After a sometimes puzzling, and mostly frustrating 2023 campaign that saw the Aztecs win the Mountain West Conference's West Division, yet still fall significantly short of everyone's expectations, the team has reloaded in preparation for what lies ahead. Gone is the program's all-time leading passer in David Edmondson, who after a brilliant junior season that had him talked about as a lock for the first round of the NFLHC Draft, just was not the same player in 2023, and has been blamed for many of the team's shortcomings. The outlook is bright for the team in 2024, by returning almost every starter, yet the biggest question mark surrounding this team will be whether or not the one offensive starter who is not back in Edmondson, can be adequately replaced by a true freshman in prized recruit, Nick Stewart.
Returning Starters : 9
The entire offensive line is back, and it's a good one, with NFLHC scouts looking at four of the teams' seniors up front, three of whom will be starting. Also returning is 5-star running back, A.J. Garrett, who hopes to take some of the burden off of Stewart. In 2023, despite the Aztecs being led by a highly-touted quarterback prospect, Garrett was still able to run for 1592 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Aztecs also bring back all of their wide receivers, with Zion Payton (58 Rec, 895 Yards, 7 TD), Eddie Doss (63 Rec, 883 Yards, 6 TD), and Cody Sharpe (50 Rec, 588 Yards, 5 TD). Sharpe is just a sophomore now, but is the most-talented of the bunch, and the team is hoping that given an expanded role, he'll start to blossom.
Position Battle: Tight End
TE Brian Givens 6-2 239 (Jr) Temecula Valley (Temecula CA) 3.5 of 3.5 [Blocking]
TE Jaivon Frazier 6-5 200 (So) Angelo Rodriguez (Fairfield CA) 3.0 of 4.0 [Receiving]
TE James Bell-Parker 6-2 237 (Fr) Serra (San Diego CA) 2.0 of 4.0 [Blocking]
Even though the team is replacing their starter at the tight end position, the thought is that the players who are stepping in are more talented then the one that left. The team is likely to shuffle all three players into the starting lineup based on matchups with Givens, Frazier, and Bell-Parker all able to give the Aztecs a little something different.
Returning Starters: 10
As if bringing back 9 offensive starters was not enough, the Aztecs' only lost one defensive starter from last year, a 3.5/4.0 Will LB, Otto Wyman, who is replaced in the lineup by redshirt freshman, ILB Dede Jefferson (2.5 of 5.0). Not every returning starter will actually be starting for the team though. At a couple of positions, the incumbent has been overtaken by a new player to the team. Ryan Brock will get the nod at defensive end over DE Noel Ferguson, for example, while FS Jamari Scales, who started as a redshirt freshman, will temporarily take a back seat to Juco transfer, Tejay Reid. The Aztecs will be starting a pair of redshirt senior cornerbacks, including Mike Foreman, who had 7 interceptions last season. Strong Safety, Kayden Alaniz, who played a hybrid role last year, slides into his more natural role of strong safety.
The starters appear to be clear-cut, though there are several reserves that are capable of starting, and could see time.
Special Teams Outlook
The weakness of this team continues to be their punting. Thankfully for them, they have not been asked to do a whole lot of it in recent years. Chris Rodrigues returns, and after his first college offseason strength program, he should see his punting average increase a bit. Strong-legged Aleksandr Vasiliev takes over the placekicking duties. He had previously only handled the teams' kickoffs. The return game should be bolstered a bit, but the team will still shuffle a couple of different athletic players back there to see if they can find the best fit.
Week 1: vs Toledo - The Aztecs and Rockets met up a few years ago, with the Aztecs coming out on top in their only meeting
Week 2 @ Tulane - The Aztecs meet up with one of the surprise teams of the 2023 season.
Week 3 vs Indiana - San Diego State defeated their lone B1G opponent last season (Wisconsin)
Week 4 @ Air Force - First Meeting since 2021, and that was the only Aztec win in the series (1-5 all-time)
Week 5 @ Hawai'i - Surprisingly early-season meeting between this budding rivalry. Teams have split the series, 5-5 with the Aztecs winning the last 2, each deciding the MWC West
Week 6 vs Fresno St - SDSU has won 4 straight in this high-scoring rivalry.
Week 7 @ UAB - Road game against an up-and-coming program that has recruited well, in the middle of four tough conference games. Trap game.
Week 8 vs Boise St - Boise upset SDSU in the 2023 MWC Championship Game
Week 9 @ UNLV - I wish I had something constructive to say other than this is going to be another blowout
Week 10 New Mexico -First meeting of these teams since 2021. New Mexico won that one, their lone win in the series (SDSU leads series, 5-1)
Week 12 Nevada - Nevada leads the all-time series, 6-3, and knocked off a floundering SDSU team last year, in Reno.
Week 13 @SJSU - Aztecs have outscored the Trojans 289-103 in this series, which SDSU leads, 7-1
Three Biggest Questions
1) How good can Nick Stewart be as a true freshman? If Stewart, who was ranked as the #3 quarterback recruit in the country, can step in and play relatively mistake-free football, the Aztecs have a chance at their third-straight trip to the MWC Championship Game. It's a tall ask, but the supporting cast is strong enough to pull it off
2) Was A.J. Garrett's 1592-yard season a result of teams focusing on David Edmondson, or is Garrett really this good? We've seen consistent production out of Garrett, but he has never been shouldered with the heavy lifting. It's possible that his success was derived from the fear of the passing attack. Garrett may or may not be asked to carry more of the load, but how much he's able to handle will come into question.
3) With the difficult part of the conference schedule coming at the front of the slate, will the Aztecs be ready and adjusted to life without Edmondson that early in the season? It almost feels like the conference schedule is upside-down this year, and with that, our fate could be decided before the leaves start to change color. With a new signal-caller and new gameplanning options, there is certainly question as to whether or not we'll be at our best by then. Most decidedly, we won't be.
9-3, Bowl Game Appearance
As talented as this roster is, a true freshman starting quarterback is going to have some growing pains. Combine that with the Hawai'i game being on the road, in the one conference game that truly matters, and that it is in Week 5, and it is easy to see the disappointment set in. Fresno, Boise, and Nevada all have talented teams that can beat anyone in the conference in a given week, and the out of conference schedule, while not as deadly as last year still has some land mines to tip-toe past. Air Force and New Mexico are also both games where if a freshman quarterback turns the ball over a couple of times, any outcome becomes possible.