Beginning with this post, I'm introducing what I hope to be a regular feature (time permitting) previewing the position groups of each of Washington's opponents this year. Since anyone reading this likely knows everything that is public knowledge about the 44 players on Washington's two-deep, it seems useful to peek behind the curtain at the Huskies' upcoming opponents instead of the Huskies themselves. So without further adieu, to the previews! This week, we start with San Diego State, whom UW plays Sept. 1 (7:30 p.m. PT/Pac-12 Network).
At its apex, the Aztec civilization stretched from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, unrivaled in both its power and security. Alas, such superlatives cannot be used to describe the Aztecs of San Diego State, who find themselves at the end of fall camp with nearly as many questions as they had coming into it. After finishing the 2011 season at 8-5 and sending four players to the NFL in this spring's draft, San Diego State is in a definite rebuilding mode in 2012, but don't be quick to write them off --- though the Aztecs have to replace a monster in the backfield, as well as acclimate a new transfer quarterback, the team has the raw skill needed to sniff nine or 10 wins if they can quickly become comfortable at the skill positions.
Quarterback: SDSU has the unenviable task of replacing a 3,000 yard passer in Ryan Lindley, who last year achieved an impressive ratio of 23 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Last week, head coach Rocky Long announced that Oregon State University-transfer Ryan Katz had won the starting job over last year's backup, Adam Dingwell. Katz ought to be most memorable to Husky fans for his lackluster performance in the 2010 Oregon State-Washington game, in which the Beavers entered ranked No. 24 in the nation before Katz committed three turnovers en route to a double-overtime losing effort at Husky Stadium. Despite his early-season woes last year that led OSU coach Mike Riley to bench him in favor of current starter Sean Mannion, Katz remains a skillful pocket passer who has legitimate weapons to throw to (more on that in a minute).
Running back: In a tale that ought to sound mightily familiar to the Husky faithful, San Diego State fans are scratching their heads over the question of how they will replace the production of a beast of a tailback who left school early for the siren song of the NFL. A third-round draft pick to the Denver Broncos, Ronnie Hillman was the unquestioned workhorse of SDSU's offense in 2011, rushing nearly 24 times per game on his way toward picking up 1,711 yards and 19 touchdowns, including four against Pac-12 opponent Washington State, and earning first-team all-conference honors. Leading the charge to replace Hillman's production is sophomore Adam Muema, who last year ran for 253 yards on 43 carries, including 119 yards on 13 carries against No. 8 Boise State --- keep in mind, however, that two of Muema's runs against the Broncos broke for 81 and 21 yards, making for a very pedestrian 1.54 yards per carry on his 11 remaining touches on the day.
Offensive Line: The Aztecs return two starters in C Alec Johnson, a 2011 second-team all-conference player, and RG Nik Embernate from a unit that ranked seventh in the nation in sacks allowed, giving up only 11 on the year. Filling out the rest of the line are LT Bryce Quigley --- who has perhaps the biggest shoes of any Aztec lineman to fill, that of graduated first-team all-conference LT Tommie Draheim --- LG Japheth Gordon, and RT Zach Dilley, and while the line's current configuration might fall on the inexperienced side, SDSU's big uglies will certainly look the part: According to SDSU's official depth chart, no player on the OL's two-deep is smaller than 6'3" and 290 lbs. If the OL gets a similar push against Washington's front seven like they did against most teams for Ronnie Hillman last year, expect new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to reach into his bag of tricks a bit earlier than he might have liked to in order to more effectively combat the Aztec's ground attack.
Tight End: Returning starter Gavin Escobar is the kind of TE that keeps defensive coordinators up at night. The 6'6", 255 lb. junior and returning first-team all-conference pick is a nightmare for opposing defenses in the open field, and presents many of the same matchup problems that Austin Seferian-Jenkins poses on Washington's side of the ball. Furthermore, Escobar has shown himself to be a player who rises to the occasion: His best single-game effort last year came against No. 8 Boise State, against whom Escobar hauled in eight catches for 113 yards and two scores. Washington's secondary will no doubt get creative, particularly with the play of safeties Sean Parker and Shaq Thompson, in an attempt to keep Katz from getting into a rhythm with his big target.
Wide Receiver: San Diego's biggest threat on the outside stretch of the field this year probably comes in the form of USC transfer Brice Butler, a 6'3", 205 lb. senior. Normally, a player who transfers from an AQ school to a lower-tier squad is someone who has failed to live up to his potential, but in Butler's case, his transfer has more to do with the embarrassment of riches that Lane Kiffin currently enjoys at the position between George Farmer, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. It seems likely that Washington CB Desmond Trufant will be assigned to cover Butler for most of Saturday's 60 minutes, especially if 5'9" Tre Watson is Washington's other starting CB. Beyond Butler, the Atzecs welcome back returning starters Colin Lockett, who hauled in 58 catches for 970 yards and 8 TDs, and Dylan Denso, who brought in 49 grabs for 634 yards and 3 scores.
That's it for the offense. Keep an eye out for later this weekend, when I'll break down the Aztec's projected starters on the defensive side of the ball.