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College football: SDSU Aztecs kick off season with high expectations Phillip Brents | Fri, Sep 02 2011 12:56 AM

The SDSU Aztecs football program appears to be riding a high despite the departure of head coach Brady Hoke, now at the University of Michigan. The Aztecs defeated the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen, 35-14, in last year’s Poinsettia Bowl to mark the first post-season victory for the Montezuma Mesa school since 1969.

Under new head coach Rocky Long (formerly the team’s defensive coordinator under Hoke), SDSU expects to compete for the Mountain West championship. The conference has suffered a bit of a line-up shuffle with the departures of Utah and BYU and the addition of Boise State. TCU is slated to depart next season while both Fresno State and Hawaii are set to join the MW fold.

The Aztecs, bolstered by 37 returning letter-winners and 14 returning starters, were picked to finish fourth in an MW preseason poll — its highest such honor since being picked to finish third in the 2004 season.

SDSU finished 9-4 last season. The nine wins were the most for the team since 1977.

The Aztecs suffered massive hits to their receiver corps with former Castle Park standout Demarco Sampson signing with the NFL Arizona Cardinals and Vincent Brown inking a deal with the hometown Chargers.

Returning to lead the SDSU offense is senior quarterback Ryan Lindley (El Capitan), who is on line to set new school passing records. Lindley, who was selected as one of the Aztec co-captains this season, enters the 2011 campaign riding the momentum of his best-ever season thus far at Montezuma Mesa. In 2010, he threw for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns. He led the Mountain West with 294.6 passing yards per game.

Lindley has amassed 9,537 career passing yards and 67 touchdowns in 36 contests. 

Todd Santos currently holds SDSU’s all-time career passing record at 11,425 yards.

Among prime receiving targets this season are tight ends D.J. Shields (Bonita Vista) and Gavin Escobar (Santa Margarita Catholic). Escobar grabbed 29 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns last season. Shields looks to greatly add to the 13 catches he’s made for 138 yards in his first two years with the program.
Running back Ronnie Hillman returns from a superlative freshman season during which he rushed for 1,532 yards and scored 18 touchdowns.    

Abel Perez, a senior place-kicker out of Castle Park High School and Southwestern College, returns after earning second team all-conference honors last season. He led the conference with 28 touchbacks and converted 17 of 22 field goals, including his last eight of the season. He also led the conference with 1.42 field goals per game and 8.3 points per game.

The SDSU roster features five South County players this season. Besides Shields and Perez, also rostered are former Otay Ranch standout Jon Henkel (offensive line), SWC transfer Andrew Feaster (linebacker) and Hilltop grad Ryan Taylor (defensive lineman). Feaster is a returner.

Extra points

The Aztecs also boast a strong East County presence on their roster and picked up some potential gems in their high school recruiting program. Key additions include former Helix star Sam Meredith (defensive line), Mt. Miguel’s Reggie Jones (offensive lineman), El Capitan’s Robert Craighead (tight end) and Christian kicker Joel Alesi.

Grossmont College’s Larry Parker (St. Augustine) enters his third year with SDSU as a punt returner/defensive back. Other East County returners include El Capitan’s Tommie Draheim (offensive lineman) and Lindley.

A victory over their season opening foe, the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Mustangs, is not a given for the Aztecs. SLO has won the teams’ last two meetings. Cal Poly upset SDSU, 29-27, on a last second field goal to kick off the 2008 season in dramatic fashion.

The Mustangs, who finished 7-4 last year, boast a pair of former Eastlake standouts on their roster: receiver Jordan Hines and defensive back Chris Fletcher (the 2010 Metro-Mesa League Offensive Player of the Year).

SDSU is 26-17-4 in openers.

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