Aztecs coming into camp: A look at the defense
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long said he could get all philosophical in explaining why the Aztecs had one of the best defenses in the nation last season.
“I could tell you how wonderful a job we did coaching and what a wonderful job the seniors did,” Long said. “All those sort of things.
“Or I could tell you the facts.”
Facts are good.
“The facts are the first four games of the season we turned the ball over a bunch of times and didn’t cause many turnovers,” he said. “The rest of the year we hardly turned it over at all and we caused a ton of turnovers.”
SDSU had seven turnovers in the season’s first four games and only five (all fumbles) over the last 10 games. The Aztecs collected eight turnovers the first four games and 26 over the last 10 games.
And they ended up leading the nation in turnover margin (1.57). They also led the Mountain West in scoring defense (16.4 pph) and total defense (287.3 ypg).
“Last year was all momentum,” Long said. “Things started going good and all of the sudden you play better, just because of a confidence factor. ... Players that have confidence play at a little bit higher rate of speed and they make more things happen in a positive way.”
With seven returning starters and just as many experienced backups, the Aztecs should be playing with plenty of confidence on defense this season.
Here’s a position-by-position look at the defense heading into Monday’s first day of camp:
Starters: Sr. Kyle Kelley (DE), Sr. Alex Barrett (DE), Jr. Sergio Phillips or So. Noble Hall or Jr. Jondarius Gardner (DT).
Backups: Jr. Jay Henderson (DE), So. Julian Rochelin (DE), Jr. Jordan Watson (DT/DE) and/or the DTs who don’t start.
Comment: Barrett is a first-team All-Mountain West returner. Kelley became a starter late in the season and had a Hawaii Bowl-record 3 1/2 sacks in the win over Cincinnati.
The competition at nose tackle among Phillips, Hall and Gardner will be one of the biggest battles in camp.
“Most likely what will happen is we’ll decide on two of them and they’ll split time,” Long said.
Coming out of spring ball, Long said Phillips was “the best surprise we had in spring practice ... and improved the most.”
Jr. Dakota Turner is healed from a torn ACL, but has been moved from defensive end to fullback.
Henderson and Rochelin are undersized, but both possess quickness and speed that can be effective in the pass rush and against the lateral run game. The other backups are promising but being challenged to improve on assignments and techniques and play harder.
Starters: Sr. Calvin Munson, Sr. Randy Ricks, Sr. and Sr. Austin Wyatt-Thayer or So. Ronley Lakalaka or RS-Fr. Kyahva Tezino.
Backups: Jr. Ryan Dunn and two of the three others above who don’t start.
Injured: Jr. Tyler Morris (knee); RS-Fr. John Carroll (shoulder).
Comment: Munson is a first-team All-Mountain West returner and Dunn emerged last season after arriving as a walk-on transfer from Arizona.
But four-year standout Jake Fely is gone now, so who replaces him?
“That’s one of the big questions coming into fall camp,” Long said. “I have no idea. Those guys (Wyatt-Thayer, Lakalaka and Tezino) will be given a lot of opportunities to prove they’re the guy.”
Tezino and Wyatt-Thayer were noted for their improvement during spring ball, Long saying, “You feel comfortable that they’re going to give you some depth there and be really, really good players.”
More depth could come if Morris and Carroll recover from their injuries by midseason.
Starters: Sr. Damontae Kazee, Jr. Billy Vaughn Jr. or Jr. Derek Babiash.
Backup: Jr. Kalan Montgomery.
Comment: One reason the secondary is among the deepest areas on the team is because Kazee, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, declared for the NFL Draft within two days of the season ending, but changed his mind 72 hours later.
Starters: Sr. Malik Smith, Sr. Na’im McGee, Jr. Kameron Kelly or Jr. Trey Lomax.
Backups: So. Parker Baldwin, RS-Fr. Jeff Clay.
Comment: They are so deep at the position — “I think we have what you would consider four starters,” Long said — that it’s awfully tough to determine which three players start. Word is they do rock, paper, scissors.