Deep in experience and as talented as any team in the Mountain West Conference, the 2001 Aztecs will be out to prove that sub-.500 campaigns were the exception, not the rule, at San Diego State.
Does bigger, stronger, faster mean more wins? Does an experienced two-deep transform a 3-8 team into a Mountain West Conference title contender?
Does the return of a healthy Doak Walker finalist and the MWC's top passer mean instant offense on Montezuma Mesa?
Tune in August 30th.
The San Diego State Aztecs rode the fall roller coaster in 2000. Seven players suffered season-ending injuries, including the starting quarterback and that Doak Walker finalist named Larry Ned. The senior class was limited in numbers and by injuries. At one point the team was relegated to using its fourth-team center.
The ledger sheet read 3-8 at the end of November.
But at the conclusion of that season there was something very apparent. San Diego State showed dramatic improvement from the squad that struggled to score a point in September to the one that concluded the year with a last-second loss to eventual Las Vegas Bowl champion UNLV.
Then comes spring and all of its clichés. Hope springs eternal ... Building a foundation ... Fall momentum ... Whatever.
These clichés are even better ...
San Diego State returns 43 lettermen. The Aztecs return a league-high 19 starters. San Diego State welcomes back three players for their second "senior" seasons in defensive end Akbar Gbaja-Biamila, Ned and 1999 all-conference tight end Gray McNeill.
It returns the Mountain West Conference's leading passer and total-offense champ in junior quarterback Lon Sheriff. Also returning is perhaps the best receiving tandem in the league, a two-deep linebacking corps that would make Dick Butkus proud, an all-conference safety and an all-conference punter.
Throw into the mix a redshirt class that is 26 deep and 22 newcomers and it becomes easier to trace the root of the quiet confidence on The Mesa.
Also returning to the fold in 2001 is Ted Tollner. The Aztec boss could have easily left for greener pastures when the Cleveland Browns began shopping for an offensive coordinator. Tollner declined the offer just 24 hours after it was tendered. His commitment to the program could be about to pay off.
"We were a better football team at the end of spring than we were at the beginning," said Tollner. "You never get done everything that you want to get done in spring drills but we accomplished a lot. There really is no comparison to last year. It was probably our most detailed spring because of sheer numbers."
The Aztecs drilled throughout April with 10 starters back on offense and nine on defense.
"Those meeting rooms did seem full for spring," Tollner said, "and a lot of those guys have played for us."
"Our numbers stayed good throughout the spring, which led to a lot of scrimmaging that allowed our players to continue their development," he added. "Our players are more confident in what they are doing and competent in how they are doing it."
Because of the packed meeting rooms, the return of the skilled players, the depth in the trenches and another strong defense, San Diego State will be tabbed a title contender this fall.
Does it matter?
"I really don't get into that stuff on the positive or the negative side," Tollner said. "It won't affect how we prepare our team. We just want to continue to get better."
San Diego State's attack a year ago was a work in pro-gress. When senior quarterback Jack Hawley went down with a neck injury, the Aztecs limped through September, scoring just 26 points in the month while the defense kept the squad competitive.
But as quarterback Lon Sheriff gained experience and the offensive line began to sort itself out, San Diego State became formidable. Although the 19.2 points that the squad averaged over the last month of the season was far from historical on a campus known for its firepower, momentum was wearing black at the conclusion of the season. The following is a position-by-position look at the San Diego State offense.
It was a battered bunch of big guys up front for the Aztecs last season. An amazing string of injuries left SDSU inexperienced, thin and perhaps shell-shocked in the early going.
Things are different now.
SDSU is suddenly strong up front throughout the two deep. There is a noticeable difference in physical and mental growth thanks to the tough times a year ago.
"There is a higher expectation of understanding when you return this many people," Tollner said. "They have game time under their belt and a better appreciation of what it takes to be good and what level of commitment you have to have in order to be successful at this level."
No position was hit harder by injuries a year ago than center. Three players were sidelined and it wasn't until Raul Gomez moved in from guard that the position solidified. Zach La-Monda opened the fall camp as a starter but he was lost for the season before the Aztecs reached a full-pad workout. Even with both players returning, another familiar face could open at center.
Johnathan Ingram, who returned from an early injury to man a guard spot in 2000, left spring drills as the starting center.
The strong side is set with the return of all-conference player David Moreno. After arriving from junior college last season, he quickly became one of the best in the Mountain West and was the staple up front. Gomez is listed as his backup. A healthy Moreno means no worries for SDSU on the strong side.
Gomez and LaMonda, the other transplanted center, could battle for the starting spot on the other side.
Former walk-on Chester Pitts remains the starter at the quick tackle position. His transformation from a football novice and walk-on to all-conference candidate is becoming legendary in San Diego. He will man the quick side with mammoth redshirt freshman Mike Kracalik waiting in the wings.
A battle could be looming on the strong side where sophomore Brendan Darby was locked up with senior Mike Houghton at the end of the spring. Houghton was the lone veteran up front during the 2000 campaign.
Another position that was an injury magnet in 2000 was tight end. All-conference performer Gray McNeill was lost in the second game of the season and his replacements spent much of the fall limping into the training room. And like the offensive line, San Diego State will reap the benefits of last season's trials with a deep, experienced corps of tight ends.
With McNeill sitting out the spring to concentrate on rehabbing his injured knee, senior Brian Gelt was listed as the starter. He caught 15 passes as a junior.
The Aztecs traditionally utilize three receivers, including two wideouts and an H- back that could line up virtually anywhere. The 2001 squad will feature a nice blend of youth and experience.
The Aztecs return the best receiving combination in the Mountain West Conference in senior Derrick Lewis and junior J.R. Tolver. The duo combined for 182 receiving yards per conference game, easily the best in the Mountain West for teammates. Tolver led the league with 6.57 catches per game and Lewis was third in the MWC in all-purpose yards. He led America in yards per catch at 25.2. It is a great place to start.
Tolver is the starter at the split end. He grew into the role last season, his first as a starter, but he is now firmly entrenched.
Lewis is listed as the starter at wideout. He is one of the best big-play men in college football. He easily led the MWC last season with an average of over 32 yards per reception in league games. Over the past three seasons, his touchdowns have come on an average of 58.9 yards.
Listed behind Lewis is newcomer Paul Nelson. The junior is a transfer from UCLA who could develop into a weapon.
Journeyman Thomas Howard was listed as the starter at the H-back following spring drills. He caught 14 passes as a junior and appears to be ready for an expanded role during his last trip through the Mountain West.
The Aztecs are deep, really deep, at running back. They can go with fleet fliers, or they can go big and brutal. Either option looked appealing during the spring.
Back for his last year as an Aztec is Larry Ned. He was a Doak Walker finalist last season, but suffered a knee injury during fall camp and a season-ending shoulder injury in October. He is ninth on San Diego State's career rushing list with 2,013 yards. If he is healthy, he will be the best the league has to offer at the position.
Four runners are waiting on deck for their shot. Senior James Truvillion is back again. A staff favorite for his special teams play and "team-first" attitude, the San Marcos product is also talented and is considered among SDSU's best play-makers.
Bruising junior Garric Sim-mons will also be busy. He put the Aztecs on his back and carried them to victory at New Mexico. And even though he ended the season with just 225 rushing yards, he was a hit during spring drills and gives Tollner and staff a new look when he's on the field.
Sophomore Jason Van suffered a shoulder injury during the spring, but played well as a true freshman and concluded the season with an eye-catching 78-yard rushing effort against UNLV, including his first two career touchdowns.
Justin Green is a redshirt freshman that also had an impressive spring. A strong runner, he figures to get nothing but better during the fall.
A year ago, San Diego State limped through spring drills with just one quarterback. And when that signal caller (Haw-ley) went down in week two, the Aztecs were long on ambition and short on experience.
Never has one year yielded so much change.
In April, the Aztecs were four deep at quarterback. Junior Lon Sheriff is the incumbent.
Behind Sheriff will be Adam Hall. The Texas transfer helped his cause in the spring and he is likely to push for playing time when fall camp begins.
San Diego State ranked "just" 45th nationally in total defense a year ago, but make no mistake, this group of defenders is talented, deep, experienced and pretty darn fast on its feet. Ten starters return and the smart money is on the Aztecs to field perhaps the best unit in the league.
"We have playmakers over there," Tollner said. "Will Demps is an all-conference safety and (linebacker) Jomar Butler was our most valuable player last year.
"Jerome Haywood doesn't have the spectacular stats, but he occupies so many people that you really have to account for him."
San Diego State should be better up front with a year of experience now in the books.
"The defensive front looks like it is back to where we were two years ago," Tollner said. "We are bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced."
The Aztecs are two-deep at linebacker with playmakers across the board. The secondary returns some experience and the newcomers are athletic.
The more things change the more they stay the same up front. Anchoring one starting spot at defensive tackle, as he has the past three years, will be senior Jerome Haywood. Pound-for-pound, he probably occupies more offensive players than any defender in the Mountain West Conference.
Haywood's backup is junior Jared Ritter. A spot player in the past rotations at defensive line, Ritter is coming off of a strong spring and may be ready to raise his level of play.
The other tackle spot has a couple of players that look the part. Akbar Gbaja-Biamila returns to the defensive front after losing a season to an Achilles injury. He had one strong game at defensive end in 2000 before being sidelined. He has the size to make a difference up front and he is stamped as a team leader.
The other second-team tackle entering fall camp is redshirt freshman Marcus Levi. He was a talented prepster and heavily recruited out of Las Vegas. He has had looks at both tackle and end and could contribute at both spots.
A year ago the Aztecs went searching for defensive ends after losing a pair of stars, including a pro in Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. In 2001, SDSU returns a pair of potential playmakers in starters Andrew Brigham and Ryan Iata.
Brigham became a starter midway through his junior season and finished third among defensive linemen with 25 tackles. His play has continued to escalate during his stay at SDSU.
Iata came back from knee surgery to start eight games and he has also shown steady improvement and could be poised for a good year.
The SDSU linebacking corps is talented, and experienced. There are playmakers from sideline to sideline and this group is easily the strength of the squad. The six players on the two-deep feature three seniors, including player-of-the-year candidate Jomar Butler.
The starter on the strong side is Dylan Robles. His play-making abilities increased throughout the season. The staff considers him its top backer in blitz situations. All-conference honors are within reach of the senior.
His backup is a capable green horn in redshirt freshman Stephen Larsen. Coaches have been talking about his abilities for a year and they are eager to see him on the field.
Sophomore Beau Trickey is expected to man the middle. He has the toughness to make all middle linebackers proud and he is a young team leader.
Another capable redshirt, Kirk Morrison, will be his understudy. He looks the part and the staff feels his success is just a matter of time.
Also waiting in the middle is junior-college transfer Loo Heather. He was one of the jewels of the 2001 recruiting class and many are awaiting his debut.
The weakside linebacker is Butler. The reigning team MVP is a proven commodity and no individual honor appears out of his reach following his stellar junior season.
Jay Kos, another Aztec with fast feet, is listed behind Butler. He is also a special-teams force with the ability to make the big play.
The 2000 season was filled with questions at corner and in the spring the Aztecs went looking for answers. Ricky Sharpe is set on one side. He could become one of the best in the conference if he is tested enough.
His backup is Montana-transfer Jeff Shoate. The sophomore was steady in the spring and he is due some playing time in the fall.
The other corner is Donte Gamble. The senior and former walk-on was tested by fire and water in the fall when he climbed the depth chart at an alarming rate. He seemed to be in the middle of everything last year and came up with his share of big plays.
Redshirt freshman Marviel Underwood is his backup. The coaches fought the urge to pull him off of last season's redshirt list and he has four years to make an impact.
San Diego State returns an all-conference strong safety in Will Demps and a speedy free safety in Garret Pavelko, last year's special teams player of the year. The Aztecs spent time in the spring developing depth with the starting spots secured.
Behind Demps will be Shane Johnson. The sophomore's name began to show up often during the second half of the season.