Philadelphia, PA â" Â 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Stepping into a perfect situation, Rocky Long assumed the head coaching position with San Diego State in 2011 and rode the Aztecs to their second straight postseason bid, the first time in the school's Division I era that it had ever gone to bowl games in consecutive years.
A defensive specialist who arrived in San Diego as the team's defensive coordinator before taking over the head job following the departure of Brady Hoke to Michigan, Long certainly got the Aztecs off on the right foot as the team dispensed with Cal Poly, Army and Washington State immediately out of the gate. Rather surprisingly, the 3-0 start for SDSU was the team's first in 30 years and the 42-24 triumph over WSU halted a 19-game losing streak for the team against members of the Pac-10/12 Conference, not to mention a 23-game slide versus programs that hailed from automatic BCS qualifying conferences.
However, the road to success for the Aztecs was not paved with consistent winning efforts, in fact the team dropped back-to-back decisions against Michigan (28-7) in Ann Arbor and at home versus TCU (27-14), although the fight against the Horned Frogs was quite encouraging.
The squad rattled off three wins in the next four games against Air Force, New Mexico and Colorado State, all of which should have been handled rather easily. The loss to Wyoming at home (30-27) was an example of how the Aztecs weren't yet prepared to vie for the conference crown, unable to take care of second- tier programs in the MWC. A 52-35 defeat at the hands of Boise State, the newest addition to the MWC, was not surprising, but defeating UNLV and Fresno State in the final two games of the regular season by only a combined 66-42 score was somewhat under whelming.
With the 8-4 finish overall and a 4-3 mark in conference, the Aztecs were left to contend with Louisiana in the New Orleans Bowl, a meeting which should have served as a wake-up call as SDSU dropped a 32-30 final to the local favorites.
Carrying the San Diego State offense were quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman, the former finishing his career as the MWC's all-time leading passer with 12,690 yards. With 12,415 yards of total offense, Lindley also set the new standard in the MWC in that department as well, while Hillman established a new single-season rushing record with 1,711 yards and became just the sixth player in league history to run for at least 1,000 yards in back-to- back campaigns. Unfortunately, Long and the rest of the Aztecs now have to prepare for life without both Lindley and Hillman as the latter left school early to enter the NFL.
OFFENSE: "We are going to let Adam Dingwell and Ryan Katz compete for the first week of camp and we'll make a decision early on," coach Long said of picking a starting quarterback. "I mean, they competed all spring, too. We have seen the good and bad of both of them. They have had good days and bad days, so we'll have a starter to he can get most of the reps the last couple of weeks of camp before we can play our first game."
Losing such an accomplished signal-caller like Lindley is sure to set an offense back a few steps, but with Katz and Dingwell pushing each other perhaps the heated competition will bring out the best in both players.
Not only does the offense have to find a new leader who will call the shots in the huddle, the guy lining up behind that player will also be new after the early departure of Hillman. The depth chart early on indicates Adam Muema as the top man, but senior Walter Kazee will certainly see his share of carries as well. Both players missed some action in 2011, so hopefully they are now ready for a full slate of games.
According to Long, the deepest position on the team is at receiver. Colin Lockett caught a team-best 58 balls for 970 yards and 8 touchdowns, while Dylan Denso tallied 49 receptions for another 634 yards and 3 scores and both are back to compete once more for the Aztecs. Tight end Gavin Escobar is also a key figure in the passing game after posting 51 catches for 780 yards and 8 TDs.
DEFENSE: Running in plenty of substitutes on defense worked rather well for San Diego State last year. Not only did it help keep the unit fresh and energized, it also gave the players the sense that they were more than just backups who stepped in from time to time.
"On defense, we play a lot of guys," notes coach Long. "Last year, we averaged 24 guys in a game on defense and that's the same way we'll do it this year."
Hopefully, the fact that the Aztecs put a lot of guys in action will be one way to offset the loss of three of their top four tacklers. Perhaps more critical than Miles Burris and Jerome Long having led the squad in total stops with 78 and 73, respectively, is their combined 27.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, numbers that dwarf the rest of the roster.
Linebacker Jake Fely, responsible for 58 tackles and tying for the team lead with 3 forced fumbles, will again be a major contributor for SDSU, as will Nat Berhe who is the top returning tackler after putting up 67 stops a year ago.
The squad has a host of returning starters in the secondary, but it is Leon McFadden who stands out above the rest after being named the preseason MWC Defensive Player of the Year. McFadden recorded just 2 interceptions last season, but his 15 pass breakups demonstrate that he is someone who refuses to play soft and is constantly around the ball.
SPECIAL TEAMS: In 2011, the placekicking game for the Aztecs was not healthy at all. Abelardo Perez was able to knock through all but two of his 49 PATs, but he connected on a miserable 6-of-15 field goal tries.
Averaging close to 44 yards per kick, Brian Stahovich more than held his own as the punter a year ago, but both he and Perez are now gone which means the Aztecs have to regroup and find replacements. However, coach Long doesn't seem too concerned about putting those pieces together immediately.
"That decision of who the punter is, who the kicker is and who the deep snapper is won't be made until the first game because you have to put them into situations where it's kind of live, where it's kind of a scrimmage situation and the best guy gets to do it."
OUTLOOK: From a historical standpoint, the Aztecs have had quite a bit of success against the opponents on the first half of this year's schedule. Except for Washington and North Dakota, the latter being a first-time foe, San Diego State owns a winning record against every opponent right up until the middle of October. Obviously, previous records hold little weight in the here-and-now and that's something the Aztecs have to hope holds true for the second half of the campaign because the team has a winning record against just one of its final five teams on that list.
Unlike last season, the Aztecs have to be careful not to get into offensive shootouts because this time around they don't have Lindley and Hillman as their safety nets.