San Diego State Football: Three Questions For Spring Practice
The Aztecs fell off a bit in 2022, but addressing a few key puzzles in spring could help them stay in the mix for another conference title.
What needs to be answered?
The San Diego State Aztecs became the latest Mountain West football team to kick off spring practice season yesterday, the first steps in a potential rebound next fall.
While the program strung together its 13th consecutive season with a .500 record or better, it proved difficult for the Aztecs to replicate their highwater mark from 2021 as lingering offensive woes often undermined a typically stout defense. The questions facing San Diego State heading into this spring, however, aren’t entirely the same as they have been in recent years.
First practice in the books! 😤 pic.twitter.com/S3dmFV3xDv
— San Diego State Football (@AztecFB) February 21, 2023
What will Ryan Lindley’s offense look like?
It won’t surprise you to learn that Jeff Horton’s offensive gameplans last year were often conservative and run-heavy, by-products of a shaky quarterback situation early in the season and an uneven ground game. According to Parker Fleming, at one point in the 2022 campaign, the Aztecs’ rush rate over expected climbed to 9.8%, but Jalen Mayden’s emergence changed that calculus down the stretch: By the time they faced Middle Tennessee State in the Hawaii Bowl, that same rate had fallen to 5.7%.
Subsequently, it may not shock you to learn that shift in trends also coincided with Lindley’s arrival as quarterbacks coach in early October. Mayden would throw the ball at least 24 times in seven of the team’s last eight games and finished the year with 8.6 yards per attempt, the highest figure of any qualifying quarterback in the Mountain West. Was that a taste of things to come, or will Lindley and Mayden find new ways to take advantage of the latter’s skill set?
Who will step up at wide receiver?
The quarterback situation may be settled for a change, but one thing that’s still very much in flux is who Mayden will spend most of his time throwing to next fall. Jesse Matthews and Tyrell Shavers, who had 139 combined targets between them last year, are both gone and need replacing.
One obvious name to keep an eye on is Mekhi Shaw, who ended the year third among the team’s wide receivers with 44 targets and had a strong four-game stretch from late October to mid-November where he racked up 20 catches for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Brionne Penny has flashed explosiveness, too — you’ll remember he scored three touchdowns in the team’s spring game last year — but established options behind them are few and far between.
Western Carolina transfer Raphael Williams seems like a strong candidate to pick up some of the slack, after averaging 13.5 yards per catch in two seasons at the Division II level, while others like sophomore Josh Nicholson and redshirt freshmen Hassan Mahasin and Jacoby Kelly, who were two of the team’s top recruits back in 2022, could cement themselves in Lindley’s plans with a strong spring season.
How will the defensive line remake itself?
Perhaps no unit in the Mountain West has lost much talent to the NFL over the last two years than San Diego State’s defensive line. Cameron Thomas got selected in last year’s NFL Draft and any of Jonah Tavai, Justus Tavai, and Keshawn Banks could join him in April, which means that there are plenty of big shoes to fill in the trenches.
Some of last year’s part-time contributors, like Daniel Okpoko, Garrett Fountain, and Wyatt Draeger, will return, but the roster’s newest arrivals are arguably the more intriguing bunch. Samuela Tuihalamaka looks ready-made, at 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds, to clog lanes on the interior after transferring in from Oklahoma State, while juco imports Tupu Alualo and Talib Salahuddin made waves in southern California at Mt. San Antonio College and Riverside College, respectively. New defensive line coach Bojay Filimoeatu has one of the more important jobs in the conference on his hands this spring.