2014 CFN Preview - San Diego State Aztecs
San Diego State QB Quinn Kaehler
San Diego State QB Quinn Kaehler
Posted Jul 23, 2014

Preview 2014 - As it turned out, Rocky Long was the dead-on right hire. (Getty Images)

San Diego State Aztecs

Preview 2014 

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By Pete Fiutak
- 2014 San Diego State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players
- VOD: College football breakdowns on Campus Insiders

Head coach: Rocky Long
4th year: 25-14
15th year overall: 90-83
Returning Lettermen
Off: 15, Def. 19, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best SDSU Players
1. LB Jake Fely, Sr.
2. CB J.J. Whittaker, Sr.
3. QB Quinn Kaehler, Sr.
4. WR Ezell Ruffin, Sr.
5. RB Donnel Pumphrey, Soph.
6. OT Terry Poole, Sr.
7. RB Marcus Stamps, RFr.
8. OG Darrell Greene, Jr.
9. DE Sam Meredith, Sr.
10. DT Christian Heyward, Jr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Northern Arizona
Sep. 6 at North Carolina
Sep. 20 at Oregon State
Sep. 27 UNLV
Oct. 4 at Fresno State
Oct. 11 at New Mexico
Oct. 18 Hawaii
Nov. 1 at Nevada
Nov. 8 Idaho
Nov. 15 at Boise State
Nov. 22 Air Force
Nov. 29 San Jose State
As it turned out, Rocky Long was the dead-on right hire.

Long seemed like a curious call after Brady Hoke left San Diego State, but three years in, it’s almost impossible to ask for much more than three straight bowl appearance and eight or more wins in each of the three years. It’s the cliché; is it harder to get good or stay good? Long has been able to maintain what Hoke rebuilt.

For years, San Diego State was the proverbial “Why can’t this team win?” program on a yearly basis. There weren’t any winning seasons from 1998 to 2009. No bowl games, and nothing in the way of success outside of a decent 6-6 2003 campaign, but Hoke was one of the rising young head coaches, and he got the ball rolling. Long has done the job to make the program his while continuing the success.

Part of the key is that Long isn’t a rising young coach. Hoke was always destined to make the next big career move up the ladder, but Long turned 64 this season, and as it turns out, San Diego isn’t that bad a spot to live and work, and also, yeah, you can win football games there.

While the best era of San Diego State football came in the 1970s, this is currently one of the better runs in the program’s history with four straight bowl appearances and a great chance at a fifth, even though there’s lots of turnover and lots of work to do on both sides of the ball. Long’s forte is being able to come up with sound, steady teams, and while New Mexico got bored of consistent success and launched Long in 2008 after one down year – how has that turned out for the Lobos? – it’s working in San Diego.

Six starters are back on offense, with three of them up front to pave the way for a good group of running backs. There’s enough returning for the passing game to be solid, and while the defense needs to regroup with just four starters back, the return of LB Jake Fely and Sam Meredith from injury, and the addition of JUCO transfer lineman Christian Heyward, should keep things from crashing.

Is there a chance for a second Mountain West title in three years? Probably not considering Boise State is so strong and Fresno State, Utah State, and Nevada are all going to be players, but eight or more wins and a bowl game wouldn’t be bad again.

What to watch for on offense: The balance will shift back a bit more to the running game. Rocky Long is known for his tough, powerful running games and backs who put up big numbers – Adam Muema cranked out 1,244 yards and 15 touchdowns last season before his ill-fated decision to turn pro early – but the passing game was the star more often than not last season. The ground attack, while effective, averaged 167 yards per game, while Quinn Kaehler and the passing game put up over 3,000 yards. It’ll be more of the same offensively, but with a big back in redshirt freshman Marcus Stamps, and the do-it-all ability of Donnel Pumphrey, the running game will take over a bit more.

What to watch for on defense: The turnover in the secondary can’t be a problem. With North Carolina, Oregon State and Fresno State coming up in the first half of the season, the spotlight will be on a secondary that loses Nat Berhe and three starters. The defense only came up with eight picks last year and was way too soft at times, allowing teams to complete 61% of their passes for 3,312 yards and 31 touchdowns, and now it’s going to be ugly. The offense has the ability to keep up the pace, but there are plenty of good quarterbacks on the schedule to deal with and it could get ugly at times if there isn’t consistent pressure in the backfield.

The team will be far better if… the defense can come up with a red-zone stop. Penalties were a big problem, and turnovers were a major issue. Both have to be tightened up to get through a tough and nasty schedule, but the other big key will be to keep teams from going on long, sustained drives after the defense broke every time it had to bend a bit. Dead last in the nation in red-zone stops, Teams scored over 95% of the time inside the 20 with just two misfires – San Jose State and UNLV each missed makeable field goals. Teams scored touchdowns a whopping 86% of the time after getting inside the 20.

The Schedule: Uh oh. Eastern Illinois tagged the Aztecs to start last season. Can a good Northern Arizona team do the same? The Aztecs have to come away with a win with road games at North Carolina and Oregon State to follow. Worse yet, four of the next five games after playing NAU are on the road, kicking off Mountain West play against UNLV and then going to Fresno State and New Mexico on back-to-back Friday nights. Fortunately, the home games kick in over the second half of the season with four in the final six, but there’s one major problem – actually, two; the road games are at Boise State and Nevada. SDSU does miss Utah State and Colorado State, but considering Fresno State and Boise State were picked by the MW media to win their respective divisions, those are two deathblow road trips.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Quinn Kaehler. He’s not going to receive much in the way of preseason all-star recognition with so many solid Mountain West quarterbacks, but the 6-4, 210-pounder is one of the league’s most effective passers, and he’ll have to be with a secondary that might force the Aztecs to get into plenty of firefights. The hope will be to control games with Donnel Pumphrey, Marcus Stamps and the running game, but as long as Kaehler is steady and can keep the interceptions and mistakes to a minimum, the offense will move.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Jake Fely. All set for a huge junior season after cranking out a special 2012 campaign as both a pass rusher and run stopper, he suffered a broken foot early on and missed most of the season. Back and ready to roll, the potential all-star will anchor a defense that should be solid against the run and has to be more disruptive in the backfield. While he’s not big, he can do it all in the middle, and outside of the foot injury, holds up well and doesn’t wear down. His return and emergence means everything to a D that brings back just four starters.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore safeties Kendrick Mathis, Na’im McGee and Malik Smith. All-around playmakers Nat Berhe and Eric Pinkins, the team’s top two tackler, are done, and it’ll be up to the new guys to shine right away. Get ready for the passing games to come their way, and they need to be ready as the three new starting safeties in the 4-2-5 alignment. McGee is a ready-made JUCO transfer who’ll likely take over Behre’s Aztec position, while Mathis and Smith each saw a little bit of time and need to be ready to shine.

The season will be a success if ... the Aztecs win eight games and go back to a fifth straight bowl game. It might sound boring, and it might not be the championship season many might like, but with so much turnover on defense and such a brutal schedule, there’s nothing wrong with maintaining the winning ways this year. As long as Rocky Long and company can avoid the drop-off into the five-win territory – which wouldn’t be a stunner with this road slate – it’ll be a decent year.

Key game: Oct. 3 at Fresno State. The Aztecs gave the loaded Bulldogs a rough time last year in a 35-28 loss, but if they can come up with a road win this year, all of a sudden the narrative of the season changes. It might not be the West division game of the year if UNLV, San Jose State and Nevada are all good, but it’ll go a long way to deciding the overall pecking order. If the Aztecs can win this, all of a sudden, they’re in the driver’s seat.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Fourth Quarter Scoring: Opponents 131 – San Diego State 123
- Time of Possession: San Diego State 32:03 – Opponents 27:57
- Red-Zone TDs: Opponents 37 in 43 trips (86%) – San Diego State 31 in 52 (60%)

- 2014 San Diego State Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players