This is Part 7 of my “First Look” series, in which I take a quick peek at each of the Air Force football team’s 2010 opponents. We move this week to the Falcons’ Week 7 opponent – San Diego State.
San Diego State
Coach: Brady Hoke (2nd year)
2009 Record: 4-8 (2-6, 7th in Mountain West Conference)
2009 vs. AF: Air Force 26, San Diego State 14
2009 in a Sentence: The Aztecs started 4-4 under Hoke – sparking thoughts of a trip to a bowl game – but lost their last four games.
Off/Def Starters Back: 9/8
Roster Report: The Aztecs could boast one of the top passing attacks in the MWC in 2010.
San Diego State returns quarterback Ryan Lindley along with two receivers who are among the league’s best – DeMarco Sampson and Vincent Brown.
As a sophomore last season, Lindley completed 239-of-437 passes (54.7 percent) for 3,054 yards, 23 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Sampson made 62 catches for 851 yards and eight touchdowns, while Brown grabbed 45 passes for 778 yards and six touchdowns. And Brown’s numbers were compiled all in the first half of the season, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Aztecs’ seventh game.
“Having Vince back and DeMarco, how he came on at the end of last year, is a big plus for us,” Hoke said. “I think that will help us offensively getting the ball down the field a little more and trying to stretch defenses.”
Defensively, the Aztecs have all three of last year’s starting defensive linemen back, including 6-foot-3, 285-pound Ernie Lawson, who has been moved from tackle to left end.
“With what we do, we thought the move of Ernie over to the left end makes us a little more stout,” Hoke said. “I think he also is a guy who has the quickness you want in your ends. And then I think the development of Jerome Long (6-5, 290), playing inside as a tackle, and getting Neil Spencer (6-2, 285) back was even more of a luxury for us to move Ernie. But I think it’s really helped us defensively throughout the spring.”
San Diego State also will add defensive lineman Perry Jackson (6-2, 245), a transfer from Sierra College, who is recovering from a knee injury suffered last year. “I think we’ll have a full recovery by him,” Hoke said.
Andrew Preston, a 6-1, 215-pound senior from Centennial (Arapahoe High), was moved from linebacker to San Diego State’s “Aztec” position (a kind of linebacker/defensive back hybrid spot).
A key for the defense, according to an article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, is playing man-to-man coverage more effectively so defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s defense can employ more blitzes. It seems the Aztecs will have a better secondary this season.
“We really believe that we’ve got some young guys who redshirted a year ago – that we got close to playing, believe me – but we thought they needed a good fall academically and a fall within the program,” Hoke said. “But I thought in the spring, I think Nat Berhe and Gabe Lemon did a nice job, Marcus Andrews, Colin Lockett (all four are redshirt freshmen).
“I thought (6-3, 200-pound sophomore) Eric Pinkins and (5-11, 195-pound sophomore) Khalid Stevens all have the demeanor we’re looking for from our safeties and the athleticism. So I think that’s helped us.”
The Union-Tribune reported that defenses dominated in San Diego State’s annual Red and Black scrimmage, combining for eight sacks and 26 tackles for losses.
Fast Fact: San Diego State ranked 116th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams last season in rushing (78.3 yards per game). That has to change for the Aztecs to be a factor in the MWC.
“As soon as we start running the football better, we’re going to start playing better and we’re going to start winning games,” San Diego State offensive coordinator Al Borges told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “A lot of things change in every area when you run the ball better. We were so dependent on throwing the ball last year it killed us, particularly in crucial situations.”
What Caught My Eye: San Diego State held spring practices almost as early as Air Force. The Aztecs opened drills on Feb. 20 (two days after the Falcons) and finished on March 20. The other seven MWC schools didn’t start spring drills until March and didn’t finish until April.
Why did the Aztecs go so early? Well, it gave coaches more time to concentrate on spring recruiting, and it gave players a chance to concentrate on academics. It also meant – as Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has said – that if a player got injured, he had more time to get healthy before fall camp. But seemingly most importantly, the early dates for spring practice gave the Aztecs more time in the weight room prior to the summer.
“It’s allowed us to have a good six weeks of our kids after spring ball in the various things we’re trying to get done, strength-wise,” Hoke said. “I think we’re making some improvements there in the weight room, but we’re still not a strong football team. But that’s one of the things that we really need to keep focusing on is our development physically.”
Jake’s Way Too Early Line vs. Air Force: Air Force minus-10. The Falcons have had little trouble with San Diego State under Calhoun, beating the Aztecs by scores of 55-23, 35-10 and 26-14. No reason Air Force should not be a significant favorite.
Final Thought: San Diego State, to me, is the sleeping giant of the MWC. The Aztecs seemingly always have the athletes. But that hasn’t translated to victories in a while.
Hoke seems like the kind of no-nonsense coach who could find a way to make the Aztecs meet their potential. We’ll see if he can do it.