The Aztecs took a huge step forward last season and look to keep that momentum going into 2016. Not only did San Diego State win the Mountain West in 2015, the 11 victories also tied for the best mark in program history. Coach Rocky Long will once again lean on dynamic running back Donnell Pumphrey and lockdown cornerback Damontae Kazee to win the conference in 2016. The Aztecs have some uncertainty at quarterback and in the receiving corps, but Long's team should be strong on defense and with the ground attack once again.
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Previewing San Diego State’s Offense
Running back Donnel Pumphrey is back for an encore campaign after rushing for 1,653 yards and winning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year honors. Pumphrey considered leaving for the NFL but decided he wanted to take aim at Marshall Faulk’s school career rushing mark (4,589 yards from 1991-93). “I would like to break all of Faulk’s records,” says Pumphrey, who enters the campaign with 4,272 yards. “He’s an NFL Hall of Famer and had a terrific college career, and it would be a great accomplishment for our team if I was able to achieve that.”
Pumphrey’s return is also beneficial for quarterback Christian Chapman, who will need to prove he can be a downfield thrower after winning three consecutive starts to end last season after an injury to starter Maxwell Smith. The receiving group is a weakness, and that could affect Chapman’s growth. Pumphrey’s 28 receptions led the Aztecs last season, and Mikah Holder’s modest 24 catches were the best among the wideouts and tight ends.
First-team all-conference guard Nico Siragusa is the headliner of the offensive line, which returns three starters from a group that helped San Diego State rush for a school-record 3,266 yards.
Previewing San Diego State’s Defense
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Cornerback Damontae Kazee was the MW Defensive Player of the Year last season after intercepting eight passes and forcing two fumbles. He originally announced he was leaving for the NFL, but a week later he stunningly changed his mind and said he was returning for his final college season. Kazee’s return allows San Diego State to keep its status as the top defense in the conference as he routinely quiets the receivers who line up on his side of the field.
Safety Malik Smith had 77 tackles and five interceptions and should take another step forward. Outside linebacker Calvin Munson is another standout on a defense that allowed 16.4 points per game; he totaled 98 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Defensive ends Alex Barrett (5.5 sacks) and Kyle Kelley (7.5) are strong performers up front. The Aztecs allowed 17 or fewer points in nine of their final 10 games last season and have the talent to be a stingy unit again this season.
Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists
Not only do the Aztecs return the top offensive and defensive players in the conference, they also possess the reigning Special Teams Player of the Year in Rashaad Penny, a dynamic kickoff returner. Penny averaged 33.5 yards per return last season and scored TDs on three of his 24 opportunities. Punter Tanner Blain doesn’t kick for distance — only eight of his 77 efforts went for 50 or more yards — but he stifled the opponent’s return game with 25 placed inside the 20-yard line along with 24 fair catches. Kicker Donny Hageman is out of eligibility, so the field goal duties fall to John Baron II, a left-footer with a powerful leg.
San Diego State matched the school’s major-college record for victories (11) last season — it was originally done in 11 games in 1969 under legendary Don Coryell — and will have an opportunity to reach those heights again this season. The Aztecs have developed a high level of toughness during Rocky Long’s five seasons as coach and also a resiliency to overcome obstacles that was seldom seen at the school for most of the previous two decades. The result has been six consecutive bowl games and last season’s conference title — the Aztecs’ first outright league title since claiming the Western Athletic Conference crown in 1986.
San Diego State will be favored to win the West Division, and the ultimate goal will be another MW title. Championship expectations are still a new thing for the Aztecs, but the 42–7 demolition of Cincinnati in the Hawaii Bowl showed that this crew is ripe to tack on more accomplishments.