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August 12, 2011

Mailbag on the Mesa

Editor's note: Every Friday ASR Publisher Edward Lewis will answer some questions from fans about the Aztecs in this weekly mailbag. Send questions to edwardflewis@yahoo.com, @EdwardLewisASR on Twitter, post questions on the message board or put questions on ASR's Facebook page.

David: Is Ronnie Hillman going to have a sophomore slump? He caught almost everyone off-guard last year. Now that they'll be loading the box against him, do you think we'll see a drop off in production?

This isn't a knock on Hillman, but I think it's a pretty fair comment to say the dynamic back will likely have some kind of drop off in production this season. I mean, the guy put up literally the fifth-greatest rushing season in Aztec history last year, posting 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns. You have to assume with defenses game-planning for him now, those numbers should go down.

With that said, however, I don't expect them to drop off dramatically. I walked by SDSU's closed practice on my way to the Athletics Center on Thursday night and out of the corner of my eye, Hillman broke off a 50-yard run and outran defensive back Dey Juan Hemmings to the endzone. So physically, he's fine. But with defenses likely keying on him, I would say a 1,100-yard, 13-touchdown season is a more realistic expectation for him.

If you want to call that a sophomore slump, go ahead. But I'm assuming every Aztec fan reading this site would be more than happy to see that.


Ian: How has the defensive line looked so far? Weight wise they seem to be undersized in a three-man front. You would think your ideal NT would be 315-plus.

This is a very common misconception born out of the freak athletes that come from the SEC, Pac-12 and NFL. Most fans and media members believe if a player is shorter than 6 feet or weighs less than 250 pounds, he's drastically undersized and will never make it at any school in Division I. But the Aztecs play in the Mountain West, not the AFC West. A lot of the offensive linemen in the conference weigh less than 290 and are shorter than 6 feet 3 inches, too. So it's not like guys like JJ Autele and Larry Gibbs are incredibly overmatched.

Plus, when former head coach Brady Hoke arrived at SDSU a few years ago, the first story I did was on former defensive end B.J. Williams. He seemed undersized to me, especially playing in a system that only has three down linemen. So I asked Hoke about it, and he told me he actually prefers his defensive ends to be around 250 or 260 anyway. The system requires them to run and stunt so much, he didn't want a bunch of 320-pounders slugging around.

As for how they look in camp, they look fine. Jerome Long is poised to have the same year Ernie Lawson had last year for this defensive line, and the rest of the guys should step up too. I think Aztec fans should worry more about receiver or backup quarterback than the line, in my opinion.


Matt: What are the biggest differences so far between Rocky Long's coaching style and Brady Hoke's, both on and off the field?

Honestly, and this is the beauty of having Long take over, nothing is different. Practices are run the same way, guys still preach toughness, and the defensive and offensive systems have stayed pretty much the same. That's why they kept all the 2011 recruits that had previously committed to Hoke. That's also why Ryan Lindley is playing on Saturdays this year instead of Sundays. The players love what Hoke brought, and they're even happier Long is carrying that torch with the same speed.

However, the one thing I have noticed is interviews. Hoke was a master at talking for five minutes and saying nothing in those five minutes at the same time. And his players mirrored that. With Long, though, he says what's on his mind, whether it's the politically correct thing to say or not. The players aren't quite to that extreme yet, but they're a lot better than the "We play hard and we're going to be tough" robots they were the past two years.


Chris: Who do the players think will have a breakout season from the class that just redshirted or from the freshmen that have been on campus already?

Well, this question yielded a whole lot of, "It's too early to tell" answers from the players. But this answer from Long is my favorite answer to that question:

"The young guys are still swimming," he said. "They're so used to doing one or two things and now they're in a complicated system on both offense and defense; and the number of assignments and adjustments they have to make is overwhelming for most young guys. It's hard to tell if they can play or not when they're thinking so much."

But if you're asking me personally to pick one from offense and one from defense, I'll go with receiver Ezell Ruffin and defensive end Everett Beed. Ruffin is a playmaker. He's very fast, he can jump really high and he has solid hands. Once he gets the mental aspect of it all down, he should be locked in as a starting receiver on this squad.

And as for Beed, he plays a position that is wafer thin. So he's going to get playing time. Plus, in camp, he's already made a few plays that have caught my attention. And in a 3-3-5, where the linebackers and safeties usually get all the standout plays, that's pretty rare.


Talk more Aztecs with Edward Lewis on ASR's premium message board!


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