Under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, San Diego State has become a regular winner, reaching five consecutive bowl games. The bar has been raised enough to where last season’s 7-6 season qualifies as a disappointment. The Aztecs should continue to contend in the Mountain West, but their ceiling may depend on the health of a transfer quarterback from Kentucky.
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Previewing San Diego State’s Offense for 2015
Transfer quarterback Maxwell Smith distanced himself from second-stringer Christian Chapman and Oregon transfer Jake Rodrigues in spring drills and gives San Diego State an experienced leader. Smith is a former starter at Kentucky and is battled-tested after facing sturdy SEC defenses. He could excel in the Mountain West.
Running back Donnel Pumphrey rushed for a school-record 1,867 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore, and he is on pace to join Marshall Faulk (4,589), Larry Ned (3,562) and Ronnie Hillman (3,243) as the only rushers in school history to reach 3,000 career yards. The 5'9", 170-pound Pumphrey has proven he can carry a huge workload, and San Diego State plans to rely heavily on him again this season.
The Aztecs are hoping that Eric Judge (24 receptions last season) will step up as a go-to receiver, and Lloyd Mills (22) should be the other starter after the dismissal of Larry Clark. The offensive line suffered a blow when starting center Lenicio Noble and backup guard Paul Rodriguez were booted from the squad, but the unit returns starting guards Nico Siragusa and Darrell Greene.
Previewing San Diego State’s Defense for 2015
The Aztecs allowed just 19.8 points per game last season and received good news when cornerback J.J. Whittaker and middle linebacker Jake Fely were awarded an extra season of eligibility. Both players missed large parts or all of multiple seasons due to injuries, and the welcome development makes San Diego State’s defense even sturdier.
Big-play outside linebacker Calvin Munson is the star of the unit after leading the team with four interceptions and with 10.5 tackles for a loss, including a team-high four sacks. Fely has started 30 career games but was healthy for just three contests last season.
The return of Whittaker (two interceptions) means that all five secondary starters in the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 alignment are returning. Cornerback Damontae Kazee broke up 13 passes last season, and safeties Malik Smith (three interceptions), Na’im McGee and Trey Lomax all had solid campaigns in 2014 and should be even better this fall.
Defensive end Alex Barrett had nine tackles for a loss before having his season cut short by a foot injury, and nose tackle Christian Heyward has the potential to mix it up in the interior.
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Previewing San Diego State’s Specialists for 2015
Donny Hageman was an improvement over San Diego State’s 2013 kicking fiascos, but his 20-of-25 field-goal campaign didn’t come without a glitch. Hageman had a chance to be a hero in the Poinsettia Bowl but missed a 34-yarder with 20 seconds left to allow Navy to post a 17–16 victory. He has a solid leg on kickoffs, which often helps with field position. Junior college transfer Tanner Blain likely will be the punter to replace departed Joel Alesi. Mills is a solid punt returner who took one back for a score in 2014.
San Diego State has gone to five consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history and has been steady but not spectacular in four seasons under coach Rocky Long’s leadership. The seven victories in 2014 were the Aztecs’ fewest since 2009 (under Brady Hoke), and there is now an expectation of a winning season and bowl game appearance every year.
If Smith can avoid the injuries that hindered him at Kentucky and can provide the downfield passing attack San Diego State lacked last season, the Aztecs will be a solid threat to reach the Mountain West title game. The defense is strong enough for San Diego State to win the division crown, and there is enough overall talent for the Aztecs to set winning the conference championship as a legitimate goal.