Preseason Preview: San Diego State

Joe Healey, Staff Writer
ASU Devils
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As we continue to examine Arizona State’s 2017 opponents, our Joe Healey familiarizes Sun Devil fans with another non-conference team the maroon and gold will face this year, in the Aztecs.

Head Coach: Rocky Long (52-26 at San Diego State)

When Brady Hoke bolted from San Diego State to Michigan after just two seasons with the Aztecs, Rocky Long, previously the head coach at New Mexico from 1999-2008, was tagged in to lead the SDSU program following Hoke’s departure after the 2010 season.

Long’s tenure has been nothing short of spectacular as he has guided the Aztecs to bowl appearances all six seasons, two outright conference championships and a share of a third league title. His time at San Diego State began with an 8-5 record in 2011, followed by a 9-4 finish in 2012 that included a split of the Mountain West Conference title. Fast forward from there and Long’s Aztecs reached a sensational level of play the past two seasons as San Diego State has finished 11-3 with a bowl victory in both 2015 and ’16 and has won each of the past two Mountain West Conference Championship Games.

After compiling a 65-69 overall record in 11 years at New Mexico, results have been dramatically better for Long at San Diego State as he has compiled a 54-26 record in six seasons with the Aztecs.

2016 Review: After an 11-3 finish in 2015 and the vast majority of their top-level talent returning, the Aztecs entered last season with high expectations as SDSU was sixth among other teams to receive votes for the Preseason Associated Press Poll. Only two Group of Five teams (Houston and Boise State) were ranked higher to begin the 2016 season.

The Aztecs began the year with wins against New Hampshire, California and Northern Illinois, at which point SDSU entered the AP Poll at No. 22 after three wins, the first time since 1995 that San Diego State earned a top-25 AP Poll ranking.

SDSU climbed to No. 19 after a bye week, but was dropped from the polls after a 42-24 loss at South Alabama. From there, the Aztecs ripped off six straight wins against UNLV, Fresno State, San Jose State, Utah State, Hawaii and Nevada and returned to the rankings at No. 24 with a 9-1 record.

The regular season ended with consecutive losses to Wyoming and Colorado State, but the Aztecs bounced back to defeat Wyoming in the Mountain West Conference Championship Game.

The Aztecs closed out the 2016 season with a 34-10 victory over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl and ended the year ranked No. 25 in the final AP Poll. Among Group of Five teams, only Western Michigan (No. 15) and South Florida (No. 19) finished with a higher AP Poll ranking.

Key Number from 2016: 2,133 – The number of yards gained by the nation’s leading rusher Donnel Pumphrey that SDSU has to replace in 2017. Pumphrey alone rushed for more yards than 56 FBS teams in 2016, including Arizona State (1,578).

Program Overview: After a down decade that featured no winning seasons from 1999-2009, former head coach Brady Hoke reignited the program with a 9-4 finish in 2010 and the captured team’s first bowl berth since 1998. After Hoke departed for Michigan, Rocky Long filled the void and has since further improved the program, with six consecutive winning seasons to start his tenure and six straight postseason appearances. Prior to Long’s arrival, SDSU had only tallied four bowl appearances since 1969.

Under Long, the Aztecs have claimed the past two Mountain West Conference championships and also tied for the league crown in 2012.

The Aztec program enters 2017 with incredible momentum as San Diego State is one of only six FBS teams along with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Western Kentucky to have won at least 11 games in each of the past two seasons. San Diego State has legitimately proven itself to be one of the most formidable “Group of Five” teams at the FBS level in recent years.

Series Record vs. ASU (Most Recent Meeting): 0-10-1 (ASU 34, SDSU 14 on Sept. 15, 2007 in Tempe)

History vs. ASU: The Sun Devils stand undefeated against the Aztecs, though more than 40 years separated the first seven meetings and the most recent four.

Arizona State claimed victories in 1934, ’39 and ’50, the two teams tied in 1950 and the Sun Devils won in 1955-57. The series was sidelined for the remainder of the 20th century, but then ASU notched wins in three consecutive matchups from 2000-02 and again in 2007.

The 2002 installment of this series is one of the more memorable in the series between the two squads as it featured the biggest comeback in ASU history and was the game that catapulted Andrew Walter into what became Sun Devil stardom as he replaced Chad Christensen to convert a 22-0 first half deficit to a 39-28 victory in San Diego.

Key Departures: DL Alex Barrett, CB Damontae Kazee, LB Calvin Munson, RB Donnel Pumphrey, OL Nico Siragusa

The all-time leading rusher in FBS history (that is, unless you subscribe to the Ron Dayne Defense), Donnell Pumphrey departs after rushing for a record 6,405 career yards with 62 touchdowns in his four seasons with the Aztecs. The 2015 and ’16 Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year, Pumphrey was one of three Doak Walker Award finalists and a First-Team All-American according to Sports Illustrated as a senior after earning Honorable Mention All-America accolades by the same publication the two previous seasons.

After rushing for 752 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman in 2013, Pumphrey followed with 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore, 1,653 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior and 2,133 yards with 17 touchdowns as a senior in 2016. He also caught 100 career passes with five receiving touchdowns.

As many headlines as Pumphrey earned on offense, cornerback Damontae Kazee deserved similar acclaim for his play on defense as he was the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year both as a junior and as a senior and garnered multiple All-America honors as well. Last year, Kazee tied for second in the nation by capturing seven interceptions and he also totaled 15 passes defended to lead SDSU and ranked fourth on the team with 65 tackles.

A player in retrospect the Sun Devil coaches undoubtedly wish they had chosen to purse as a recruit, Mesa Desert Ridge product Alex Barrett, reportedly only offered from the FBS level by SDSU, Air Force and San Jose State, put together an excellent college career. The defensive lineman was a First-Team All-Mountain West Conference pick in 2015 and ’16 and as a senior, Barrett posted team-highs of 13.0 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks among his 53 total tackles as well as 15 quarterback hurries and four pass deflections.

Similarly, linebacker Calvin Munson was a first-team all-league pick in both 2015 and ’16 and last season he notched a team-high 116 tackles including 11.0 for loss with 4.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries.

A three-year starting offensive lineman, Nico Siragusa was a first-team all-conference selection as a junior and a senior.

Top Returners: K John Baron, WR Mikah Holder, S Kameron Kelly, RB Rashaad Penny, TE David Wells,

Overshadowed by his former record-setting companion in the backfield, running back Rashaad Penny should allow the Aztecs to remain a dynamic rushing threat even with the departure of Pumphrey.

One of the most versatile players you’ve never heard of, even behind his 2,000-yard rushing colleague last year Penny still ran for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns at a blistering 7.5 yards-per-carry clip, while also catching 15 passes for 224 yards and three scores. Oh by the way, Penny also was the Mountain West Conference Special Teams Player of the Year in 2016 as he ranked fourth nationally by averaging 31.2 yards on 20 kick returns with a pair of touchdowns. Penny ranks among the top-15 returning FBS players from 2016 in all-purpose yardage, as he averaged 133.3 per game last season.

Though Kazee is gone at defensive back, SDSU is not devoid of playmaking talent in the secondary for 2017 as safety Kameron Kelly hauled in five interceptions and 11 total passes defended last season. On offense, SDSU’s top receiver returns from 2016 in big play threat Mikah Holder, who totaled 581 yards with five touchdowns on just 27 receptions.

After redshirting in 2014 and not seeing game action in 2016, Baron showcased a spectacular sophomore year by connecting on 21-of-23 field goal attempts to rank 10th nationally in field goal percentage. A First-Team All-Mountain West Conference selection last year and a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award won by ASU’s Zane Gonzalez, Baron likely will be the most talented placekicker ASU will face all season.

Not to be confused with the portly former pitcher for the Yankees, tight end David Wells only posted four catches through his first two seasons but last year registered 25 receptions for 294 yards and four touchdowns on his way to First-Team All-Mountain West Conference accolades.

2017 Signing Class Ranking: 72

Top Signees: RB Kaegun Williams, CB Darren Hall, RB Chance Bell, DE Andrew Aleki, CB Tayari Venable

The clear-cut headliner of SDSU’s 2017 class, Williams was rated the nation’s No. 7 all-purpose back and chose the Aztecs over Power 5 offers from California, Colorado, Kansas and even Tennessee. With Pumphrey departing after his record-setting season, it is plausible to think Williams could earn a role as a true freshman behind Penny at running back.

Hall was rated the No. 51 cornerback recruit and turned down Pac-12 offers from Colorado, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State.

Bell picked SDSU over offers including Illinois, Iowa State and Washington, Aleki selected the Aztecs over offers including Oregon State, Utah and Washington State, while Venable chose San Diego State over offers including Oregon State and Washington State. All three players were three-star prospects.

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