Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Assuming it would be their final season in the Mountain West Conference, after agreeing to make the jump to the Big East Conference (while it was still in existence), the San Diego State Aztecs were hoping to make a significant splash in 2012 and for the most part that's exactly what happened.
Under the direction of head coach Rocky Long in his second season with the program, the Aztecs failed to get off on the right foot as they bowed to Washington on the road in the opener, 21-12. Luckily, the team didn't obsess over the setback instead returning to the field the following week and demolishing Army in the home opener, 42-7. San Diego State, which had finished 8-5 a year earlier, didn't plan on having to fight hard against North Dakota in the next outing, but the squad had to scramble just to pick up a 49-41 decision. Unfortunately, that close call signaled more trouble for the Aztecs as they lost in back-to-back meetings against San Jose State and Fresno State.
The team managed to turn the corner following the wild 52-40 loss to the Bulldogs by stringing together seven straight victories to close out the regular season, but the run was not without some significant bumps in the road. Most notable was the loss of starting quarterback Ryan Katz who went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the first quarter of the Nevada meeting. Thankfully, Adam Dingwell answered the bell by throwing three touchdowns in Reno to help guide the visitors to a thrilling 39-38 overtime triumph, won on a two-point conversion tossed by Dingwell by the way. The one- time backup signal-caller went on to lead SDSU to expected wins over UNLV, Air Force and Wyoming, not to mention a stunner at Boise State (21-19) where few visitors have triumphed.
At 9-3 overall and 7-1 in conference play, the latter good for a tie for first in the MWC standings, the Aztecs went to their second straight bowl game under coach Long, but the result was still the same as the squad fell to former MWC foe BYU by a score of 23-6 in the Poinsettia Bowl, held in San Diego as it were.
San Diego State excelled despite having a change at quarterback midway through the campaign and the combination of Katz and Dingwell throwing for only 175.9 ypg anyway. Instead, it was the running duo of Adam Muema and Walter Kazee who helped provide a large portion of the unit's 220.7 ypg on the ground, fourth- best in the league and 20th in the country.
OFFENSE: With more than four decades of both playing and coaching experience at the collegiate level, Bob Toledo is more than qualified to be a head coach somewhere, but he has instead agreed to become the offensive coordinator for the Aztecs.
"We are thrilled to add Coach Toledo to our staff," Long said in January. "He has a great football mind and has done a fantastic job of developing offensive talent. His knowledge of California football will only help our recruiting as we continue to build our program here at San Diego State."
Toledo will deal with a bit of a mixed bag this year at SDSU, bringing back a quarterback who had starting experience in Dingwell, but needing to refine the signal-caller's decision making after he tossed almost as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (eight) during his time under center.
The loss of several key receivers is also a concern. The squad didn't have one top-flight pass catcher in 2012, but still it would have been nice to carry over someone who had reeled in more than 20 passes. Colin Lockett is the top returning receiver after pulling in 20 balls for 293 yards and three touchdowns. Obviously there will be quite a bit of competition for open roster spots.
The loss of Kazee (822 yards, eight TDs) will be tough to overcome and may even place more of the burden on Muema, but the latter has already shown that he can shoulder the load after running the ball 237 times for 1,458 yards and a team-best 16 touchdowns a year ago.
I'd say he's very, very strong. He's extremely quick," Toledo says of Muema. "He has good speed. We're going to find out because he's going to get a lot of opportunities. Our tailback is the guy who's going to get the football."
DEFENSE: While Toledo takes over the offense for the Aztecs the defense, which brings back as many as nine starters, will remain Long's baby.
Claiming the headlines early on for the unit is Nat Berhe who is the top returning tackler for the program after recording 94 stops, en route to being named to the All-MWC Second Team.
"The expectations are very high," says Berhe of the upcoming campaign. "With all of the starters that are coming back and the seniors that control the back end (of the secondary), the sky's the limit with this defense and I think we know it. It's time to really prove ourselves as a top-10 defense."
While Berhe holds down the secondary with the help of Marcus Andrews and Eric Pinkins (seven tackles for loss and three interceptions), Jake Fely should be taking care of the action in the middle of the field from his linebacker position after posting a team-high seven sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles last year while being named to the All-MWC Second Team as well.
Providing support for Fely will again be Nick Tenhaeff and Derek Largent, the former being responsible for a team-best 13 TFL, a large percentage of his 52 total tackles in 2012. Largent, credited with a team-high three fumble recoveries, was second in sacks (6.5) and third in TFL (9.5).
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Aztecs need a new kicker for this year, after the loss of Chance Marden who nailed 10-of-14 field goal attempts, with a long of 46 yards in 2012. Now a senior, Wes Feer tops the depth chart at the position as of early August, but still nothing is written in stone.
In fact, sophomore Seamus McMorrow is making a run for the spot as well, even though he was the starting punter for the program as a freshman. Again, while it is still early McMorrow, who averaged 41.7 yards per punt, with 13 of his 41 attempts landing inside the 20-yard line, might not even be the top choice at punter either. Joel Alesi, who tallied six punts with a long of 56 yards and had all but two go for a fair catch, has his eyes on the slot as well.
By virtue of averaging 25.9 yards per kick return and bringing back two for touchdowns, Lockett has all but locked up the position again this year.
Although they need to boost their numbers during punt returns, after averaging 7.6 yards per opportunity in 2012, the Aztecs are ready to give the job to senior Tim Vizzi once more.
OUTLOOK: Long says he can't dwell on the schedule, which may be a polite way of saying he's not sure the Aztecs can keep up with Ohio State and Oregon State, two programs that SDSU will face in September. Then again, the squad should gain some level of confidence after taking on FCS foe Eastern Illinois in the opener at home at the end of August.
While trying to get Dingwell up to speed, the Aztecs might be headed for a bumpy ride from one week to the next in 2013. Inconsistency could be a key phrase for SDSU this year as it goes from taking on New Mexico State on the road, to hosting Nevada and then playing at Air Force. A tough home date versus Fresno State is followed by a visit from New Mexico, Long's former team, at Qualcomm Stadium.
The Aztecs close the regular season with a trip to UNLV, certainly a winnable game, but it comes on the heels of hosting Boise State, a meeting that could significantly sting the potential enthusiasm for coach Long and his crew.