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February 20, 2010

San Diego State still struggling to climb MWC

Considered one of the nation's most underachieving programs, San Diego State still is struggling to climb up the Mountain West standings.

In Brady Hoke's first season, the Aztecs failed to win more than four games for the fourth consecutive season. San Diego State had its chances to reach the six-win plateau, but fourth-quarter collapses in November put a damper on the season. The Aztecs lost their final four games, allowing at least 28 points in each of them.

Hoke heads into his second season looking to get consistent production out of his team for the full 12-game schedule. Here's a look at the Aztecs as they open spring drills.

Ryan Lindley passed for 3,054 yards and 23 touchdowns last season.
Coach: Brady Hoke
Last season: 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the Mountain West.
Spring dates: Feb. 20-March 20.
Offense (8): WR Vincent Brown, T Tommie Draheim, G Nik Embernate, C Trask Iosefa, QB Ryan Lindley, T Mike Matamua, WR DeMarco Sampson, TE Alston Umuolo.
Defense (8): LB Miles Burris, S Brandon Davis, S Dey Juan Hemmings, T Ernie Lawson, CB Leon McFadden, CB Jose Perez, E Jacob Tauanuu, E B.J. Williams.
Special teams (1): P Brian Stahovich.
Positions of strength

The offense will be built around Ryan Lindley. He passed for 3,054 yards and 23 touchdowns as a sophomore, but he needs to improve his consistency. WR DeMarco Sampson, the Aztecs' only Rivals.com All-Mountain West performer, received a sixth season of eligibility. However, the bigger gift might be the return of WR Vincent Brown. If Brown can return from a thumb injury, the Aztecs should have one of the best passing attacks in the MWC. Brown caught 45 passes for 778 yards and six touchdowns in only seven games. San Diego State also returns P Brian Stahovich, who was 13th in the country in punting.

Help is needed

This is not a balanced offense. The Aztecs rushed for fewer than 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. With both primary running backs returning and with four returning linemen who made at least seven starts last season, the existing personnel will be under pressure to perform or risk losing their jobs to newcomers. The Aztecs also need to find a way to prevent the fourth-quarter collapses that cost them two wins last season. SDSU led by at least two touchdowns going into the fourth quarter against Wyoming and UNLV but lost both, which kept them from going bowling.

Three guys to watch

OT Juan Bolanos: Though San Diego State returns two starters at offensive tackle, the Aztecs need new blood on the line. Bolanos is a three-star prospect out of junior college who should compete with holdovers Mike Matamua and Tommie Draheim. Hoke signed junior college guard Riley Gauld for the same purpose.

DE Perry Jackson: No one on the roster had more than 2 sacks last season, making Jackson - another JC transfer - one of the keys to improving the defense. San Diego State scored a recruiting victory by signing him. Jackson chose the Aztecs over Utah, Iowa State and Colorado State.

S Andrew Preston: After starting for two years at outside linebacker, Preston was relegated to backup duty in 2009. He could see new life at the "Aztec" position in coordinator Rocky Long's defense. The position, akin to a free safety, usually belongs to one of the best athletes on the defense. The position was a revolving door last season, and Preston could give it some stability.

The pressure is on

RB Brandon Sullivan: San Diego State has ranked 100th or worse in rushing in each of the past three seasons. Some of the blame belongs to the offensive line, but the running backs haven't been too impressive, either. Sullivan managed only 558 yards last season despite being a part-time starter. Sophomore Walter Kazee rushed for 106 yards on 15 carries in the finale against UNLV, so he will get a long look in the spring. The Aztecs also signed three running backs, including Adam Muema, a three-star prospect who also had offers from Colorado and Washington State.

The buzz

Ball State went through some lean years at the start of Hoke's tenure, going 15-31 in his first three seasons. But Hoke eventually led the Cardinals to back-to-back winning seasons. San Diego State is in a similar rebuilding mode. Hoke brought in a solid signing class, heavy on offensive linemen. The spring could be a make-or-break time for some veterans before a talented freshman class arrives on campus.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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