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OVERVIEW: San Diego State returns seven starters from an offense that ranked 16th nationally in yards per game (456.69) and 19th in points per game (35.0) last season. Headlining the list are 2010 MWC rushing leader Ronnie Hillman and fourth-year starting QB Ryan Lindley, who will be throwing to a new group of receivers this season. While there is a new coaching staff in place, the scheme will remain the same.
BACKFIELD: Just about any team in the country would love to have a quarterback/tailback combination as solid as Lindley and Hillman. Lindley has thrown for 2,500 yards in each of the past three seasons, including 3,830 yards a year ago. He threw 28 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions last season while ranking 14th nationally in total offense and 21st in passing efficiency. Lindley could struggle to match his 2010 totals this season because he no longer has the luxury of throwing to departed All-MWC receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson. Hillman ran for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman last season to lead the MWC in both categories. He rushed for at least 150 yards against six opponents (New Mexico State, Missouri, Air Force, Colorado State, UNLV and Navy). He gained 228 yards each against Missouri and Navy.
RECEIVERS: This area clearly is the biggest concern for San Diego State's offense. The Aztecs must find a go-to receiver and adequate complementary targets. Brown and Sampson formed one of the nation's top receiving tandems last season. Brown caught 69 passes for 1,352 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Sampson had 67 receptions for 1,220 yards and eight scores. San Diego State also must replace Brandon Sullivan (26 catches, 383 yards, three TDs). Their departures leave sophomore TE Gavin Escobar (29-323-4) as the Aztecs' top returning receiver, though junior WR Dominique Sandifer (23-263-0) also returns.
LINE: San Diego State must replace second-team All-MWC G Trask Iosefa, but the Aztecs return their other four starters from last season. The first-team line features three seniors (LT Tommie Draheim, LG Emilio Rivera and RT Kurtis Gunther) and two juniors (C Alec Johnson and RG Nik Embernate). Draheim and Embernate are entering their third seasons as starters. The versatile Draheim has experience at tackle and center. The lone first-year starter is Rivera, though he has lettered each of the past two seasons.
OVERVIEW: San Diego State implemented a 3-3-5 scheme when Rocky Long arrived as defensive coordinator and will continue that alignment now that he's coach. San Diego State returns five starters from a unit that ranked 36th in scoring defense and 43rd in total defense last season.
LINE: Senior T Jerome Long is a three-year letterman who made 5.5 tackles for loss last season, but he's the only returning starter in the front three. The likely starters at ends are seniors J.J. Autele and Neil Spencer, who combined for 2.5 sacks in reserve roles last season. Autele and Spencer have lettered each of the past two seasons, so they aren't total newcomers. San Diego State would like to shore up a run defense that ranked just 57th nationally last season. The Aztecs gave up 3.7 yards per carry and 148.8 rushing yards per game.
LINEBACKERS: TCU's Tank Carder and Tanner Brock are the linebackers that garner the majority of the attention in the MWC, but San Diego State junior Miles Burris is a star in his own right. Burris recorded 80 tackles and 9.5 sacks last season to lead the Aztecs in both categories. Nobody else on the team accumulated more than two sacks. Senior Logan Ketchum is a returning starter who made 52 tackles last season. The middle linebacker competition features two players coming back from injury. Jake Fely played three games as a true freshman last season before lacerating his liver in practice. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA and heads into this season as a redshirt freshman. Fely is competing with junior Rob Andrews, who made three starts last season but suffered a knee injury in the Poinsettia Bowl.
SECONDARY: San Diego State's use of the 3-3-5 means the Aztecs have five defensive backs in their base defense. That alignment features two cornerbacks, one "Aztec" (similar to a typical free safety position) and two "Warriors" (a strong safety/linebacker hybrid in that players can line up near the line of scrimmage or drop back into coverage). Junior CB Leon McFadden earned first-team All-MWC honors and led the conference with 14 passes defended last season. Brandon Davis, a senior at one Warrior position, is the only other returning player in the secondary who started the majority of San Diego State's games last season.
Abel Perez is back as the Aztecs' kicker after going 17-of-22 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 53, last season. Perez was only 3-of-6 from at least 40 yards out, but he did make each of his last eight overall attempts. Brian Stahovich averaged 45.4 yards per punt last season to earn first-team All-MWC honors, and San Diego State ranked 49th in net punting. The Aztecs need to upgrade their return and coverage units. San Diego State ranked 93rd in punt-return average, 107th in kickoff-return average, 85th in punt coverage and 111th in kickoff coverage last season.
San Diego State's inexperience at wide receiver could allow Ezell Ruffin to have a featured role this fall. Ruffin, a 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman from Long Beach, Calif., made enough of an impression this spring to crack the depth chart as a second-team receiver. His speed could allow him to emerge as the big-play threat the Aztecs need now that Sampson and Brown are gone. Fely has a good chance of opening the season as San Diego State's starting middle linebacker, but he isn't really a newcomer since he played three games last season before getting hurt.
San Diego State has a good chance of winning its first three games before it heads to Ann Arbor for a highly anticipated Sept. 24 showdown with former Aztecs coach Brady Hoke and Michigan. The Aztecs' first three games are against Cal Poly, Army and Washington State, with the game against Army on the road. The Michigan showdown kicks off a three-game stretch that likely will define San Diego State's season. TCU comes to San Diego State two weeks after the Michigan game. Five days after the TCU matchup, the Aztecs travel to Air Force for a Thursday night game. San Diego State does get each of the MWC favorites (TCU and Boise State) at home, but that trip to Air Force could prove extremely tricky.
Ball State went 12-2 in Hoke's final season on the job and fell all the away to 2-10 the following season. Don't expect San Diego State to take a similar plunge in its first year of the post-Hoke era. For one thing, Long has a much better track record as a head coach than Stan Parrish, who replaced Hoke at Ball State. Long's 11 years of MWC head-coaching experience at New Mexico should come in handy this season. And that he spent the past two seasons as San Diego State's defensive coordinator should make for a seamless transition. For another thing, that Ball State team had to replace star QB Nate Davis as well as Hoke. San Diego State returns its veteran quarterback in Lindley as well as the MWC's rushing leader in Hillman. The Aztecs aren't quite on the Boise State or TCU level just yet, but they should win at least eight games and fight it out with Air Force for third place in the conference standings.
For more on San Diego State now and throughout the season, check out AztecSportsReport.com