SDSU Football Writer on 2022 Aztecs, Utes, and Cats
Posted on August 12, 2022
This is the third in a series of interviews with writers covering Pac-12 nonconference opponents.
In the first installment, I spoke with Georgia beat writer Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald. You can listen to that audio interview here.
Next came an interview with beat writer Brandon Hernandez, who covers Florida for The Alligator, which you can read here.
This time I talk with Andre Haghverdian, who covers San Diego State for the East Village Times and is also the co-host of The SDSU Football Podcast.
Arizona leads the all-time series with SDSU 10-6, but the Aztecs won last year’s meeting 38-14 in Tucson.
The all-time series between Utah and San Diego State favors the Utes 17-13-1, but the Aztecs won last year’s battle 33-31 in three overtimes.
In 2022, the Aztecs open the season against Arizona at home on September 3 and travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah on September 17.
Nick Bartlett: How do you think Braxton Burmeister will perform this year? How do you think his style will align with San Diego State’s traditional ground-and-pound game?
Andre Haghverdian: Burmeister is primed for a very productive season under the current regime’s RPO offense, which has been searching the past three years for the right QB to take it to a successful level.
Under head coach Brady Hoke, the Aztecs are always going to lean towards a run-oriented philosophy centered around defense and field position but they have the weapons on the outside and the QB, who the coaches believe can properly utilize them.
If he can make quick and accurate throws in the RPO game and then use his athleticism and speed outside the pocket when plays break down, the Aztecs’ offense will be productive enough to win a lot of games again this year.
Nick Bartlett: SDSU is historically known for their great rushing attack, however, this season, they don’t have a proven back. Who’s your favorite out of the trio tasked with replacing Greg Bell?
Andre Haghverdian: Chance Bell will have the first crack to be the lead back to replace Greg Bell in 2022.
Bell spent the summer adding on muscle to get to 200 pounds in anticipation of priming his body for a heavier workload. But he also focused his workouts on maintaining his speed and explosiveness at the higher weight.
Jordan Byrd is one of the fastest players in the conference and a threat to score a touchdown any time he touches the ball.
He is utilized more in change-of-pace personnel packages that involve tosses, jet sweeps, screens, etc., and less as an every-down back.
USC transfer Kenan Chrston could step into a more prominent role but he has a lot of ground to make up to catch Bell, who has been in the SDSU program for four years already.
A name to keep an eye on is sophomore Jaylon Armstead. He is the biggest RB on the roster at 220 pounds and has shown great flashes over the past two springs.
The coaching staff will give him an opportunity to show his abilities in game-action this season. During the first few days of fall camp, Armstead was ahead of Christon on the depth chart.
Nick Bartlett: How good is Jesse Matthews? Do you think he’ll be able to consistently win one-on-one battles against Pac-12 defensive backs?
Andre Haghverdian:: Extremely good. Matthews has flashed since the minute he set foot on campus.
Two things that have kept him from receiving the recognition he deserves nationally are the fact that he joined the program as a local walk-on and the continuing struggles of the QBs in the system.
When the offense shifted focus towards the end of last season, Matthews flourished with 37 receptions, 465 yards, and seven touchdowns in the final four games.
While it is unrealistic to expect him to produce those stats over the course of a 12 to 14 game season, it is a definite sign of what type of receiver he is and can be consistently.
After the first practice of fall camp, Burmeister told reporters that he had not seen Matthews drop a ball since he arrived on campus in January.
In addition to his great hands, Matthews has an innate ability to make catches that appear to be out of reach look easy.
Whether he is lining up against defensive backs from the Pac-12 or Mountain West, he will be able to give his QB open windows to find him all over the field. He will likely do the same in the NFL soon.
Nick Bartlett: Which duo of brothers do you think will make a bigger impact on the defense? The McDonald’s or the Tavai’s?
Andre Haghverdian: This is a very tough question.
Both returning players (Caden McDonald and Jonah Tavai) are Preseason All-Conference performers and will play a large role in the success of the Aztecs defense in 2022.
The incoming players (Cooper McDonald and Justus Tavai) are competing for starting spots next to their brothers or as their primary backups.
Given the penchant of defensive coordinator Kurt Mattix to rotate both the defensive lineman and linebackers throughout a game to keep the starters fresh, both will play a lot.
If I had to give a slight nod to one set of brothers, it would be the Tavai’s strictly because they are looking to replace Cameron Thomas, the 2021 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, and the overall success of any defense starts up front in the trenches.
Nick Bartlett: SDSU has a new stadium, a dominant defense, and a hungry fanbase. Do you think they get the conference title that Covid took from them last year? Also, can you fly me out?
Andre Haghverdian: Haha, who wouldn’t want a free trip to San Diego in early September?
The Aztecs rallying cry for the past six years has been “win 22” (to describe winning their 22nd conference championship in program history).
Last year was certainly set up for them to finally bring #22 home.
Their toughest regular season conference opponents were all home games (Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State) and they hosted the conference championship game as well.
Obviously, the Covid protocols cost them a chance to win that game, but Utah State came in prepared, focused, and deserved the victory.
This year’s schedule is flipped with all three of those opponents now road games.
The Aztecs were picked to finish second behind Fresno State in the West Division by the media and if that holds true, they would not get another shot to play for the conference championship.
The game at Fresno State in the Battle for the Oil Can will obviously be critical in the race for the division, but the Aztecs lost to the Bulldogs at home last year and still won the division because the Bulldogs lost two games to other conference foes while the Aztecs did not lose another game.
They may not have that same luxury again this season with a tougher overall conference schedule.
Ultimately, I believe they will win the West Division and defeat Boise State in the conference championship to “win 22” in 2022.
Nick Bartlett: What are your predictions for San Diego State’s two games against Pac-12 foes?
Andre Haghverdian: While Arizona has upgraded at several positions since last year’s Aztecs blowout victory in Tucson, I believe SDSU still has the better overall team.
Add the opening of Snapdragon Stadium and the excitement and energy from the first home game in San Diego in three years and the Aztecs will win, 30-17.
The Utah game will be much more difficult for the Aztecs, heading on the road to elevation in Salt Lake City.
The Utes will be looking to exact some revenge from the triple-overtime loss last year. The Aztecs will keep it a close contest, but the Utes will prevail, 24-17.
Nick Bartlett: Any other thoughts about San Diego State or either Pac-12 school?
Andre Haghverdian: Utah certainly went on a run after Cameron Rising was inserted as the starting QB following the SDSU game last year.
A lot of folks believed they were one of the four best teams in college football at the end of last season.
The question is whether they can continue that run after a nine-month layoff and whether Rising is up for the task now that opposing teams have a season of film on him.
SDSU dominated the Utes in the trenches, holding them to 70 yards rushing, their lowest total since the 2018 season.
Utah is replacing players on the line and if teams can slow their ground attack or if they change their identity to feature Rising, they might not be as good as they are expected to be.
Arizona was a bad football team last year. Scouting them for the game last year, I was shocked at the lack of talent and depth across their key positional units.
Simply put, they did not resemble a Power 5 team.
While I have not done a deep dive yet on this year’s team, on the surface, they have added key transfers at many positions, including QB, that will help them be more competitive this season and beyond.
Some have predicted the Wildcats to be the most improved team in the country. In many ways, their opener against SDSU is a benchmark of their progress.
Defeat the Aztecs and the confidence of the team skyrockets.
—More from Nick Bartlett—
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