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San Diego State: Beyond the Box Score Defensive Preview

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[Updated because I was a moron and forgot that Rocky Long runs a 3-3-5, not a 3-4.]

Yesterday we looked at an offense that took steps forward in 2009, but still has a ways to go in the running game.  What sort of challenge might the San Diego State defense present for Mizzou?

Defense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 91st

S&P+: 92nd
Success Rate+: 59th
PPP+: 106th

Standard Downs S&P+: 65th
Passing Downs S&P+: 111th

Redzone S&P+: 92nd

Q1 S&P+: 104th
Q2 S&P+: 96th
Q3 S&P+: 83rd
Q4 S&P+: 32nd

1st Down S&P+: 63rd
2nd Down S&P+: 61st
3rd Down S&P+: 118th

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 77th
Rushing SR+: 40th
Rushing PPP+: 104th

Standard Downs: 70th
Passing Downs: 106th

Redzone: 59th

Adj. Line Yards: 36th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 100th
Passing SR+: 89th
Passing PPP+: 104th

Standard Downs: 59th
Passing Downs: 111th

Redzone: 113th

Adj. Sack Rate: 99th
SD Sack Rate: 60th
PD Sack Rate: 98th


Passing Downs are basically play-making downs.  The best quarterbacks make plays on passing downs, and the worst defenses give up plays on passing downs.  As we will see, San Diego State was well-coached and took nice strides defensively last year ... but they were still terrible on passing downs.  They just didn't yet have the talent and/or athleticism to make stops.  It is the last thing that comes around when you are rebuilding an offense or a defense, and it hasn't come around yet for the Aztecs.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 100 119 117 91
S&P+ 46 86 119 116 92
Success Rate+ 63 92 119 117 59
PPP+ 30 86 117 115 106
Rushing S&P+ 76 111 120 112 77
Passing S&P+ 16 57 115 117 100
Standard Downs S&P+ 32 79 118 116 65
Passing Downs S&P+ 71 94 113 116 111
Adj. Line Yards 61 104 112 110 36
Adj. Sack Rate 98 105 113 105 99
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season.

Wow, were the last couple years of the Chuck Long Experiment just brutal.  Tom Craft's final season (2005) saw the Aztecs playing strong defense while struggling on offense.  The offensive-minded Long came aboard, and while he failed to make much difference on O ... he let the defense completely fall apart.  In 2007, their best rank in these primary categories was 112th (Adj. Line Yards); in 2008, 105th (Adj. Sack Rate).  To say the least, Brady Hoke had a challenge on his hands, and really, he did well in his first year.  SDSU improved by 26 spots in Defensive F/+, 58 spots in Success Rates, 51 spots on standard downs, 74 spots in Adj. Line Yards and 35 spots in run defense.  As I mentioned, however, passing downs were still a problem.  They let teams off the hook too many times by allowing big plays and long conversions.  With eight returning starters and another recruiting class under his belt, Hoke should be able to engineer some more improvement this time around.

As we'll see, SDSU will likely offer Mizzou a decent challenge in two ways: 1) they run a 3-4, against which Mizzou did not fare particularly well in the Texas Bowl last year, and 2) they should end up having a pretty solid run defense.

Defensive Line

Ernie Lawson photo via Daily Aztec

2009 Unit Ranking: 73rd (7th in MWC)

Projected DE Depth Chart
Ernie Lawson (6'3, 285, Sr., 18.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FF)
B.J. Williams (6'3, 250, Sr., 26.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FR)
Jacob Tauanuu (6'1, 260, Sr., 20.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 2 PBU)
Perry Jackson (6'2, 245, Jr.)
J.J. Autele (6'1, 245, Jr., 9.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sack)
Larry Gibbs (6'0, 240, Jr., 2.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sack)

Projected DT Depth Chart
Jerome Long (6'5, 290, Jr., 17.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks)
Neil Spencer (6'2, 285, Jr.)
Frederick Trujillo (6'1, 225, So.)

When Hoke came to town last season, he brought with him the 3-4 defense Rocky Long's 3-3-5 defense.  The 3-4 and 3-3-5 are attacking defenses that tends to confuse people at the collegiate level, if for no other reason than teams just don't see it very much.  It's almost like playing an option team like Navy and Georgia Tech -- you can prepare for it, but you're not going to actually be used to it until you play the opponent two or three times, if ever.

When a coach installs a three-man front, the previous 4-3 personnel tends not to match up very well on the defensive line.  Obviously the secondary is roughly the same, but with a 3-4 or 3-3-5 you need bigger ends who can stand up to blocking a lot more than a smaller 4-3 end.  With that in mind, Hoke has moved returning starting tackle Ernie Lawson to end, creating a situation where three starters return, and only two will start.  Meanwhile, four-star signee Perry Jackson also gets added to the mix this fall.  He is possibly a bit light to be a 3-4 end (honestly, I could see someone with that height/weight ending up at LB), but he is SDSU's first four-star recruit since 2005.

The defensive tackle is the anchor of the three-man front, and since he moved Lawson to DE, I guess Hoke has a lot of confidence and/or hope in the performance of Jerome Long.  In a backup role, Long ended up making as many plays as almost anybody else on the line last year.  At worst, I'm assuming the line won't be any worse than it was last year, and with the experience and potential talent upgrade in Jackson, it will probably be a bit better.

Linebackers

Ernie Lawson photo via Daily Aztec

2009 Unit Ranking: 108th (9th in MWC)

Projected Depth Chart
Miles Burris (6'2, 240, Jr., 44.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks)
Andrew Preston (6'1, 215, Sr., 37.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU)
Marcus Yarbrough (6'2, 230, Sr., 33.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU)
Logan Ketchum (6'3, 225, Jr., 10.5 tackles)
Eric Pinkins (6'3, 200, So., 10.0 tackles)
Demetrius Barksdale (6'3, 210, Jr., 9.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sack, 1 FR)
Rob Andrews (6'2, 220, So., 1.5 tackles)
Colin Shumate (6'2, 220, So.)
Jacob Driver (6'2, 205, RSFr.)
Nick Tenhaeff (6'2, 210, RSFr.)
Vaness Harris (6'2, 245, RSFr.)
Khalid Stevens (5'11, 195, So.)

In a 3-3-5, the defense rushes four men on every play just like a 4-3 does ... only, the fourth rusher could be anyone on the field.  The misdirection and confusion this brings about is often beneficial to the defense, especially if the offensive line is either undisciplined or inexperienced (or not very good).  As you see from the stats, the linemen didn't make a ton of plays, but quite a few different linebackers racked up tackles-for-loss last season.  The best (and biggest) of the bunch was Miles Burris, though both Andrew Preston and Marcus Yarbrough put up similar stats.  Despite only returning one starter, this unit should not rank any worse in 2010, partially because it's hard to get worse than 108th place, and partially because a lot of players got experience last year.

Preston and Eric Pinkins are listed at the "AZTEC" position on the defense.  While I assume Burris is the primary fourth rusher (a DE/OLB hybrid), it appears the AZTEC is the safety/LB hybrid we often see in 3-3-5, 3-4 and 4-4 systems.

Secondary

Leon McFadden photo via Examiner.com

2009 Unit Ranking: 86th (7th in MWC)

Projected CB Depth Chart
Leon McFadden (5'10, 180, So., 21.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sack, 1 INT, 2 blocked kicks)
Jose Perez (6'1, 180, Sr., 23.5 tackles, 3 PBU)
Romeo Horn (6'0, 185, Jr.)
Larry Parker (5'11, 170, Jr., 15.5 tackles, 1 FR, 1 PBU)
Josh Wade (6'0, 180, So., 8.5 tackles, 1 PBU)
Derek Mack (5'7, 160, So.)

Projected S Depth Chart
Dey Juan Hemmings (5'11, 210, Sr., 31.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR)
Brandon Davis (6'2, 190, Jr., 29.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 5 PBU)
Vincent Camarda (6'2, 205, Jr., 15.5 tackles, 2 INT, 2 PBU)
Darryn Lewis (5'9, 165, Sr., 28.5 tackles, 3 PBU)
Nat Berhe (5'10, 185, RSFr.)
Marcus Andrews (6'0, 195, RSFr.)

While the run defense improved quite a bit last season (it does not necessarily reflect in the unit rankings, but SDSU improved to 77th in Rushing S&P+), the pass defense was still a bit of a disaster, particularly on passing downs.  Simply by not being one of the 3-4 worst secondaries in the country, this was an improved unit last year, and it should improve again this time around with all four returning starters and potentially their most athletic/best player (Leon McFadden) heading into his sophomore season.

Special Teams

Brian Stahovich photo via GoAztecs.com

2009 Unit Ranking: 105th (8th in MWC)

Place-kicking: 115th
Net Punting: 18th
Net Kicking: 109th
Returns: 82nd

Projected Starters
K Bryan Shields (6'1, 195, Sr.)
P Brian Stahovich (6'0, 195, Jr., 61 punts, 43.8 avg.)
KR Vincent Brown (6'0, 195, Sr.; 11 returns, 20.0 avg)
PR Preston King (5'10, 170, So.; 12 returns, 6.6 avg.)

Special Teams was not a strength of the Aztecs in 2009, though they do have an absolutely tremendous punter in Brian Stahovich.  Hopefully we'll get plenty of opportunities to see him ply his trade.  Bryan Shields takes over at place kicker, and I get the feeling that the kick- and punt-return positions will be an open battle this fall, as neither of the leading returnees did too much with their opportunities.  And if Jasper Simmons were ever to want to break a long kickoff return, SDSU might oblige.

Summary

I love what Hoke did at Ball State, and I think he could eventually succeed at a decent level at San Diego State.  Obviously while in a conference with TCU, BYU and Boise State in the future, it might hard to finish better than fourth in the conference, but fourth place will likely get you to a bowl game ... somewhere SDSU has been only once since 1992.

In all, the 3-3-5 look will likely give Mizzou an opportunity to dust off their Texas Bowl offensive gameplan (sideline passes, cut-back runs, and more sideline passes) and see if they can execute it better this time around.  SDSU's defense will not be anywhere near the caliber of Navy's this season, so Mizzou should succeed.  The run defense should still provide a decent test for Mizzou, and like I said yesterday, you want at least a little bit of a challenge in these games.  But when pressed to pass, Mizzou should be able to do so with little problem, which will result in an easy Mizzou win unless Ryan Lindley passes for 550 yards.