2011 San Diego State Preview – Defense
San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman
San Diego State RB Ronnie Hillman
Posted May 16, 2011

CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - San Diego State Aztec Defense

San Diego State Aztecs

Preview 2011 - Defense

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What You Need To Know: Now head coach Rocky Long took over the defensive coordinator gig last year and did a tremendous job. The 3-3-5 alignment worked with the D finishing 43rd in the nation in total defense and led the Mountain West in tackles for loss. Long will still run the defense, but he has a lot of work to do with a razor-thin line that doesn't have sure-thing starters, much less quality backups. The defensive backs can all hit and they can all move, but it's going to take a little while to find the right safety combination to go along with rising-star corner Leon McFadden. Miles Burris is one of the league's best all-around outside linebackers and a terror in the backfield, and he'll combine with Logan Ketchum to make lots and lots of big plays. The overall problem is size and proven depth, and while the defense will take a step back, it'll be ultra-aggressive and should be decent as the season goes on.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Miles Burris, 80
Sacks: Miles Burris, 9.5
Interceptions: Leon McFadden, 2

Star of the defense: Senior LB Miles Burris
Player who has to step up and be a star: Sophomore LB Jake Fely
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Marcus Andrews
Best pro prospect: Burris
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Burris, 2) CB Leon McFadden, 3) LB Logan Ketchum
Strength of the defense: Outside Linebacker, Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Size, Depth

Defensive Line

State of the Unit: The line wasn't always great at getting into the backfield, but it did its job holding up against the run and allowing the linebackers to fly around and make things happen. Now the depth is thin and work needs to be done to find the right front three. A solid rotation would be nice, but finding consistently productive ends would be enough.

The lone returning starter is senior Jerome Long, who went from being a key backup into a strong anchor at defensive tackle making 30 tackles with 1.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. While he's not huge at 6-5 and 280 pounds, he's good on the move and is now used to his size after starting out his career at around 240 pounds. Tall for the position, he's ideally a 3-4 end but is just fine on the inside.

Stepping into a starting role on the outside is senior J.J. Autele, who's just now back to 100% after suffering a torn up knee in 2008. The 6-1, 250-pounder was a key reserve in every game finishing with 15 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. While he's built like a linebacker, he's tough as nails and holds up well against the run. His job, though, will be to get into the backfield, while 6-1, 240-pound sophomore Jordan Thomas is a top-shelf pickup last year who got on the field a little bit as a special teamer making two tackles. He's an athlete who could be a pass rushing specialist.

Neil Spencer has the leverage and the experience to hold his own when needed as either a backup tackle or a starting end. He started three games last year and finished with 25 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. A one-time top recruit, he can be used at any of the three spots up front. When Spencer works at tackle, 6-0, 245-pound senior Larry Gibbs will step in on the outside after coming on late last year. He only played seven games, but he made nine tackles with a sack. Extremely quick, he has a good burst off the ball.

Watch Out For … A lot of prayers for some of the untested backups to shine right away. Redshirt freshman Dontrell Onuoha has 285-pound size on the end; 6-3, 225-pound Everett Reed has speed; and 6-1, 280-pound Kenneth Galea'i is built for the inside. The team needs starters, much less depth, and the young players have to provide a little of both.
Strength: Quickness. The old coaching staff recruited to a type. There isn't much size, but everyone can move and everyone is athletic. There were plenty of plays made behind the line from all three spots, and while this group should get shoved around at times, it'll move and swarm.
Weakness: Experience. It's not like last year's line was the Steel Curtain, but it was loaded with veterans who knew what they were doing. There's only one starter returning and the depth isn't just thin, it's non-existent.
Outlook: This could be a problem. Defensive line coach Osia Lewis will have to get extremely creative. It'll be vital to throw several untested young bodies into the rotation in a hurry just to see who's able to play. On the plus side, the line only needs to come up with three players, but it would be nice if there was one killer to count on.
Unit Rating: 5


State of the Unit: The idea of the Aztec defense is for the line to hold firm and to occasionally get into the backfield, while the linebackers are supposed to clean everything up. The pressure was on last year for the linebacking corps to rock in the 3-3-5 alignment, and it did. With two starters back, the linebackers should be strong despite losing Marcus Yarbrough and his 42 tackles in the middle. On the outside, watch out.

6-2, 235-pound senior Miles Burris is built to play the inside, but he was moved to the outside and became the best linebacker in the Mountain West who didn't play for TCU. The hard-hitting veteran led the team with 80 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 20 tackles for loss with four forced fumbles. A guided missile of a hitter, he did everything for the defensive front highlighted by a ten tackle, four tackle for loss game against Colorado State with two sacks. He also lit up BYU for two sacks and was consistently in the backfield throughout the season. Fast, active, and tough, he's one of the nation's best all-around defenders, and now he'll start to get his due.

Working as the understudy is sophomore Nick Tenhaeff, a tenacious 6-2, 210-pounder who got a start against Air force and did a nice job making plays all over the field finishing with 30 tackles with two sacks. A great high school running back, he blew off USC, Cal, and other Pac-12 teams, and soon he'll be a big-time statistical star.

Back again as a starter on the outside is veteran Logan Ketchum, a 6-3, 220-pound weakside defender who finished fourth on the team with 52 tackles with 2.5 tackles for loss. A terrific athlete, he's fast and moves like a defensive back, and he hits well once he gets to the ball. After proving he could stay healthy after missing time in 2008 hurt, and with all his experience, he should be one of the team's top three tacklers.

Taking over the open starting spot in the middle is sophomore Jake Fely, an undersized 5-10, 205-pound speedster who was a three-star recruit able to play any of the three linebacking jobs. He didn't see much time last year after getting hurt, making three tackles with a sack, and he doesn't have the size to hold up against the power teams on the inside, but he'll fight to make plays. 6-2, 220-pound junior Rob Andrews started three games late last year and was a key reserve finishing with 36 tackles with a sack and a forced fumble. He plays bigger than his size and brings a nice pop to his tackles, but his game is mostly about speed and cutting ability.

Watch Out For … Fely to be great in the middle … until he gets banged up. He's just not big enough to be a regular star on the inside, but when he's on the field he'll be a threat to make double digit stops every time out. His motor is always running.
Strength: Outside linebacker. Burris is among the most aggressive and productive outside linebackers in the Mountain West, while Ketchum is a speedster who should do even more now that he knows what he's doing. The Aztecs will wreak havoc as long as Burris is healthy.
Weakness: Size. Burris is decent-sized, but the Aztec linebackers are way, way too small on the inside and have too many defensive backs working as linebackers. There isn't a slew of power running teams on the slate, but still, the line isn't all that big and the linebackers don't have any size.
Outlook: The athleticism is there to once again be great at getting into the backfield, after SDSU finished first in the Mountain West and 13th in the nation in tackles for loss. The linebackers should once again be ultra-disruptive but finding a good rotation will be a must to keep everyone effective and productive.
Unit Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

State of the Unit: The defensive backfield needs to be all over the field in the 3-3-5 alignment, and while they did what they could against the run, they did their job mostly to keep good passing games down. The Aztecs finished 38th in the nation in pass defense and 20th in pass efficiency defense, and while they gave up 351 yards to Blaine Gabbert and Missouri, TCU's Andy Dalton rolled up four touchdown passes, and Utah's Jordan Wynn cranked out 362 yards and two scores, the secondary was decent. Three of the five starters have to be replaced, and there's work to be done.

The key returning starter is corner Leon McFadden, a 5-10, 180-pound junior who turned into a phenomenal tackler finishing third on the team with 55 stops with a sack, seven tackles for loss, two picks, and 12 broken up passes. He's fast, has decent size, and is physical enough to hit like a safety. He came to the program as a receiver, but now he's one of the league's best all-around corners.

Taking over on the other side is junior Josh Wade, a spot starter who stepped in and got the call late in the year against Utah and UNLV with nickel and dime skills and the speed to grow into the job as he gets more time. At 6-0 and 180 pounds he has good size and he's extremely quick, but he has to prove he can be consistent after making 26 tackles with a pick and three broken up passes. Sophomore Colin Lockett is a high school track star with the smarts and athleticism to be a key part of the rotation as either a corner or a nickel defender. He made eight tackles in a limited role, and this year he'll push Wade for time.

There should be a good battle at one of the Warrior positions, or like a free safety, with sophomore Marcus Andrews coming out of the offseason with a job. The 6-0, 195-pounder was a spot starter who saw time in every game making 33 tackles with five broken up passes, and while he's a good hitter, his real worth is as a playmaker when the ball is in the air. He'll try to hold off senior Brandon Davis, a 6-2, 190-pounder who started ten times last year finishing with 36 tackles with a sack and three broken up passes. He has 18 career starts with good size and excellent speed, and he has the talent after coming to SDSU as one of the team's top recruits in 2007. He'll find a spot somewhere.

5-10, 185-pound sophomore Nat Berhe will start at the other Warrior job after serving as a good backup and a starter against Air Force and Navy, the two pure rushing teams on the slate. A scooter, he extremely quick and has a nose for the ball making 39 tackles with a pick and four broken up passes. Smart, he's always in the right position and he'll be all over the field. Senior Dey Juan Hemmings couldn't get past an ankle injury after making 34 tackles in 2009. He wasn't right after spring ball last year and ended up seeing time in just two games making one tackle. At 5-11 and 210 pounds he has good size and is a terrific hitter, and now he's healthy and ready to battle Berhe for time.

Junior Khalid Stevens saw a little time as a true freshman but didn't do much of anything, and last year he grew into a nice spot starter against the running teams. The 5-11, 195-pounder made 37 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss with two broken up passes, and now he'll work in the Aztec position like an extra linebacker.

Watch Out For … ongoing fights for the safety spots. There are holes to fill, and while there are plenty of options, it'll be a constant battle to find the right three safeties to come up with the right combination. Andrews and Davis have to find spots somewhere on the field.
Strength: Quickness. The Aztecs are all in when it comes to defensive speed and athleticism, and that means the defensive backs have to all hit and they all have to be in on every play. The defensive backs, including the corners, can all pop.
Weakness: Sure-thing starters. McFadden is one of the corners. The other four starters are going to be … ? Granted, Berhe, Stevens, and Wade are good enough to be ready to go from the opening kickoff, but there will be several jobs open through the summer. Experience was a plus last year, and now it's a slight problem.
Outlook: The five defensive backs will be sound and will all be active, but they need to start picking off more passes. SDSU only came up with 11 picks two years ago and intercepted a mere ten last year. The secondary has to come up with more big plays, but ganged up against the run won't be an issue.
Unit Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

State of the Unit: The Aztec kicking game will be among the best in the nation helped by the return of Abelardo Perez, a steady senior with a big leg who came out of nowhere to hit 17-of-22 field goals including a 53-yard bomb against UNLV. He settled down after a spotty start to his final eight field goals and ten of his last 11. He hasn't needed to come through clutch, and he only had to make two field goals in the final four games, but he's a good one.

Senior Brian Stahovich has a booming leg with all-star skills. After a nice 2009, averaging 43.9 yards per kick, he bombed away for a 45.4-yard average pitting 18 inside the 20 and with 16 fair catches. He doesn't always help out the punt coverage team, and he put six kicks in the end zone, but he's a special punter who should be in the hunt for the Ray Guy Award.

The kickoff return game was awful, finishing last in the Mountain West and 109th in the nation averaging 19.34 yards per try. Safety Brandon Davis, though, averaged 22.3 yards per try. Corner Larry Parker was mediocre handling punt returns averaging 6.2 yards per attempt, while fellow corner Leon McFadden averaged 9.2 yards per try.

Watch Out For … Perez to start to get more publicity. He was terrific after the first few games, and now the team needs him to do even more. The offense won't be as strong and there will be more stalls, meaning Perez will get more chances.
Strength: The kicking game. Perez and Stahovich are among the best in the Mountain West and are as reliable as they come. Both will be on the All-America short lists.
Weakness: The coverage teams. The return games were awful, but the bigger problem were the coverage teams that couldn't come up with nearly enough stops allowing a whopping 25.5 yards per kickoff return and 9.8 yards per punt return.
Outlook: Placekicking went from a problem to a positive, and the punting was solid because of Stahovich, but nothing else worked. The coverage teams have to be far, far better, and someone has to step up and produce as a returner.
Unit Rating: 6

- 2011 San Diego State Preview | 2011 San Diego State Offense
- 2011 San Diego State Defense | 2011 San Diego State Depth Chart
- San Diego State Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006