This post is part two of my preview of San Diego State's football team. Part one focused on the offense, today's post will look at the defense, and part three (which will be posted on Tuesday or Wednesday) will examine the Aztecs' special teams personnel.
The Aztecs boast more proven playmakers on the offensive side of the ball than they do on defense, but that doesn't mean that Keith Price & Co. can plan to run purely vanilla schemes and cruise to victory. SDSU relies on a 3-3-5 defense that boasts five returning starters on the two-deep, including a first-team all-conference selection at cornerback.
Defensive line: SDSU's front three might be the most inexperienced unit on the team, with the two-deep featuring two redshirt freshmen, three sophomores and one junior, none of whom were regular starters last year. The Atzecs' defensive linemen, while not undersized, are nowhere near as physically imposing as Husky defensive linemen Semisi Tokolahi or Danny Shelton --- the Aztecs' largest DL is 6'4", 275 lb. sophomore Sam Meredith --- and are virtually completely inexperienced at the collegiate level. In addition, the Aztecs must find someone to replace the production of last year's second-team all-conference selection and seventh-round draft pick Jerome Long, a 6'5", 285 lb. behemoth who recorded 73 tackles, including 8.0 tackles for loss and 5.0 sacks, and forced one fumble in 2011. Unless SDSU's newly-formed line proves to be a revelation beyond its expectations, Keith Price should have all the time in the pocket that he needs. No doubt, the hope of UW offensive line coach Dan Cozzetto is that the SDSU game serves as an adequate warm-up for new Husky tackles Micah Hatchie and Ben Riva before they are thrown into the fire of LSU's front seven a week later.
Linebackers: San Diego State's linebacker corps isn't much more battle-tested than its DL, with only one returning starter in 5'10", 210 lb. MLB Jake Fely, who recorded 58 tackles and forced three fumbles in 2011. Moreover, the unit must replace the production of fourth-round draft pick Miles Burris, whose 8.0 sacks ranked 36th in the nation last year. All told, this seems to be another unit that will have to see one or more of its young members step up in order to avoid a significant regression from its performance relative to 2011.
Cornerbacks: Similar to the Huskies defensive personnel, the Aztecs' secondary is widely expected to be its deepest and most effective unit this season. It returns a first-team all-conference selection in senior Leon McFadden, who last year recorded 46 tackles to go with his two interceptions and 13 passes defended. However, it lost another first-team all-conference player to the NFL in Larry Parker, whose seven interceptions ranked third in the nation. Filling Parker's shoes is senior Josh Wade, who started the last two games of the 2010 season as a sophomore before missing the entire 2011 campaign due to an Achilles injury.
Safety: Technically referred to by SDSU as two "Aztec" and one "Warrior" positions, the team's two-deep at safety is made up of five juniors and one true freshman, and includes three starters from 2011. One of those juniors and returning starters is Nat Berhe, an all-conference honorable mention who recorded 67 tackles and two picks last year, in addition to defending five passes and forcing a fumble. 2011 starter Marcus Andrews (21 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 1 pass defended) was forced to miss the 2011 New Orleans Bowl and the team's spring workouts after suffering a shoulder injury, but projects to be ready to play this season. Gabe Lemon rounds out San Diego State's returning starters from 2011, and looks to improve on his 33 tackles, 1 pick and 5 passes defended from 2011.
On paper, SDSU's defense seems ripe for exploitation by the Huskies' pro-style offense. In particular, none of the Aztec defenders seem to be an adequate match for covering 6'6" TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins or 6'2" WR Kasen Williams. UW simply projects to be a class above SDSU in terms of athletic ability in 2012, to the point that their players ought to outperform any schemes that the Aztecs draw up, no matter how good those schemes might be. Steve Sarkisian will likely attempt to use these mismatches in the receiving game to open up opportunities for Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey on the ground, while concealing as much of the playbook as possible before the Dawgs head down to Baton Rouge to take on the Tigers in Week 2.