Another football season means the return of a regular feature in this space — five questions and answers with someone who covers UW’s opponent.
This week, our guest is Rob Terranova, who covers San Diego State for the North County Times.
Q: San Diego State lost a lot of offense last year with the departure of QB Ryan Lindley and RB Ronnie Hillman. How will the Aztecs replace them and is there a hope that the offense can still be as potent?
A: I think it’s safe to say that there really is no replacing a Ryan Lindley or Ronnie Hillman. Those two guys are very special players and there is no question that their talents will be missed this season. However, that is not to say that the Aztecs are deficient at either of those positions now. At running back, sophomore Adam Muema and senior Walter Kazee will be splitting carries and together they provide a formidable ground attack for the Aztecs. Muema is a power runner with speed, and Kazee is more of a nifty runner that Aztecs’ running backs coach Jeff Horton described as having “more wiggle and shake to him.” In fact, head coach Rocky Long told me that he doesn’t expect any drop off in the running game this season with these two guys sharing the load, and that says a lot considering SDSU rushed for it’s most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns as a team in 16 years last season.
At quarterback, Ryan Katz has shown to be an accurate passer and a smart decision maker. His mobility gives him the ability to extend plays, and his experience coming from Oregon State will certainly prove invaluable throughout the season. Also, the receiving corp (which was viewed as the team’s Achilles’ heel last season) is arguably the team’s greatest strength right now. With the addition of guys like highly-touted transfer Brice Butler and sophomore Ezell Ruffin, along with carryovers Colin Lockett and Dylan Denso, Katz should have no trouble finding an open target this season. So yes, I would certainly say there is hope that the offense can still be as potent as it was last season.
Q: Aside from the QB and RB spots, who are some other players to watch on SDSU’s offense?
A: First, I would have to say TE Gavin Escobar. Coach Long recently said he would argue that Escobar is the best tight end in the country. Yes, he is coming off of an injury, but from everything I am hearing he will be ready to go at full-speed come Saturday. With Long voicing concerns about the inexperience of the offensive line, it’s very likely Katz will be looking for Escobar to bail him out if pressure comes sooner than expected. And at 6-foot-6 and 255-lbs, Escobar will be easy to find.
Also, I would keep an eye on wide receiver Ezell Ruffin. After spending the last two seasons on the scout team because of what Long described as “a lack of focus,” Ruffin not only made the squad this year, he impressed the coaching staff so much that he jumped atop the depth chart at wide receiver. I also had the chance to talk to Ruffin this week and he told me about his off-season training program and all the extra work he put in on the side to get to where he is at. There is no question that he looks determined to make a statement this year, and I would never bet against anyone with his talent, playing with a chip on his shoulder.
Q: A lot is made of SDSU’s 3-3-5 defense. Why does coach Rocky Long prefer that alignment and what makes it successful when it does work?
A: Long’s coaching philosophy revolves around being aggressive and constantly attacking the ball and the 3-3-5 scheme plays right into that style. It’s a very risk defense that predicates itself on: aggressiveness, movement, disguise, and speed. And when implemented properly with the right personnel (as the Aztecs believe they have in place this season), the 3-3-5 can neutralize the vaunted spread offense that has gone mainstream in today’s college football game, and it’s element of disguise also disrupts the ability of the opposing quarterback to make an accurate read of the defense on any given play. This allows SDSU to dial up a ton of surprise blitzes.
Q: Can you summarize SDSU’s special teams?
A: Simply put, a question mark. As of Wednesday, Long still had not named set starters on special team’s and he has chalked that up to too much inconsistency from the kickers. He said the decision will have to be made by Friday and it may take that long to decide. This season Long is even toying with the idea that when the offense crosses the 50-yard line to eliminate punting and field goals all together and go for it on fourth down every time. This method could get really interesting the first time the team finds itself in a fourth-and-long situation and is well within field goal range.
Q: SDSU was an eight-win team last season. What are its general expectations for this season and how does the UW game factor in to those?
A: The expectations haven’t changed much for this team. As coach Long said this week, “Our expectations are to win every game.”
He did however go on to explain that depending on how you do in any given game, goals can change weekly, so this UW game will definitely be used as a gauge for this young team to see where they stand. But, I can say that there has been no shortage of praise for the UW program around here the last few weeks and many people are saying this is arguably the toughest game on the Aztec’s schedule this year.
Still, I believe that regardless of the outcome Saturday, the expectations for the Aztecs’ players will remain the same this season: win the Mountain West conference and get to a third straight bowl game.