It was a natural question to ask, especially in July, especially at an event like the Mountain West media day.
With San Diego State coming off a nine-win season, after winning its first bowl game in 12 years, with Utah and BYU leaving the conference, with TCU leaving after this year for the Big East, are the Aztecs finally going to live up to that “sleeping giant” cliché that most everyone has talked about?
Is San Diego State ready to become the next team to fly banner of being one of the best programs that is not in BCS conference?
“I think that’s yet to be seen,” Rocky Long, the Aztecs new head coach, said in July. “We had a really good year last year. We have potential. I think a program takes at least five years to build. I think we’re going in the right direction. I think there’s going to be some times that things don’t work, don’t go exactly right, we take a step back and we have to overcome something. We’ll have to prove that we belong. I think the potential is there, but it is our belief that here in the next three years that we will be one of those teams.”
The potential has been there. It’s been there all along. But that potential may actually be realized under Long’s tenure.
Long—who spent the last two years as SDSU’s defensive coordinator—takes over after Brady Hoke took the team from the Mountain West cellar into winning the program’s first bowl game in more than four decades.
And the pieces that Long has to work with are pretty good.
The Mountain West Freshman of the Year, Ronnie Hillman, is back at running back. Hillman broke the San Diego State freshman record for rushing yards in a season (1,532) which garnered comparisons to NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, who previously held the record.
Hillman was the only player in the MW to average more than 100 yards per game on the ground last season and garnered offensive MVP honors in the Aztecs’ Poinsettia Bowl victory after rushing for 228 yards and three touchdowns against Navy.
“I have been lucky to be around some great running backs and they all played in this league,” Long said. “Ronnie has good quickness and speed in getting in and out of holes as any of them I’ve been around. He’s not quite as powerful as some of them. He doesn’t break as many tackles as some of them, but he makes more of them miss and he out runs more of them.”
Probably more important than Hillman returning is the quarterback who will be handing the ball of to him.
Senior Ryan Lindley enters his fourth season as SDSU’s starting quarterback. Last year he led the Mountain West in passing with 3,830 yards.
However, Lindley was throwing to two future NFL draft picks.
With the absence of Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, the tight ends—mostly Bryce Quigley and Gavin Escobar—will be needed to perform at higher levels.
A couple of sophomores also top the receiving depth chart. Walk-on Dylan Denzo and cornerback-turned-wideout Colin Lockett are expected to play huge minutes for the Aztecs.
What they do when Lindley gets them the ball will determine how much room Hillman has to run and how successful SDSU will be in replicating its explosive offense from last year.
“I know there’s going to be a little bit of a growth process,” Lindley said in July. “They’re going to make some mistakes and there’s going to be a little bit of trial by fire. But I’m excited. I’m excited for the way they’re going to grow. They have a ton of talent and potential.”
The defense itself returns four starters from last year, including senior linebacker Miles Burris and senior defensive lineman Jerome Long.
And the transition from Rocky Long being the defensive coordinator to the head coach has been minimal.
Long is still going to call the plays and work extensively with a defense that finished fifth in total defense and defensive scoring in the league last year.
There is room for improvement, but the trajectory Long had them on the last two seasons isn’t going to change.
“For the most part, the transition has been very smooth,” Burris said at SDSU’s media day in August. “I’ve said it before, it feels like year three and he’s been great. Everybody is 100 percent behind him and backing him and we’ve still got all the same principals and foundations set of accountability, working hard and toughness. It’s really going to show up on the field this season.”
So, the question remains—will the Aztecs become an elite football program?
Most do not expect San Diego State to make that jump this year, but most also do not expect the Aztecs to return to the basement.
The team is too experienced, has too much talent and has built such a firm foundation the last two years that moving forward is the only expectation.
“Our expectations every year, year in and year out, are to win that game that week and be Mountain West champions,” Lindley said. “That’s going to be our goal, we’re going to stick with that and as long as we do that, we can go out every week and play our best football and we’ll be in a position to accomplish a championship.”
And then, maybe, that sleeping giant will finally wake up.
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