McGrane: SDSU Shuns Fence in Favor of Fortress
Sept. 22, 2016
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: SDSU Shuns Fence in Favor of Fortress
For Rashaad Penny, it had less to do with a preconceived notion than mounting evidence.
Whereas other programs were peddling promise, Penny was shopping for a proven product.
Said Penny: "I knew San Diego State was going to be a powerhouse."
Move aside, Nostradamus.
To understand the Aztecs' current position in the college football world is to not only grasp the remarkable, but to sort through the building blocks. Recruiting, once a venture that produced far more busts than burgeoning stars, has clearly become an exercise in fulfillment rather than abject failure.
Consider: Of the Aztecs' 24 signees in the Class of 2016, more than one-third (nine) spurned offers from Pac-12 schools. That's not merely slugging it out, that's coming away with a win never witnessed in SDSU's history of slugging it out. That's a statement, a shout-from-the-highest-hill and damn-the-torpedoes statement. A statement proclaiming that whatever passed for football here in the past is forever buried 'neath the sod, never again to rear its unsettling and unsightly head.
But what now? Other than Stanford, no team from California, much less its southern section, currently occupies a spot in the Associated Press Top 25. The Aztecs, at No. 22, are suddenly not merely flush with credibility, but also present a potential landing spot for recruits heretofore out of reach.
Not that head coach Rocky Long and his staff are afraid of a fight. It's why Kaelin Himphill, a two-time all-state linebacker from Oregon, cast his lot with SDSU rather than accept an offer from USC. It's why Chase Jasmin, despite receiving offers from five Pac-12 schools, chose the Aztecs knowing full well he was joining a team with a running back corps as deep as an abyss. It's why recruiting Texas, once tantamount to scaling Everest in roller skates, has produced a roster that currently includes nine players from the Lone Star state.
It's why 13 straight wins, a conference championship and a position in the polls for the first time in 21 years does plenty to add to the allure of program that has exchanged baby steps for startling strides.
"When we got here, there were some very talented players, but we changed the way we did things in terms of the culture and the attitude and the ones who didn't like it left," said Long, whose assistants will take advantage of SDSU's bye this weekend to roam the recruiting trail. "We're recruiting, but it's our kids who are selling the program. They're selling the program to other players."
Players like offensive lineman Tyler Roemer, a product of the 2016 recruiting class who elected to sign with SDSU rather than currently No. 3-ranked Louisville.
Players like linebacker Troy Cassidy, another 2016 signee who spurned Arizona, Boise State, Oregon, Washington State and Washington, a team ranked ninth in the latest AP poll.
Time was when SDSU coaches proposed building a fence to keep local talent at home. At present, it would appear the fence has been shunned in favor of a fortress.
"I think it's a huge thing for kids coming out of high school, especially if they're from San Diego," said Aztecs quarterback Christian Chapman. "When you see something like that, being in the Top 25, it's really something that you can use as a hook to bring kids in. They want to be a part of it. I think it will help with recruiting a lot."
Gone are the days of apathy and indifference, the days when losses amassed like fallen leaves and recruiting forays were forged largely with the knowledge that a "no" would be forthcoming. While opponents continued to fatten themselves with fruit from local trees, SDSU's subsistence was largely limited to leftovers and the subsequent non-winning seasons, which numbered 11 straight before Brady Hoke broke through in 2010.
"(Our) talent level has improved somewhat, but it's the attitude and the execution and the commitment of our players that has improved dramatically," Long said. "The talent level hasn't improved as much as some people think it has. I told somebody before the Cal game that (Cal) has 26 active members in the NFL; we have three.
"But the best thing about college football is that it's not all about talent. In college football, sometimes the guy who wants it more is the one who wins, even though the other team has more talent."
"If you put a program in place and the players embrace it, you get a little bit better," Long continued. "And what happens is that the players in the program help you recruit (similar) players that thrive in that kind of system."
Thrive is putting it mildly. When the Aztecs return to field at South Alabama on Oct. 1, it will have been 371 days since their last loss. Not only is their 13-game run second only to Alabama's 15, their streak of five consecutive road wins now ranks 10th nationally and is the program's longest since stringing together 19 straight from Oct. 30, 1965 through Nov. 7, 1970.
During its 13-game win streak, SDSU has outscored the opposition 476-189, with only two games decided by fewer than 14 points.
That's not thriving, that's more akin to marauding.
While becoming ever more attractive to the highly-regarded recruit.
"In this year's class, in at least two cases and maybe even three, there were guys that we don't get four or five years ago," Tony White, the team's recruiting coordinator and cornerbacks coach, said in the aftermath of national signing day in February. "Five years ago, there was no way we were going to walk in there and get these guys.
"Now we have the chance to walk in and sit down with a guy who has a legitimate offer from a Power 5 school and sell the farm. In the past, you would be, let's say, politely declined much sooner. You knew right from the get-go that you were not going to be able to compete. Now they want to listen, and as a recruiter all you want is for them to listen to you."
Rashaad Penny, who has become the program's career leader in kickoffs returned for touchdowns, certainly listened.
"It was just about believing in your instincts," Penny said of signing with the Aztecs. "Over the years, you see the wins and then you start seeing how the program starts to (gain recognition). As a high school kid, I didn't want to go anywhere else. I'm happy that I chose to come here. It's a dream come true for a lot of guys."
Guys seeking to become part of a powerhouse.