Last season, incoming coach Brady Hoke made educated guesses about the priorities for the Aztecs program.
Those priorities have not changed in Hoke's second year with San Diego State in 2010 -- although the guesswork no longer is needed.
The Aztecs must make its lines on both sides of the ball more physical to have a chance to compete in the Mountain West Conference.
Opponents more than doubled SDSU in rushing yards per game -- 165.5-78.3 -- and its defense against the run actually improved dramatically in 2009. The Aztecs moved Brandon Sullivan to fullback so they can use two-back sets to run the ball more effectively.
The physicality plan is all part of Hoke's task of instilling some toughness in a team that hasn't gone to a bowl game since the MWC formed in 1999. Hoke saw first-hand the team's emotional frailty during the last three weeks of the season.
SDSU lost double-digit leads against conference rivals Wyoming and UNLV that sandwiched a first-half no-show at Utah in a 38-7 loss. The Aztecs trailed 38-0 at the half.
"When you look at two games last year, at the end of games, I don't think we had guys who would get out of their comfort zone and take a chance and make a play or whatever it might be," Hoke told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's part of becoming confident in who you are and being in those situations. That's a big part of what we learn as a team."
Defensively, SDSU is trying to learn to play man-to-man coverage better in the secondary. Success in the back end will allow the Aztecs to commit more of their front six to stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback.
Now that the coaching staff is familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of its team, it can go about accentuating those strengths and improving those weaknesses in 2010. Normally, rebuilding teams require three years to get in position to compete because the staff must make adjustments on their year-two solutions to the problems discovered in year one.
Skill-wise, however, SDSU has the potential to win now. Wide receiver Vincent Brown, who had 45 receptions for 778 yards and six touchdowns in just six-plus game before a thumb injury shut down his season, is back for his senior year. DeMarco Sampson, who had 40 receptions for 569 yards and six TDs as the lead receiver when Brown went down, received a sixth year of eligibility.NOTES, QUOTES
--The team expects the move of linebacker Andrew Preston to Aztec back to pay big dividends on defense. He has the athletic ability to cover backs and receivers on longer routes, and his size gives SDSU a fourth linebacker on the field to defend the run.
--SDSU was a little leery of how senior Brandon Sullivan would react with the move from tailback to fullback, but he impressed coaches with both his attitude and his ability as a lead blocker. As long as he continues to embrace the role, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound senior will be instrumental in the Aztecs' improvement in the ground attack.
RB Ronnie Hillman -- The redshirt freshman has worked himself into the rotation with a strong spring. The Aztecs love his speed and ability to make plays in space. He still has to add some weight to his 175-pound frame and show that he can take the ball inside for positive yardage when the situation calls for it.
LB Nick Tenhaeff -- The redshirt freshman's play in the spring allowed the Aztecs to feel better about moving Andrew Preston to Aztec back. He was a mainstay in the offensive backfield in the spring and has the ability to chase down the football.
DB Nat Berhe -- Berhe, a redshirt freshman, will push senior Dey Juan Hemmings for a starting position at Warrior back by virtue of a strong spring. He put on weight in the offseason to make himself more physical and took advantage of extended playing time when Hemmings went down toward the end of spring with an ankle injury.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Winning always helps. The Ball State situation I came from is very similar from an apathy standpoint, to players not believing in themselves. How your team competes, how it behaves in the classroom and the community is very important. But daggone it, it's probably going to be winning that has the largest effect. I don't know if we're different than other places. ... I think it's hard to win at Michigan; it's hard to win at USC. They all have their own hurdles. It has to be hard. If it wasn't hard, people would be beating down doors to coach football. There is a foundation here, but there has been a void, and people are aware of it." -- San Diego State Brady Hoke, on changing the culture and community support surrounding the Aztecs football program, to the San Diego Union-Tribune.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: The Aztecs obviously will be more versed with the schemes that coach Brady Hoke implemented last season. Questions still abound on the offensive line because SDSU was unable to recruit any linemen in 2009 to fit their run-based attack. Defensively, overall speed is not where the coaching staff wants it to be. However, the early schedule sets up nicely with a home opener against Nicholls State, followed by a road game at New Mexico State. If the Aztecs can open the season with a pair of wins, it may begin to acquire the confidence it needs to end its 12-year bowl drought.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: The key to San Diego State's fortunes -- and there are fortunes to be had with the nucleus of QB Ryan Lindley and WRs Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson -- is the line's ability to create running lanes. The Aztecs have to be able to run the football, or else defenses will look to tee off on Lindley and keep him from distributing the football. The junior QB should be much more comfortable in his second year directly under center in the pro-style attack. SDSU likely will use a committee at running back to move the football.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Aztecs recruited eight defensive backs in 2009, and several of them will play in 2010 because their athletic ability in coverage will allow SDSU to send more front-line players after the quarterback, which is what the 3-3-5 scheme predicates. The potential for mistakes on the back end, however, will be significantly higher because of the youth. SDSU hopes that athletic ability will be able to overcome those mistakes better than the Aztecs did last season.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: The Aztecs are hoping that senior walk-on Daniel Ortega can duplicate the success former walk-on Lane Yoshida had as a kicker. He'll compete with Bryan Shields for the job. Brian Stahovich is back as the punter, and SDSU will audition several players to compete with Davon Brown and Preston King for return spots.
--Senior Andrew Preston moved from OLB to the "Aztec" back position, the FS/deep MLB hybrid position that is one of the featured spots in defensive coordinator Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense.
--The NCAA denied RB Atiyyah Henderson's request for a sixth year of eligibility, meaning his Aztecs career is over. Henderson missed last season because of a back injury.
--Senior Warrior back Dey Juan Hemmings had surgery to repair an injured ankle he suffered in the spring, but coach Brady Hoke told the San Diego Union-Tribune he expects Hemmings back for fall camp. Sophomore Walter Kazee, who also missed most of spring with an ankle injury, is expected to return in the fall.
--Junior DT Nick Spencer has returned to the team after being declared academically ineligible last season.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010