anything has changed. From our side on defense, I don't see any new plays. That must mean the offensive players and the coaches are picking up everything well. The transition has been smooth. We're all happy to be playing under Coach Long."
Ahead or not, the offense still got the better of the defense in the first spring scrimmage. Safety Khalid Stevens, was unhappy about that. "We're not moving like we should. We don't know our assignments like we should. Our stunts aren't the way they should be. We're not getting enough turnovers. Our protection isn't good. We're not there yet."
Getting "there" needs to happen a little quicker in 2011 than it needed to in 2010, when the Aztecs four weak teams in its first five. This season, after SDSU's annual romp with a 2A team (Cal Poly) the Aztecs go to Army, which is no longer a gimme. Then comes an intriguing matchup with Washington State, which showed signs in 2010 of revival, everywhere but the scoreboard. All of this occuring in the shadow of final September game, SDSU's trip to meet Brady Hoke's new team, Michigan. That's about the most opaque September imaginable-- three of SDSU's four opponents are most unreadable, and the Aztecs fortunes themselves will be difficult to pin down until the efficacy of the rebuilt receiving corps is evident.
So throw up your hands; that's my tack for predicting September in San Diego. 3-1 or 4-0 will indicate the rebuilding didn't miss a step with the coaching changes, and that the Mountain West's foil for incoming strongman Boise State will be in southern California. It's probably more likely SDSU will be 2-2, or even 1-3 if Washington State's progress has tracked the Aztecs,' but is just becoming obvious.
October sandwiches two blockbuster matchups between byes-- TCU comes calling in the second week, and then the Aztecs travel to Colorado Springs, before their second bye in four weeks. Air Force is the most known quantity to date of all of these teams, and may be the toughest October opponent for SDSU (see the TCU review, coming soon, wherein almost the entire Frog offense gets re-cast with younger starters).
After that second bye, the Aztecs may still will need a lot of skins on the wall to reach bowl eligibility (in a 13 game schedule, seven wins are the only sure way to go bowling)-- now the floor of "acceptable" at the Mesa. Fully five will still be within reach: Wyoming, New Mexico, Fresno State, at Colorado State and at UNLV. Only Boise State is very likely a loss, if Kellen Moore is piloting that ship.
Bowling is a must for Rocky Long's job security. (That's true of almost every coach in D-1A.) What's changed in San Diego is the expectation of his players and fans, and administrators. Truth is, bowling really is required, and anything less in 2011 will be a failure for SDSU.