Three observations: Aztecs’ spring ball in full swing

After a bit of a late start, SDSU football is back at practice

San+Diego+State+football+head+coach+Brady+Hoke+spoke+with+the+media+on+April+13%2C+2021.

Courtesy of SDSU Athletics

San Diego State football head coach Brady Hoke spoke with the media on April 13, 2021.

by Andrew Finley and Jason Freund

 Halted by inclimate weather and a delay due to COVID-19 tracing in the program, SDSU football spring practices are now underway. In a press conference on April 12, head coach Brady Hoke said he’s happy to be back on the practice field.

“We’re excited about how we thought out taking the field,” Hoke said. “I think the competition and being physical hase been something that we’ve really been trying to get out of our players, and that’s part of who we are.”

The Aztecs, who finished with a 4-4 record and 4-2 record in Mountain West Conference play, are nearing the halfway point of spring practice. With game one against New Mexico State less than five months away, there are still several questions to be answered both on and off the field.

Here are three observations on spring practice based on what we’ve learned from football student-athletes and staff. 

1. The starting quarterback competition is heating up

Production from the SDSU quarterbacks was… middling. Three different players lined up behind center for the Aztecs during the 2020 season and each had their ups and downs.

Then-sophomore Carson Baker opened the season as the starting quarterback and led the team to a 3-1 record but was replaced by then-junior quarterback Lucas Johnson.

A transfer from Georgia Tech, Johnson showed promise in the two games he played, passing 14-for-24 with 184 yards and touchdown. The dual-threat quarterback also flashed skills with his legs, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown.

An injury to Johnson thrust Baker back into starting duty, but he split time with then-junior Jordan Brookshire.

Fast forward to 2021 and Baker has entered the transfer portal, leaving Johnson and Brookshire as the two returners at SDSU.

But a new challenger has arisen in sophomore Jalen Mayden, a transfer from Mississippi State.

While Hoke said he was aiming to identify a starter out of camp, offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski has told his quarterbacks to take it day-by-day and to continue to compete amongst themselves.

“It’s up to the other guys to make sure nobody gets that far ahead of them and that far away,” Hecklinski said. “So we’re just taking this day-by-day and really trying to learn to become the best quarterbacks we can with this system.”

While there doesn’t seem to be a clear “leader” as of now, Hecklinski said that during last Friday’s scrimmage, each quarterback took hits.

“The best thing for our team to understand is to see the quarterback’s hit and be hit, stand in there and take a shot,” Hecklinski said. “That’s how a quarterback earns respect. That’s how he earns the respect of his team and how he earns the respect of his teammates.”

2. The team is focusing  on fundamentals

It has and will continue to be a focal point during camp: focus on the basics.

A key component that has been preached is the importance of blocking, especially by the running backs. Senior running back Greg Bell noted that focusing on fundamentals first will make the rest of the game come naturally.

“Just work(ing) on the fundamentals,” Bell said. “Fundamentals are going to get you through stuff like blocking. You can be fundamentally sound, and it’s going to be easier to block somebody.”

Hecklinski reinforced Bell’s thinking and said each running back knows proper blocking technique like the backs of their hands.

This is a testament to associate head coach/running backs coach Jeff Horton, who has continued to work with his players on different aspects of the game.

“Jeff Horton does a great job with our running backs and from a protection standpoint,” Hecklinski said. “I haven’t been around a group of backs that know protection inside and out like the way they do.”

Working in a heavy-RPO system, each player from Bell to senior Chance Bell to senior Jordan Byrd will have to be able to make adjustments on the fly in order to keep the offense rolling.

So far in spring ball, that box can be checked.

3. The future appears bright

On top of all the action on the practice field, SDSU football has a lot more to look forward to than they did this time last year. The coronavirus that shut down football at SDSU now has a vaccine, and Hoke said his players are eager to get their shots. 

“We’ve been able to get between 30 and 40 guys who have signed up to get (the COVID-19 vaccine), and we’re working on that today,” Hoke said on April 12. “(The student-athletes) are going to make their own decisions (to get vaccinated), and their parents will help make their decisions, but we’re going to try to encourage them to get it done.”

With San Diego County dropping the age of eligibility to receive the vaccine to 16 years old, the number of players in line to get vaccinated could see a big leap in the coming days. 

Just off of highway 8, construction of the Mission Valley campus and new Aztecs Stadium is still underway after just under a year in the works. With the removal of what was formerly known as SDCCU Stadium, construction of the Mission Valley site is now in full swing. A virtual tour of what the stadium is expected to look like caught Hoke’s attention. 

“I tell you what, that (Aztec Stadium) is going to be awesome,” Hoke said.” I think I got a little jealous because watching a game from some of those suites, that’s going to be a heck of a setup.” 

The Scarlet and Black plan to be in their new stadium by the 2022 season. For now, however, the Aztecs will call Dignity Health Park in Carson, Calif. their home for the upcoming season. 

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