Of course the Aztec faithful-- however many of those are left-- hope that the San Diego State is doing more than just solidifying; they see a program that's rising out of the conference cellar. Ryan Lindley led the offense that passed for 30 more yards and 4 more points (on average) in '09 than it got in '08, and he did so behind an anemic line and without the advantage of a viable run game. The '09 Aztecs didn't net 1,000 yards on the ground total, and in their eight losses averaged only 71 yards. In their four wins, SDSU averaged 95-- which is still frighteningly low.
So will SDSU's ground game improve? The answer lies in recruiting. Coach Hoke signed no offensive linemen in his (admittedly hastily-assembled) first class last year, and must replace two seniors on its line, RT Peter Nelson and LG Ikaika Aken-Moleta. Hoke and his staff have taken to building the team's lines with gusto, signing two JUCO linemen this month, and garnering four OL commits from high school seniors so far. Hoke hopes JUCO transfers Juan Bolanos and Riley Gauld will compete for starting spots, and that freshmen Emmanuel Beavers and Zach Dilley will press for PT, as well. SDSU's recruiting focus on linemen has to bring a smile to returning RBs Brandon Sullivan, Walter Kazee, Davon Brown, and incoming freshman Ronnie Hillman's faces. Kazee generated what little buzz the Aztecs had on the ground in 2009; Hillman was perhaps Hoke's most touted recruit last year; he finally enrolled for spring 2010. Any increased vigor in SDSU's rush attack counts double, because it frees the Aztecs' already-formidable passing game to grow.
And SDSU will continue to do that well. Ryan Lindley will be a third-year starter in '10, with a deep corps of receivers to whom to throw; if Vincent Brown is among them (and he's telling recruits he'll be back in '10), instead of in the NFL, SDSU won't have to find a franchise receiver. Replacing, or behind, Brown, is a long list of returning and new players, with Dominique Sandifer, Alston Umuloa, D. J. Shields, Osmond Nicholas, Marvin Jones, David Lamar, and Jay Waddell all vying for Lindley's attention. [update: Brown will return, as will DeMarco Sampson, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility. Together these two had 43% of SDSU's catches in '09, for 52% of the team's receiving yards. Their return is a huge bonus for Brady Hoke's rebuilding project on the Mesa.]
Hoke's DC, Rocky Long, brought a drastically different set of schemes for the defense in '09, and prompted a 33-place rise in the national rush defense standings, a 48-place rise in pass defense, and a 15-place rise in scoring defense. While the team must replace a starting corner, safety, and Aztec back, as well as two of the three LB spots on D, Rocky Long's cupboard is brimming with young talent to run his speedy schemes. 2009's bumper crop of freshmen DBs and LBs have a year of Long's tutelage under their belts, and they're joined by a second large group of incomers this fall. Their continued improvement is the second most important element in SDSU's revival. Fortunately, Long is a proven talent at developing players, and his magic has already been in evidence on the Mesa.
Long's d-line may see changes in personel, but not because of graduation. All three d-linemen return, but Hoke's first four-star recruit is JUCO transfer DE Perry Jackson, who will compete for starting snaps this spring.
More amorphously, Hoke seems to have succeeded in changing the culture in the SDSU program. He's convinced high school players previously committed to UNLV and Nevada to become Aztecs instead; he's sold prep seniors on the idea that they are starting a tradition of San Diego players staying in San Diego for college.