Aug 13, 2020

Q&A with The Daily Aztec football beat writer Anthony Reclusado

Square Logo BlueReclusado participates in our weekly Q&A, gives us an in-depth look at the Aztecs

The Collegian: Quarterback Maxwell Smith, a graduate transfer from Kentucky, has taken over as the starting signal caller. How has the quarterback position fared this season, and how has Smith handled the transition?

Reclusado: Maxwell Smith arrived to San Diego State having not played in two years due to injuries, and the rust showed leading into the season. He just edged out redshirt freshman Christian Chapman for the starting job, but has yet to prove that he is the answer at quarterback. Smith has shown quick flashes of a starting quarterback – throwing into tight windows and hitting receivers on the run. But on that same note, he will miss wide-open receivers or overthrow his guys.

However, a part of his play could be accredited to inconsistent offensive line play – that features three new starters with little to no experience – and wide receivers that struggle to separate from defenders.

The Collegian: SDSU runs a 3-3-5 defense. What are some advantages of this exotic scheme?

Reclusado: Out of the 3-3-5 defense, Rocky Long has a list of coverages, blitzes and schemes at his disposal, which he will have his defense disguise prior to the snap. This can cause confusion for an offense that has never played this type of defense. It is one thing to see it on film and another to play against it. It is not abnormal to see all three defensive linemen stand up to confuse the offensive linemen as to whom they are supposed to block until the ball is snapped. The Warriors (hybrid safeties) will also flash as they will drop in coverage pre-snap to only come late on a blitz.

But one of the biggest advantages of using a 3-3-5 defense is that there are always five defensive backs on the field, which helps to prevent mismatches when a team spreads out
its offense.

The Collegian: Junior running back Donnel Pumphrey racked up 1,867 rushing yards last season and has established himself as one of the most explosive backs in the conference. What makes him such a threat?

Reclusado: What makes Pumphrey a threat is his ability to hit the big play at any moment. He has the speed to get to the edge and the agility to make players miss in space. Despite his size, he can also run in between the tackles. This year offensive coordinator Jeff Horton has utilized Pumphrey in the passing game, as defenses are focusing to contain him on the ground and to get him in the open field.

The Collegian: Head coach Rocky Long has coached for a long time. What is the 65-year-old coach known for and what are some of the messages he preaches to his team?

Reclusado: Long is synonymous with defense. Since he has taken over as defensive coordinator, the Aztecs have continually had one of the highest-rated defenses in the conference. He never gets ahead of himself and makes sure neither does his team. It is common for the players to speak with the same rhetoric that Long uses.

The Collegian: Who are SDSU’s leaders in the clubhouse?

Reclusado: Jake Fely and J.J. Whittaker are two leaders in the locker room. Both began their careers in 2010 and, due to injuries and NCAA waivers received, extra years of eligibility. But over that time they have gained experience, and it resonates defensively. Whittaker plays in the secondary, and Fely in the front six.

Offensively, Pumphrey has grown in prominence with the team, as countless of the younger players look up to the junior running back and what he has done despite his small stature.

The Collegian: Both Fresno State and SDSU have had their early season struggles and each stands at 1-3. What are some of the reasons for SDSU’s three-consecutive losses?

Reclusado: Offensively, it begins with the big boys up front. Three of the linemen are new, including Robert Craighead – a converted tight end from a season ago, who added close to 30 pounds to play on the line. They have been unable to maintain a clean pocket for Smith. To combat the collapsing pocket around Smith, Horton has had to go to max protection, which limits the amount of receivers and allows the defense to double or even triple cover one player. But if they do spread it and go empty, then Smith gets pressured and has to get the ball out quickly to receivers that, again, struggle to separate from their defenders. The offensive line is also unable to maintain running lanes for Pumphrey. It does not help that the wide receivers struggle to get separation and give Smith a clear target, which adds more pressure to Pumphrey in the run game as opposing defenses stack the box.

Defensively, Trey Lomax has not played since injuring his knee in the opening half against the University of San Diego. He was not only a returning starter at one of the Warrior positions, but how the secondary is built in the 3-3-5 scheme, chemistry is important. Not to mention that this defense is not easy to just be thrown into. It is not surprising that assignment errors have riddled the defense that has directly led to 20-plus yard plays for opposing offenses.

The Collegian: How do the Aztecs feel confidencewise heading into this matchup?

Reclusado: As usual, Rocky Long and his team are heading into this match tempering expectations.
During his press conference in the week he said, “I think the two teams are equally matched. I think the talent level is as equal as it can get.”

The Collegian: The ‘Dogs have won the last three meetings in this conference matchup. What do the Aztecs need to do in order to win back the Old Oil Can?

Reclusado: In order to bring the Old Oil Can back to San Diego, the Aztecs need to play as they did in the second half of the Penn State game. Defensively, they limited the Nittany Lions to 100 yards and zero touchdowns in the second half. The only touchdown that PSU scored came off a fumble return after Smith was stripped. Offensively, the linemen played their best football, giving Smith ample time to scan the field against one of the best front fours they will face all season.

Special teams will also be a key in this match. Rashaad Penny is first in the nation in kickoff return average at 45.1 and has already returned two for touchdowns. Aside from a horrible outing by Lloyd Mills last week, he has shown the ability to break long runs on punt returns. These units have placed the struggling Aztec offense in great field position to begin drives and coincidentally it also flips the field in the defense’s favor if the offense fails to extend its drives.

The Collegian: Do the Aztecs consider this to be one of its top rivalries?

Reclusado: Fresno State is definitely one of the games that all of the Aztecs circle on their schedule because they know of the history between these two teams and the rivalry that exists. SDSU has lined up across from the Bulldogs more than any other team in its history, which will be the 55th meeting this Saturday. Throw in that both teams recruited a lot of the players on both teams and that adds another level of animosity between these two sides. Top it off that both reside in California, and the battle for state superiority is added fuel. This is easily one of the top rivalries for the Aztecs.

The Collegian: Prediction?

Reclusado: With a clear edge in special teams, I am going with SDSU at home, 27-21.

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