Teams & Conferences

2015 College Football Preview: San Diego State Aztecs

San Diego State has gotten to Point B under Rocky Long. Now it’s time to take that next step, and here’s where Long has to prove he can do it.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

New Mexico was coming off a great 1997 season when Long took over, but some rebuilding had to be done to get to a level of consistent success. Eventually, the Lobos turned into a decent bowl team – going to five extra games in six seasons – but they were always a Mountain West bridesmaid. Worse yet, they lost four of the five bowl games under Long, and after 11 years, it was time to try something different.

Fast forward to Long’s tenure at San Diego State, taking over a program that got a terrific 2010 from Brady Hoke, and maintaining the success over his first four seasons. The Aztecs have been solid, getting in the hunt for the Mountain West title over the last three years and knocking on the door. But there haven’t been any conference titles, and they’re 1-3 in bowl games only beating Buffalo in the 2013 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Long’s story short – he’s overdue to get a program over the hump.

With a nasty running game and a fantastic defense, San Diego State has been able to thump its way to wins under Long, but there hasn’t been enough offensive firepower against the big boys in key situations. It’s been great to roll past the UNLVs, Idahos and San Jose States, and beating Boise State in 2012 and 2013 was nice, but it might take a few chances to go from steady to sensational.

The passing game has to be stronger after being an afterthought throughout last season. An interesting quarterback derby will get all of the offseason spotlight, but the running attack will once again be reliable and effective to take the heat off.

The defense that finished 16th in the nation gets back eight starters – not including the best player, LB Jake Fely, who was banged up early last year – and should be devastating. Throw in excellent kicker Donny Hageman, and Long has the pieces in place to win the Mountain West title.

Nine bowl appearances in his last 11 years coaching in the Mountain West, 11 seasons in the last 12 with six wins or more, and a program built up to maintain the production – Long has been a terrific head coach.

This year, he should be even better.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: It’s a Rocky Long offense, so the ground game was terrific, and the passing attack was iffy. The Aztecs should be outstanding again running the ball with star back Donnel Pumphrey working behind a veteran line that returns three starters and – despite a rocky offseason – should be strong. There actually will be production through the air after averaging just 178 yards per game and finishing 110th in the nation in passing efficiency with Kentucky transfer Maxwell Smith and young baller Christian Chapman upgrading the quarterback situation. Now the receiving corps has to do its part after an underwhelming 2014.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: It If it’s not the best defense in the Mountain West, it’ll be close after finishing 13th in the nation in scoring D and 16th in yards allowed. All five starters return to an occasionally dominant secondary – it’ll be a brick wall against anyone who doesn’t throw at a high level. The front six gets star linebacker Jake Fely back, but can he stay healthy? There’s good bulk on the front three, and while there won’t be a big-time pass rush, it’ll be effective. It’s not a massive group, but it’ll hold up well against the run with a great rotation.

What to watch for on offense: Can the passing game at least not screw everything else up? San Diego State’s bread is always going to be buttered with the ground game and defense, but to take things up a few notches, it’s going to have to throw a little bit. The problem wasn’t that there wasn’t enough going on down the field – it was when the interceptions were flowing. The Aztecs threw ten touchdown passes and 15 picks on the year with 11 of the picks coming in the six losses and three of those scoring throws coming against Idaho. Under Long, SDSU is 1-11 when throwing two interceptions or more – the quarterback situation and a steady passing attack will be the team’s main focus.

What to watch for on defense: Expect the run defense to destroy offensive lines. The Aztecs return three starters on the offensive front and should be okay as the season goes on, but it looked like an utter disaster when going up against the Aztec front seven this offseason. Helped by a loaded secondary and the return of Jake Fely at one linebacker spot, the D as a whole should be solid, but the pressure into the backfield from Jon Sanchez and Alex Barrett on the ends, and the speed throughout the front six, should crank up the sack total to the best yet in the Long era.

The team will be far better if … the passing game works. It should be better with more talent at quarterback and a few decent receiver options, but that’s got to include more plays downfield. Last season the Aztecs averaged a paltry 6.6 yards per throw and had way too many meltdowns. Even though they won both games, they can’t win the Mountain West title with games like the 5-of-17 performance against New Mexico or the 4-of-16 day against San Jose State. Defenses have to pay some attention to something other than the ground attack.

The schedule: Going to California and Penn State will be interesting non-conference tests for a team looking to be good enough to win at least one of them. Hosting South Alabama will help at home in between the two Power 5ers.
– It’ll be tough to get comfortable without getting two games in a row at home. Everything is broken up by road dates.
– There’s a rough stretch of three road games in a four week mid-season stretch, hurt mostly by going to Hawaii to kick off the run – there’s a lot of plane time to log in.
– There’s no Boise State, but going to Colorado State and playing Utah State from the Mountain will be tough.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Fresno State. It might turn out to be the game for the West title – the other biggie against Nevada is at home at the end of the regular season – but it’s sandwiched in between Penn State and Hawaii on the road.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Donnel Pumphrey. There are several excellent backs ready to see more time, with Chase Price a tough senior coming off a 674-yard, five score season, and Marcus Stamps a promising sophomore with size and a world of talent, but it’s the diminutive Pumphrey who’s going to carry the mail once again. He’s not all that big, and he’s not built to take a pounding, but he ran for 1,873 yards and 20 touchdowns as arguably the nation’s slipperiest back. He’s one of the most valuable, too.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Jake Fely. There are few more productive linebackers in the nation – when he’s healthy. At only 215 pounds he doesn’t have the body type to take a beating, but he has given it a shot. Unfortunately, that led to a broken foot, a liver injury, and a neck problem that cost him almost all of 2013 and most of last year. Just when he was about to get back into the swing of things, he suffered a dislocated wrist. He doesn’t have to be the star on the loaded defense, but if he’s close to 100%, the Aztec D should go from great to impenetrable.

Key player to a successful season: Senior QB Maxwell Smith. The Kentucky transfer has the arm, the size, and the ability to be the answer to the Aztec passing problems, but Christian Chapman is right there in the hunt for the gig, too. It would help if the Aztecs had a receiver who could step up and shine, but it’s a chicken-and-egg issue – the quarterbacks have to make the targets better. Smith had his moments for the Wildcats, and now he gets one last shot to show what he could do. He could be the missing piece to a championship puzzle.

The season will be a success if … the Aztecs win the Mountain West title. The program has been among the best of the league’s best over the last several seasons, but it hasn’t won the championship. With Fresno State, Utah State and Nevada at home, and with no Boise State on the slate, everything should work out fine schedule-wise. Anything less than a ten-win season with a trophy will be a major disappointment.

Key game: Oct. 3 vs. Fresno State. The biggest barrier to the SDSU Mountain West title hopes over the last few years is coming to Qualcomm in early October. The Aztecs have lost three straight to Fresno State and four of five in MW play. It’s the league opener and the tone-setter. Win this, and the rest of the conference schedule should be a relative walk in the park.

2014 Fun Stats:
– First Quarter Scoring: San Diego State 89 – Opponents 37
– Rushing Yards Per Game: San Diego State 218.6 – Opponents 145.6
– Time of Possession: San Diego State 31:28 – Opponents 28:32

Players You Need To Know

1. RB Donnel Pumphrey, Jr.
If it’s possible to be a glamour position player in a grinding rushing attack, the star of a Rocky Long offense is it. Pumphrey doesn’t really fit the type of a grinding back, though, at just 5-9 and 170 pounds, but he was able to handle the workload with 300 touches on the year with 1,873 yards and 20 touchdowns to go along with 160 receiving yards. Extremely quick, he’s able to slide through the holes and avoid taking the big shots, and he proved to be durable with 20 carries or more in ten of the last 11 games. On the season he managed 267 yards and three scores against San Jose State, and 246 yards and two touchdowns against New Mexico to make up for a poor passing day from the offense. Slippery around the goal line, he ran for four scores against UNLV and came up with two or more scores six times. A blazer, the former Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year was also a special sprinter with state champion-level wheels in the 100 and 200 – he’s devastating in the clear.

2. LB Jake Fely, Sr.
The one question is whether or not he’ll finally catch a break with the injuries. The star of the linebacking corps and the defense three years ago, he came up with 90 tackles and seven sacks with 11.5 tackles for loss as a huge hitter and playmaker. Fast, athletic, and among the Mountain West’s toughest tough guys, he can do it all, but he suffered a broken foot, a neck injury, and other issues that limited him over the last two seasons, making just 20 tackles with a sack two years ago and doing little last year after returning, and then getting knocked out again with a wrist injury. The D can be fine without him, but he’s a disruptive force with MW Player of the Year talent – again, when he’s right.

3. LB Calvin Munson, Jr.
With injuries a problem for a defense that had to replace several starters, the 6-1, 235-pound Munson stepped up and turned into a whale of a playmaker for the front six. The former special teamer is versatile enough to play anywhere in the linebacking corps with excellent athleticism and versatility. Last year he came up with 83 tackles, doing a great job in the open field, and was great at getting behind the line with four sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Also solid in pass coverage, he came up with four picks including one for a score in the win over Air Force. While he won’t have to do it all, the all-star talent proved he can, getting all over the field with ten stops against Air Force and 12 against Fresno State.

4. CB Damontae Kazee, Jr.
With terrific 5-11, 180-pound size and good toughness, he’s an all-star baller who can hit – making 58 tackles on the season – and can be a game changer when the ball is in the air. He only came up with one interception, but he broke up 12 passes and was the team’s best lockdown corner. Fantastic in the open field in one-on-one situations, he was a steady tackler who was never afraid to get his nose dirty. It’s a veteran secondary, but he’s the star.

5. DE/DT Alex Barrett, Jr.
Part defensive tackle, part end, he’d ideally work in a 4-3 interior, but he’ll be just fine moving to the end where he should be strong against the run and a decent factor in the backfield. At 6-3 and 260 pounds he’s a bulky lineman who gets physical and can get active, making 39 tackles with three sacks and nine tackles for loss. Quick off the ball, he blocked a kick and was a constant irritant for quarterbacks. Now he’s at a better spot after getting beaten on as a nose guard, missing the last four games of the year with a foot injury.

6. QB Maxwell Smith, Sr.
Kentucky’s leading passer in both 2012 and 2013, he’s a big 6-5, 235-pound passer who threw nine touchdowns and just one interception for the Wildcats two years ago, but just when it seemed like he’d be the star of the attack, Patrick Towles took over. Redshirt freshman Christian Chapman isn’t all that big, but he has a great throwing motion and will be deep in the hunt for the job, but Smith is the veteran who went through the SEC wars – he’s battle tested. Smith might not be all that mobile, but that’s not his game. He’s a pure pocket passer who’ll try to stretch the field a little more than the offense did last year.

7. OG Darrell Greene, Sr.
A blaster of a blocker, the 6-4, 315-pound veteran has been a key part to the ground game for the last few years and has been among the most consistent linemen. With his size and strength, he’s been the one the team works around when needed and he’s able to blast away with the best of them. He might not be fantastic on the move, but he’s great in a phone booth at an all-star level.

8. WR/KR Lloyd Mills, Jr.
The 5-10, 165-pounder didn’t do enough as a wide receiver, but he’s an all-star caliber special teamer. He might be thin, but he can fly with tremendous straight-line speed. Third on the team in receiving, he caught 22 passes for 310 yards and a score. He didn’t blow up in any one game, but he came up with a few 36 yard runs early in the season and had his moments as a key punt returner, averaging 11.39 per try with a touchdown coming in the season opener.

9. S Malik Smith, Jr.
Working at one of the Warrior positions, the 6-0, 185-pound junior is solid against the run making 55 tackles with ten against Boise State, but he’s more like a free safety/corner when the ball is in the air with three interceptions and five broken up passes. A tough all-around playmaker for his size, he can shine on special teams as well as in the secondary.

10. S Na’im McGee, Jr.
The Aztec in the defensive backfield – more of a strong safety – the 6-0, 200-pound veteran started out his career at Diablo Valley College but became a main man stepping in last year. Very athletic and very tough, he tied for third on the team with 63 tackles despite missing a game late in the year. He doesn’t do much when the ball is in the air, and he’s used mostly against the run, but he’s consistent.