Ball security, leadership key as Aztecs look to identify starting quarterback

San Diego State seemingly auditions a new starting quarterback on an annual basis. In the past 12 years, the Aztecs have opened the season with 10 different starting quarterbacks, Christian Chapman (2016-18) being the only returning starter. The 2024 season will again feature a new starter following the departure of Jalen Mayden.

Spring practice began this week with four quarterbacks — redshirt sophomores AJ Duffy and Kyle Crum, redshirt freshman Javance Tupou’ata-Johnson and true freshman Danny O’Neil — competing at the position. Two of the QBs are new to the program. Duffy is a Florida State transfer and O’Neil graduated early from Indiana’s Cathedral High School to be here.

But all quarterbacks, newcomers and returners, are starting on the same page with a new coaching staff that is installing a new, uptempo offense. SDSU coach Sean Lewis has dubbed the offense “AztecFAST,” though it could be some time before it kicks into high gear. “We understand as coaches that it’s not going to be perfect,” quarterbacks coach Matt Johnson said this week.

“There’s a lot of things that go into it, but for these guys it’s brand new. There’s going to be kinks you have to work out. “We understand that.

As long as there’s strides made every day, that there’s improvement, that’s all that we’re looking for. ” Johnson acknowledged the sophomores could have a leg up based on limited game experience. Duffy played parts of four games in two years at Florida State.

Crum played in three games for the Aztecs as a true freshman in 2022 before breaking his collarbone. The order for reps this week was Duffy, O’Neil, Crum and Tupou’ata-Johnson, although Lewis said not to read too much into the initial depth chart. Lewis and Johnson would like to identify a starter by the end of spring workouts, but they won’t do it just to do it.

“It might take into the fall,” Johnson said. “Ideally, we’d like to have a guy (earlier), but . .

. we’re not going to rush into this decision. Everything that we’ve talked about already, there’s a lot that goes into that position.

“Nothing’s going to be given. Whoever comes out on top, everybody’s going to understand that that guy earned the job. ” Though the NCAA transfer portal opens again in April, Johnson believes SDSU’s starter already is on campus.

The Aztecs won’t be plucking another QB out of the portal. “I feel confident that one of those four guys is going to be the guy,” Johnson said. “I understand where we’re at in this day and age of the portal.

You’ve always got to be on your Ps and Qs, not only for what’s in the portal but guys that are in your room who might be thinking about it. “That’s become a reality for what we deal with as coaches. But I feel confident that one of those four can get the job done for us.

” What must the eventual starter demonstrate in order to earn the job? “First and foremost, the guy’s going to protect the ball. ,” Johnson said. “We’re going to take our shots down the field.

We’d like to talk about the quarterback (like he) is driving the Cadillac and his job is to bring it back without any scratches. ” The coaches are also looking for someone to take command. “You get all the praise, but you also get all the criticism,” said Johnson, who must identify “the guy who can handle that and galvanize the guys and be the leader out there.

” Johnson spoke Thursday, with two of a scheduled 15 spring practices completed. It is a small sample size which will require weeks of additional repetitions in order to make a proper assessment of the players. The most relevant reps will be in the weeks to come when the Aztecs started scrimmaging.

Johnson did share some initial thoughts on the QBs, though. On Duffy: “AJ, obviously, coming from Florida State, he’s played some football before, which is a big deal. Having that experience is invaluable.

I thought he’s done a good job out there so far. ” On O’Neil: “Danny’s learning on the fly. He’s a young kid who’s an early enrollee, but these reps are going to be invaluable for him when it comes to the fall when all the other freshmen get here, and (when) they’re just starting to learn, he’s able to be their leader and guide those guys.

” On Crum and Tupou’ata-Johnson: “Coming from one style of offense to a brand new style, I think that they’ve done a really good job of picking things up in the classroom. “And then, that’s the hardest thing at our position, you can learn it up there in a controlled environment, but once we get out to the field, translating it for controlled chaos, that’s the part that collectively, as a whole, we’ve got to get better at. ” Duffy, who grew up in Temecula, said working on his timing is a priority.

“Keep getting reps to understand and see the game the same way (the coaches) are seeing it,” he said. What does he need to do in order to win the starting job? “Just keep getting better every day being the person I am,” Duffy said . ”Be a leader.

just be someone they can trust and continue to work hard. ” Crum said the offense is similar in style to what he ran at Norco High School. “The tempo at the college level is, obviously, way different and defenses are doing a lot of different things,” Crum said.

His biggest challenge is making footwork and play calls second nature so he “can focus on what the defense is doing, as opposed to worrying about footwork or what my read is. That way I can play fast like we want to go. .

. . It’s going to be a process.

” What does he need to do in order to win the starting job? “Just (earn) trust,” Crum said. “Making the right decisions consistently. .

. . I think if I can prove that I’m the most consistent, and then on top of that I think I have the ability to make some explosive plays whenever it breaks down.

Just by doing those two things, I think that will set me apart. ” SDSU does not make freshmen (or redshirt freshmen) available for interviews, so O’Neil and Tupou’ata-Johnson, who is from Oakland, did not join Duffy and Crum in front of the media. While he hasn’t spoken publicly since arriving on campus, O’Neil has shared some thoughts through an NIL opportunity with the “We Believe Network,” which is associated with the SDSU collective Aztec Link.

O’Neil is doing a monthly feature called “The Danny Diaries. ” In January’s first installment, O’Neil noted, “the playbook is very intricate, but so far I think I have done a good job learning it. That is one of the other huge changes from high school.

The offense is so much bigger and as a QB we are responsible for so much more at this level. ” O’Neil does appear to be adapting well, noting that In-N-Out “has lived up to the hype” and Trujillo’s is his favorite campus-area eatery. Crum also has been featured on the “We Believe Network,” hosting a podcast in which he interviews teammates.

Maybe he could do a quarterbacks roundtable next time. Duffy spoke for the group this week when he said, “It’s a great experience. I’ve never played in an offense this fast, this uptempo, this spread, to where on any given play it could be a rush for 70 (yards) or it could be a bomb.

“Like, you never know what’s going to happen. I love that about the offense. ” .

Kirk Kenney7-9 minutes 3/16/2024
Filed 03.17.2024

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