San Diego State's defense makes strides

Introducing the 3-3-5 defense can present many challenges, especially if the personnel isn’t available to execute it properly.

San Diego State found that out last season and had a 4-8 campaign to show for it.

That’s why coach Brady Hoke and defensive coordinator Rocky Long took a special interest in the defense this past spring. It wasn’t just about being faster or more physical, though those aspects were addressed, it was about putting the right players in the right positions to allow the defense to reach its potential.

He moved Ernie Lawson, who was second on the team in tackles for loss last season, from inside tackle to left end and moved Jerome Long, who he thinks has potential for a big year, to defensive tackle.

“Besides the guys knowing the defense and the different reactions that are made on the run, I think we helped ourselves by moving Ernie Lawson, who played the inside tackle for us to our left end,” Hoke said. “And being able to do that made us a much more solid, stouter front.”

But San Diego State also needed to find a quality stopgap in the middle of the defense. The Aztecs defense allowed 382 yards and more than 30 points per game in Hoke's first season as head coach. They allowed 38 points to BYU and Utah and 55 points to TCU.

So, the Aztecs took linebacker Andrew Preston and made him the coveted "Aztec," a hybrid position that is often the best player on the field. When Long implemented the 3-3-5 defensive system at New Mexico, Brian Urlacher made a name for himself in the “Lobo” hybrid position.

“I think Andrew makes us a better football team defensively because he’s a good playmaker,” Hoke said. “He’s a physical presence and in that position you have to have a guy who can be a little bit of a linebacker and a little bit of a strong safety type, and he really had a great spring doing that.”

During San Diego State’s spring game, Preston had five tackles, an interception and a sack, and helped the defense stifle the Aztec offense throughout most of the game. The defense forced 13 punts, two turnovers, eight sacks and just three points after both teams scored quick touchdowns to open the game.

Hoke said he’s also counting on the play of several secondary members that redshirted last season so they could get bigger and more physical. Hoke expects players such as Nat Berhe, Gabe Lemon, Marcus Andrews, Colin Lockett, Khalid Stevens, and Eric Pinkins to make a big impact on the field in 2010.

“I think the other thing that really helped us is that we redshirted four guys in the secondary a year ago,” Hoke said. “They bring something to our team that we didn’t have and that’s that they love to hit. They’re a physical bunch and a competitive bunch and that’s made us a better football team.”