McGrane: Aztecs Add Some Aces to a Winning Hand
Sept. 3, 2017
2017 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs Add Some Aces to a Winning Hand
If the dance steps weren’t the cleanest, it had less to do with the partner than the stage. Even Fred Astaire played the accordion before taking a whack at a waltz.
But if in 2017 San Diego State’s red and black has spots where the green shows through, where the exuberance of youth can get tangled up in its own feet, make no mistake:
Until somebody builds a better battering ram, the road to the Mountain West title will run right through the danger zone that is (say it) Aztec Warrior Stadium.
You see, while head coach Rocky Long was well aware he’d be practicing patience with a group that lost 10 of its 22 starters from a year ago, including four starting offensive linemen, his program also has reached a point where talent is not limited to tenure.
In Saturday night’s 38-17 discarding of UC Davis, the Aztecs showed they still have plenty of tools in the shed to tear up the yard and a few new ones capable of serious damage.
Oh, the trademark “we’ll-pound-you-til-your-psyche-sags” approach is still in vogue, with Rashaad Penny showing UC Davis that a 5-11, 220-pound tailback with sprinter’s speed is a thing to be much avoided. While Penny will never catch Donnel Pumphrey in the record books, neither will he shy from his predecessor in a footrace, as noted by his 61-yard dash in the first quarter that gave the Aztecs a 10-0 lead.
“The other guys in the huddle said, ‘Let’s have a race to the end zone,’ ” Penny laughed. “I honestly thought I was off stride, because I haven’t really been tackled since last December.”
Nor was he tackled much Saturday night. Before he was through, Penny bullied his way for 197 yards, the third most in an SDSU season opener since the Aztecs began playing Division I football in 1969.
But if Penny provides a knockout punch, teams also would do well not to ignore the expanding capabilities of junior quarterback Christian Chapman.
Chapman, who largely has become known for his deft touch in sticking a ball into a tailback’s belly, is emerging as something more than just the guy routinely dripping with dry humor. When asked last week if his teammates and he were weary of fall camp, it was Chapman who concluded, ‘Well, we didn’t come here to lift weights and run.’ ”
Or waste time. Chapman, who now has a number of new options at his disposal (nine different receivers caught passes Saturday), threw for 220 yards and two touchdowns against UC Davis. In 17 consecutive starts, the most among any Aztec player, he has yet to throw more than one interception in a game.
When a team runs the ball like SDSU, adding an efficient passing game is bit like asking if you’d prefer hemlock with your arsenic. The Aztecs finished with 513 total yards.
“The passing game is going to be better, because we have a veteran quarterback and we have more skill at wide receiver,” Long said. “As long as we efficiently run the ball, we’re going to have some receivers that are open, and I thought Chapman did a nice job of getting the ball to them. They made a couple of nice catches, and they can do something with it after they catch it, too.”
In addition to a fleet of wideouts that includes returning seniors Mikah Holder and Quest Truxton, Chapman now has at his disposal speedy Fred Trevillion, a junior transfer from Southwest Mississippi Community College who originally played safety after signing with the Aztecs in 2014. But as testament to the talent now being farmed by SDSU, Saturday’s starters at wide receiver were Tim Wilson and Isiah Macklin, a pair of redshirt who are listed at 6-4 and 6-5, respectively.
But it was the startling emergence of a former walk-on that generated the majority of the postgame buzz.
Kahale Warring, who once knew no more about football than nuclear fusion, gave fair warning that SDSU’s tight ends are not to be trifled with in 2017. The 6-6, 250-pound Warring, whose sport of choice in high school was mainly water polo, finished with a team-high five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. When he caught a seven-yard scoring pass from Chapman with less than two minutes gone in the second quarter, Warring hiked his career touchdown total to three — on four receptions.
“He’s made as much improvement as any player I’ve ever been around,” Long said of Warring, who was awarded a scholarship last week after missing the final 10 games of 2016 with a foot injury. “He played one year of high school football. Now he’s on scholarship, and thank goodness he made us look good for giving him a scholarship.
“But he’s such a novice to the game. He still doesn’t know some of the basic fundamentals of football. He didn’t play as a little kid and he didn’t play in junior high and he (barely) played in high school. But what you see is a guy who wants to be good who is a real good athlete. He’s going to be a great player.”
Warring’s performance, mind you, came in the absence of senior tight end David Wells, who is recovering from an injured foot. Wells, who was named to the preseason John Mackey Award Watch List, an award annually presented to the nation’s top tight end, also was named to the all-Mountain West preseason team. In his stead, Warring averaged 14.8 yards per catch. Senior tight end Darryl Richardson, who has refused to fold despite arriving at SDSU as a dual-threat quarterback in 2013, caught the first touchdown pass of his career, while sophomore tight end Parker Houston added a 23-yard reception.
“Our passing game is still going to depend on us being able to run the football,” said Long, “but if we run the football, we have good enough skill out there now that teams are going to be hurting.”
It’s seldom they’re not hurting when dealing with SDSU’s defense, whose starters limited UC Davis to three points and 165 total yards before turning things over to the reserves.
As with the offense, the defense also has its share of fresh faces, including true freshman safety Tariq Thompson. A two-time all-CIF selection who prepped at San Diego’s St. Augustine High, Thompson intercepted a pass deflected by linebacker Jay Henderson and also forced a fumble. In becoming SDSU’s first true freshman to start on defense since Leon McFadden in 2009, Thompson added a team-high four tackles, a number shared by senior cornerback Kameron Kelly and sophomore cornerback Ron Smith.
Smith proved his own worth as a true freshman last season, intercepting three passes, one of which he returned 54 yards for a touchdown in SDSU’s rout of Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl. After intercepting a pass near the end of the first quarter on Saturday, Smith has four interceptions in his last seven games.
“Being the young guy last year, and still being the young guy really, I know the pressure that is really on you, to make plays and make sure the team isn't going in a negative direction,” Smith said. “So I'm happy to see all of our young guys get a chance to step on the field and make plays necessary for us to get a win.”
And help stack an already loaded deck.