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The key to the offense is the improved play of quarterback Lon Sheriff and the health of Larry Ned. Sheriff had a shaky season in 2000, getting picked off eleven times. If Sheriff falters, the Aztecs go four deep at quarterback, with former starter Jack Hawley ready to take some snaps. Although experience is there, the group as a whole struggled in the Aztec's Aug. 18 scrimmage.
Ned is the key to the Aztecs' success. The Doak Walker nominee is an extremely talented back when he is healthy. Injuries limited Ned to six games last season, and slowed him in others. If he can remain in the lineup, Ned is capable of sparking the offense and helping to take some pressure off of Sheriff. Joining Ned in the backfield is the speedy James Truvillionand powerful blocking back Justin Green.
San Diego State may return the best pass-catching duo in the Mountain West Conference. SeniorDerrick Lewis and sophomore J.R. Tolver are expected to provide excellent targets for Sheriff. Tolver was a second-team all-league pick a year ago while Lewis is one of the west's best big-play men. Also returning is Thomas Howard who caught 14 passes in 2000.
At a university that prides itself on its offensive heritage, defense has been the buzzword around Aztec football. And for good reason, the San Diego State defensive crew has gained a reputation as perhaps the best in the Mountain West Conference. This year's squad figures to continue to foster the same school of thought. The Aztecs are experienced, they run well and they are bigger than last year.
"The front seven is very solid with some returning experience and quality backups," Head Coach Ted Tollner said. "Our goal for the spring will be to develop depth in the secondary."
All-Mountain West defensive lineman Jerome Haywood anchors a solid defensive line that returns all of it's starters as well as some talented freshmen. Redshirt freshman Marcus Levi could provide an immediate impact for the Aztecs.
SDSU also boasts one of the best linebacking corps in the MWC. SDSU returns a big, fast and physical group led byJomar Butler, the Aztecs' MVP a year ago. Butler was just one of only five players in the league to reach triple digits in tackles. The Aztecs lack depth at linebacker, but brought in some JC players and have a handful of redshirt freshmen to aliveate the problem.
Defensive back is the defense's weakness, especially corner back.Will Demps was an all-MWC performer a year ago and is the standout in the group. Ricky Sharpe and Garrett Pavelko are also solid, but still have something to prove.
"We have three guys (Demps, Sharpe, Pavelko) in the secondary who have played at a pretty good level for us," Tollner said. "The rest of it is going to have to shake down. We have several players to look at and some we think that are ready to make a contribution. They are young, but we may need them now."
OUTLOOK: The Aztec's return a lot of players, but they come from a team that has struggled. Many are picking SDSU to make a run in the Mountain West this season. So far they have not lived up to expectations, but this could be a break out season.
Both teams are playing their first game of the season. The Wildcats come in with a new quarterback and a new coach. The Aztecs counter with a shaky secondary and a coach on the hotseat.
The Aztec offense racked up a measly 196 yards against the Cats last year. Ned played well, gaining 85 yards against the UA defense. The bad news is that it took him 29 carries to get the 85. The Wildcats' pass rushers got to Sheriff three times. Even worse, the Aztecs only scored three points.
If the UA offensive line can give Jason Johnson some time to pass, the Aztecs may be a perfect team for the junior to get his feet wet against.
PREDICTION: Both teams' offenses will struggle early on. A strong rushing game will keep the Cats in front until Johnson develops a rhythm. It could be sloppy, but the Cats prevail. ARIZONA 24, San Diego State 13.
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