By John Philip Wyllie
With most of its stifling 2003 defense still intact and an offense that will be bolstered by the return of sophomore running back Lynell Hamilton, optimism is running high for the San Diego State Aztecs Football Team. The season home opener against Idaho State (which includes the annual KGB Sky Show) is set for Saturday September 4 and veteran wide receiver, Robert Ortiz and his teammates are feeling the excitement build.
Ortiz, a local product out of Horizon High School made the team two years ago as a walk-on. As a freshman, he saw limited action at wide receiver and contributed on special teams. A year ago, he finished the season as the Aztecs third leading receiver with 33 catches for 329 yards. Now a junior, Ortiz hopes to build upon those statistics and contribute to what he believes will be a much improved Aztec team.
“I am more of a leader nowadays because I am about the only wideout that has been here for three years. I try to be somebody that encourages the younger players and I try to pick them up. I’m often the guy they come to when they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz was on the receiving end of a 13-yard Matt Dlugolecki touchdown pass in last Saturday’s intra-squad scrimmage at the “Q”. Dlugolecki, the junior incumbent quarterback, is being challenged by a pair of good looking freshman, Kevin O’Connell and Darren Mougey. So close is the competition that Aztec head coach Tom Craft has been hesitant to name a starter. Ortiz has been impressed by all of them.
“One day, one of them is up and the next day it changes. They are constantly battling every day. They all have strong arms, can spread the ball around and can get it right in there. (Picking a starter) is going to be a hard choice for the coaches,” Ortiz said.
Led by College Football News All-American linebacker Kirk Morrison, the defense, nicknamed the “Dark Side” will have to rebuild its defensive line if it wants to retain last year’s number eight national ranking. On offense, the challenge will come in the offensive line where graduation, injury and player ineligibility have taken their toll. Ortiz is optimistic about the Aztecs offense based upon what he has seen.
“Our defense is always on top of everything, but we have been going back and forth evenly with them (this summer) so we know we are improving (on offense). Today, we were able to get it into the end zone,” Ortiz said. A year ago the Aztecs were much better at moving the ball and accumulating yards than they were at scoring points. The expected improvement in point production, especially from the red zone, will be one of their biggest keys to success.
If they can stay healthy and plug up the holes they have on their offensive and defensive lines, the Aztecs have the potential to improve upon last year’s 6-6 record. If they do, it would be their first winning season since 1996. Picked to finish second or third in the Mountain West Conference behind returning league champion Utah, the Aztecs head into this season as bona fide contenders. That is a position they have rarely been in, at least in recent memory.
Will this be the season in which the Aztecs’ long-suffering fan will finally have something to cheer about? The answer to that question will begin to be revealed on September 4 inside the “Q”.