August 8, 2008
By John Philip Wyllie
If the San Diego State Aztecs want to finish higher than the seventh position that they are predicted to occupy in the Mountain West football standings they will have to dramatically improve their defense. A year ago the 4-8 Aztecs could not prevent their opponents from running the ball down their throats or passing it over them at will. More porous than a bowl of shredded wheat, the Aztec defense surrendered an average of 37 points per game and allowed three opponents to light up the scoreboard for more than 50.
Last year, a good part of the problem was a lack of experience on the defensive side of the ball. That will not be the case this year, when nine of the 11 starting defensive jobs will be manned by familiar faces. One of them belongs to 6’3” 270 pound defensive end, Jonathan Soto.
“The entire team has been working on building leadership and more importantly learning how to follow. I think that will make a major difference on defense. The older guys are going out of their way to bring the younger guys along with them whether it is simply to get in a second workout or going outside to work on drills,” Soto said.
In order to stress the importance of team unity the Aztecs opened their camp this week at Camp Pendleton. The hope is that they can pick up a few pointers about team building from some of the world’s leading experts on the subject, the Marines.
Based on their past performances the Aztecs are not getting a lot of respect in the media. Soto thinks their opponents may be surprised once they face this year’s team.
“We have always been the underdogs, but this is the year to change that. A lot of teams are sleeping on us and they are going to be in for a rude awakening.”
There was a renewed dedication to improve during the off-season especially on the part of Soto who has always been considered undersized.
“I continually work on my strength and my speed,” he said. “I know my technique is one of my stronger assets so I try to help the other guys out with that.”
Following the debacle of last season Aztec coach, Chuck Long has made some changes in the way he is running things. The aforementioned camp with the Marines is one of them, but there are others.
“Last year, he left the leadership up to the people that had already been appointed leaders. This year, he told everyone that we should all be leaders. He gave us shirts that say Good to Great on the front and Follow Me on the back. He told us at times it is important to be a good follower (in addition to being a good leader). Everyone has taken that to heart, so that is one thing that has changed. He also has emphasized that we need to play one game at a time. We play Notre Dame this season, but he wants everyone to remember that we play Cal Poly first.”
The schedule this season is considerably more manageable. Gone are the games against powerhouse teams like Ohio State and Michigan. The Aztecs do play at Notre Dame in the second week of the season, but the Irish team that took the field last year was a mere shadow of some of the previous teams playing in South Bend. Conference opponents like BYU and TCU will as always provide a major challenge, but at least the teams they open with outside their conference are not almost certain loses.
Now in his third season at San Diego State, Long will be under increasing pressure to show some tangible results. It could be an interesting season.