Aztecs defense gets best of offense in spring scrimmage

It’s early, very early, in San Diego State’s progress toward the 2023 football season.

Assessing a team off a spring scrimmage is like critiquing a painting after just a handful of brush strokes.

Will it be a masterpiece or a mess? Who is to say at this point?

SDSU concluded Week 3 of spring practice the same way it did Week 2, with a scrimmage on its grass practice field.

Friday afternoon’s activity was conducted during a steady rain. That may have saved players the trouble of sweating, but it also reminded one why the ball is nicknamed a pigskin. It squirted out on a number of occasions during the quarterback/center exchange.

Coaches and players were not available after the scrimmage, though coach Brady Hoke said this week that he wanted to see improved execution on both sides of the ball.

Specifically, better communication on offense and better routes to the ball on defense.

The defense is definitely ahead of the offense, which was inconsistent moving the ball downfield.

For instance, junior running back Jaylon Armstead hit the hole and bounced off a would-be tackler for a 20-yard gain on one play, then was gang-tackled for a 2-yard loss on the next snap.

Rotating through five quarterbacks — primarily starter Jalen Mayden, backup Kyle Crum and third-string Liu Aumavae before walk-ons DJ Ralph and Tobin O’Dell received an opportunity — perhaps explained the lack of rhythm.

But that doesn’t account for throwing behind receivers. Or underthrowing them. Or overthrowing them.

Those were snapshots in the mind’s eye moreso than crisp completions.

The offense advanced to the end zone only during goal-line work, with three of the four scores on 2-yard runs.

Ball security was an issue, with five turnovers (two fumbles, three interceptions). Sophomore safety Eric Butler came away with the ball twice, covering a fumble early and picking off a pass late.

Asked coming into the scrimmage about the quarterback situation, Hoke said he wants to see more leadership from Mayden.

“He needs his (rear end) kicked now and then,” Hoke said. “I’ve told him and so has his position coach (Ryan Lindley). … You be that guy.

“There’s time when he takes ownership when he shouldn’t. Obviously, there’s some times when he should. I can’t say there’s one particular thing, but you’d like to feel him sometimes. Feel his presence a little more.”

Hoke said Crum has the edge on Aumavae so far for the backup role.

“I think he’s a little more productive,” Hoke said. “He will have a bonehead play here and there, will try to change a play and maybe shouldn’t, or should.

“Both of them are fighting really hard. Ralph is fighting really hard also. It’s a good group to have, and I love what Ryan’s doing with them.”

Other scrimmage observations:

• The offensive line represents the biggest question mark on the team and will have its struggles — as it did in the scrimmage — while players are mixed and matched to come up with a cohesive unit.

The scrimmage starters from tackle to tackle were sophomore Christian Jones, juniors Cade Bennett, Dean Abdullah and Thomas Mirabella and redshirt freshman Drew Azzopardi.

Bennett was a fixture at left guard last season, starting 13 of 14 games. The other four players have eight starts combined.

The second unit included junior Joey Wright, sophomore Ryan Dirksen, redshirt freshmen Tiger Yu and Rambo Mageo and senior Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson.

• Several new starters also must be located along the defensive line and at linebacker.

The first-team D-line included senior Garret Fountain and sophomores Darrion Dalton and Dominic Oliver, who has made an impact since moving from linebacker.

Senior Samuela Tuihalamaka and junior Talib Salahuddin, who both transferred in over the semester break, joined senior Dylan Taylor on the second-team D-line.

Starting linebackers included Cooper McDonald and Kyron White and junior Zyrus Fiaseu, backed by junior Darrell Masaniai and sophomores New Zealand Williams and Brady Anderson.

• Jack Browning and Gabriel Plascencia each kicked a pair of field goals, with Browning’s 49-yarder the longest of the afternoon.

• The Aztecs graduated last season’s kick and punt returners, so auditions are ongoing for replacements.

There were nearly a dozen punt return candidates during warmups.

Those deep to receive kickoffs in the scrimmage included Christon, Cam Davis, Sheldon Canley II and Brionne Penny.

Christon had one ball go off his hands, quickly retrieved it, then made his way down the right sideline and across midfield.

It was just a glimpse of the return potential possessed by the former state sprint champion.

• There was little of note in the passing game — whether it was a wide receiver or a tight end — that was mostly limited to short routes.

One name noted was sophomore Phillippe Wesley II, who caught a 13-yard pass from Mayden.

The redshirt freshman didn’t catch a pass last season. In fact, he never got in a game. Will Wesley make an impact this season? Who knows?

It’s early, very early.

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