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The Real Question: Can These Teams Win? : Defense Will Have to Be Better if Stolz’s Team Is to Improve : Aztecs Preview

Times Staff Writer

Every college football team starts the season with more questions than answers.

Mystery and chance, after all, are part of the game.

San Diego State is no different. The Aztecs open their 1988 season Saturday night against UCLA in the Rose Bowl with more than a few doubts mixed with the usual dose of preseason optimism.

Just what are the areas of concern, and why do the Aztecs and Coach Denny Stolz have reason to believe this season’s record will be better than last year’s 5-7?

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You’re supposed to read answers here, not questions. Here are 10 of each.

We’ll start with the toughest first:

Question: Is the defense going to be any better?

Answer: The short answer is yes, if simply because it can’t be much worse. The Aztecs allowed a school-record 428 points last season and were near the bottom of every major-college defensive statistic. They ranked 98th out of 104 NCAA Division I-A schools in scoring defense, allowing an average of 35.7 points per game.

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Such ineptitude brought a lot of changes, starting with coaching staff. Every defensive coach, beginning with coordinator Ed Schmidt (formally offensive line coach), is either new to the defense or working with a different position than he did last season. The Aztecs also changed their scheme, switching to a 3-4 alignment from the 4-3 they used last season. The change was made to provide better pass coverage and pass rush in the pass-happy Western Athletic Conference.

As for personnel, only three players who started against UCLA in last year’s opener are expected to open Saturday against the Bruins--end Bob Graff, free safety Lyndon Earley and cornerback Mario Mitchell. Much will depend on how such players as inside linebacker Lee Brannon, a tight end and defensive end last season, respond to new positions and assignments.

Q: Is Brad Platt going to make everyone forget about Todd Santos?

A: No, but people will notice a difference. Platt is vocal, rah-rah leader. Santos was a quiet, lead-by-doing type. Whether that will help the Aztecs remains to be seen. One Stolz’s worries about Platt is that he might want to prove too much too soon. Stolz wants him to play within the system and his talents.

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Platt is faster and more mobile than Santos. Though Santos was sacked infrequently considering how much he threw the ball, Platt should give the Aztecs an offensive dimension that a total drop-back passer such as Santos lacked. As for Platt’s arm, Stolz has said he throws the ball deep as well as any quarterback he has coached. What he lacks is experience.

Platt, a transfer from Southwestern College who spent last season as a redshirt, has yet to take a snap in a major-college game. Neither has his backup Scott Barrick. Only the Aztecs’ third quarterback, Jack Skoog--used for late-game relief last season--has. How Platt reacts early to game situations might go a long way to answering this question for good.

Q: Is the offensive line that much bigger than last season, or am I just imagining it?

A: Actually, a little bit of both. On the average, the Aztecs are not quite as tall, but they are quite a bit heavier. The five starting linemen in 1987 averaged 6-feet 5-inches and 268 pounds. This season, they average just under 6-5, but 277, per man. The big difference actually is with the second team. Two players weigh at least 300 pounds--Chuck Hardaway and Joe Heinz. And Heinz, though listed at 295, reported closer to 330.

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Stolz is calling this group of offensive lineman the biggest he has coached in years.

Q: Who will punt for the Aztecs?

A: “For how long?” might also be asked. Bill Kushner, a freshman from Fallbrook High School who came to SDSU on a partial scholarship, has gotten the early nod over Joe Santos, a community-college transfer the coaching staff had recruited to replace four-year starter Wayne Ross. Santos has the stronger leg, but Kushner has better technique. The problem is that neither has been overly impressive in practice. The understanding is that the Aztecs will start with Kushner, but if they don’t like the results, expect to see Santos get a few kicks.

Q: Who is that big guy with the long name?

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A: You must be talking about Pio Sagapolutele, the sophomore defensive end from Honolulu. He sat out last season after failing to meet the NCAA Proposition 48 freshman eligibility requirements, but at 6-6 and 275 pounds, Sagapolutele has the potential to be the big, dominating lineman the Aztecs have sought on defense since Stolz took over as coach three years ago.

Sagapolutele teams with a fellow Samoan, freshman inside linebacker Tracey Mao, to form what the coaches are calling their “Beef Defense.” The Aztecs plan to use these two guys when they want to throw some extra muscle into the lineup.

You might be wondering how he pronounces his name. Well, it’s PEE-o SAH-gah-PO-lah-TELL-ee. The coaches call him Pio. It’s simpler, easier to remember and you won’t risk getting called for delay of game.

Q: Is this the season we get to see the real Tommy Booker?

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A: A better question might be, who is the real Tommy Booker? Is he the tailback who in his first college game last year dashed 65 yards up the sideline for a second-half touchdown against UCLA, only to have it called back on a holding penalty? Or is he player who never quite mastered his skills as a receiver, spent the middle of the season nursing a sprained ankle and then over the summer openly discussed his thoughts on transferring?

Questions on questions, but that has been the riddle of Booker since he came out of Vista High School two years ago as a Parade All-American and the most widely recruited player in San Diego County. Early indications this season are mixed. Booker partially separated his left shoulder in practice last week and only returned to full workouts Tuesday. He will open the season behind Paul Hewitt. How much playing time he gets will depend on Hewitt’s success and Booker’s ability to overcome his injuries and function within Stolz’s offensive system.

Q: The schedule says the Aztecs are supposed to play a Sunday night game against Air Force in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium on Sept. 11. Could that be right?

A: You bet it is. Figure on the imaginative mind of Athletic Director Fred Miller to find a profitable way out of a bad situation.

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The Aztecs originally wanted to play the game on Sept. 10, their usual Saturday night date. But the Padres had the stadium that night for a game against Atlanta and didn’t want to give it up. That left Miller with little choice but to play the game on Sunday, after a Padre afternoon game.

Then the wheels started turning. Miller pitched the game to ESPN as its first Sunday night college football game, and the cable network bought it.

Now both schools are a little richer, and the Aztecs have an extra day after their opener at UCLA to prepare for Air Force’s troublesome wishbone. The only hitch is that ESPN has moved the kickoff up a half hour to 6:30 p.m., cutting the time the stadium crew will have to convert the field for football. If the Padre noon game goes extra innings, look out.

Q: What about the rest of the schedule? Will it hurt or help the Aztecs?

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A: Unlike last season, when the Aztecs played 4 of their first 5 games on the road en route to a 1-6 start, they start this season by playing 4 of 6 at home. They also have the advantage of playing three of the Western Athletic Conference’s stronger teams--Air Force, Brigham Young and Wyoming--at home. The Aztecs lost those games on the road last season by a combined 101 points.

But that doesn’t mean the Aztecs don’t face as difficult an early schedule as last season. In addition to Air Force, they still must play three Pacific 10 teams that beat them in 1987--UCLA, Stanford and Oregon--in the first four weeks.

The Aztecs also must play 4 of their final 5 games on the road. So the schedule is not one the Aztecs could call a breeze.

Q: Are there any freshmen or other new players who are going to make an immediate impact?

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A: Indications are that Stolz will stick with his overall plan to redshirt as many freshmen as possible. But if a player can provide help right away, Stolz will not hesitate to use him. So far, Mao and Heinz are the only two to have cracked the two-deep. And Mao figures to see significant playing time at middle linebacker, alternating with Morey Paul, last year’s top freshman.

The rest of the incoming class will have to wait to take its turn. But if the Aztecs flounder or get hurt, expect Stolz to reach down into a recruiting class he has called his deepest at SDSU.

Q: Will the Aztecs win the WAC again this year?

A: That’s what everyone asks before the season starts. The cop-out answer: It depends on how they answer the first nine questions.

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AZTEC ROSTER

No. Name Pos. Ht. Wt. Birthdate Yr. 1 Patrick Rowe WR 6-2 190 2/17/69 SO 2 Robert Claiborne WR 5-11 175 7/10/67 SR 3 Tyler Ackerson K 6-2 190 10/18/67 SR 4 Ron Slack RB 5-10 190 12/7/66 JR 5 Alfred Jackson WR 6-1 185 7/10/67 SR 6 Randy Peterson CB 5-10 175 3/21/67 SR 7 Scott Barrick QB 6-3 205 10/27/68 SO 9 Mario Mitchell CB 5-10 185 12/23/66 SR 11 Jack Skoog QB 6-5 210 6/18/67 JR 12 Sai Niu LB 5-10 205 4/5/69 SO 13 Bill Kushner P 6-1 190 1/13/70 FR 13 Tom Wurth K 6-0 185 5/2/68 JR 14 Brad Platt QB 6-2 210 1/15/67 SR 15 Michael Broome WR 5-11 175 10/27/66 SR 16 Dennis Arey WR 5-11 175 8/18/68 JR 17 Jimmy Raye WR 5-8 165 11/28/68 JR 18 Jim Miele RB 5-7 155 12/14/67 SR 19 Tony Nettles CB 5-10 190 2/24/67 SR 20 Casey Copeland SS 6-0 185 1/30/67 SR 21 Lyndon Earley FS 6-1 190 8/13/67 JR 22 Darrin Wagner RB 6-0 190 5/20/70 FR 23 Gary Taylor CB 5-11 170 10/10/69 FR 24 Gary Triplett FS 6-0 175 10/18/66 SR 26 Kevin Drayton DB 5-9 160 10/15/67 JR 27 Larry Maxey RB 5-11 175 2/27/70 FR 28 Clark Moses CB 5-11 185 5/12/68 JR 29 Tommy Booker RB 6-1 200 11/6/67 SO 30 Johnny Walker FS 6-3 200 1/26/69 SO 31 Lamont Parks RB 5-10 195 1/10/66 SR 32 Paul Hewitt RB 5-9 200 4/30/67 SR 33 Milt Wilson DE 6-2 245 7/20/68 JR 34 Robert Griffith DB 6-2 170 11/30/70 FR 35 Don Evans FB 5-10 195 1/2/67 JR 36 Kevin Macon FB 6-3 235 1/17/69 SO 37 Keith Owens DB 5-9 185 4/8/66 JR 38 Derrick Williams LB 6-3 205 5/30/70 FR 39 John Wesselman OLB 6-2 200 9/11/67 JR 40 Milton Maples LB 6-3 220 2/10/67 SR 42 Jim Jennings FB 6-4 245 4/4/69 SO 43 Scott Kilgore LB 6-1 190 9/12/70 FR 44 Daryl Crawford RB 6-1 200 2/25/68 SO 45 Tim Lockett LB 6-2 235 9/4/67 FR 46 David Cooper SS 6-1 200 2/9/68 JR 47 Steve Matuszewicz OLB 6-5 215 8/26/70 FR 49 Eric Nelson FS 6-2 170 10/15/67 FR 50 Haywood Mathis OLB 6-3 210 3/15/69 FR 51 Frank Pulice LB 5-11 215 1/26/66 SR 52 Bonner Montler C 6-2 220 10/27/69 FR 53 Mike Vincent C 6-5 270 5/2/66 SR 55 Emmett Flores ILB 6-1 215 2/7/66 SR 56 Derek Santifer OLB 6-2 230 4/19/65 SR 57 Todd Coomes OLB 6-6 235 11/22/66 SR 58 Tracey Mao LB 6-2 230 12/4/69 FR 59 Morey Paul ILB 6-3 205 10/22/69 SO 60 Nick Subis OG 6-6 295 12/24/67 JR 61 Doug Blanchard DL 6-4 240 4/26/69 SO 62 Todd Vradenburg OG 6-4 270 4/11/67 SR 63 Zae Perrin OT 6-6 230 9/10/70 FR 64 Vince Pellerito OL 6-3 255 1/1/69 SO 65 Jason Swaney OG 6-4 255 3/4/68 JR 66 Joe Heinz OG 6-3 295 12/20/69 FR 67 Derek Sang OT 6-5 267 11/13/65 JR 68 Tyrone Smith OG 6-1 185 3/13/68 SR 69 Roman Fortin OG 6-5 270 2/26/67 JR 70 John Williamson OT 6-6 240 11/3/69 FR 71 Damon Baldwin OT 6-5 275 4/16/67 JR 72 Samida Tuiaana OT 6-5 280 9/20/66 SR 73 Tony Nichols OT 6-5 270 9/11/70 FR 74 Ian Dunn OL 6-4 270 10/31/68 SO 75 Chuck Hardaway OT 6-5 300 7/16/67 JR 76 Jason Bill OT 6-5 255 11/8/67 JR 77 Kevin Wells C 6-5 265 4/21/66 SR 79 Steve Gilmour OT 6-6 255 12/26/67 JR 80 Dave Schlick TE 6-3 200 12/23/64 SR 81 Monty Gilbreath WR 5-9 170 10/24/68 JR 82 Mike Misch TE 6-4 235 11/24/67 JR 83 Joe Santos P 6-0 180 12/31/68 JR 84 Jim Hanawalt TE 6-5 220 10/26/68 JR 85 Kerry Reed-Martin TE 6-3 230 9/23/66 SR 86 Judd Rachow TE 6-6 235 3/21/69 SO 87 Mitch Burton DE 6-4 235 12/13/66 JR 88 Lee Brannon ILB 6-4 240 4/6/67 SR 89 Ray Rowe TE 6-4 240 7/28/69 SO 90 Steve Blyth NT 6-1 260 10/15/67 JR 91 Brad Burton NT 6-5 260 12/13/66 JR 93 Darren Cooley DL 6-3 260 3/19/70 FR 94 Bob Graff DE 6-4 240 4/7/67 JR 95 Kevin Maultsby OLB 6-5 235 9/12/67 SR 96 Brian Sells DL 6-3 230 2/18/70 FR 97 Mark Hyatt DL 6-4 245 10/2/69 FR 98 Pio Sagapolutele DE 6-6 275 11/28/69 SO 99 Robert Malsack NT 6-4 250 4/12/68 SO

No. Hometown 1 San Diego (Lincoln) 2 San Diego (Mt. Miguel) 3 Chula Vista (Chula Vista) 4 Pasadena 5 Tulare, Calif. 6 Los Angeles 7 Fallbrook (Fallbrook) 9 Compton 11 Ionia, Mich. 12 Oceanside (Oceanside) 13 Fallbrook (Fallbrook) 13 Spring Valley (Monte Vista) 14 Chula Vista (Hilltop) 15 Oakland 16 Fountain Valley 17 Irvine 18 Irvine 19 Los Angeles 20 Sunnyvale 21 Gardena 22 San Diego (Lincoln) 23 Highland 24 Hawaiian Gardens 26 Pomona 27 San Diego (Morse) 28 La Verne 29 Vista (Vista) 30 San Diego (Southwest) 31 Oceanside (Oceanside) 32 Monrovia 33 Los Angeles 34 San Diego (Mt. Miguel) 35 Los Angeles 36 San Diego (Patrick Henry) 37 Cleveland 38 Carlsbad (Carlsbad) 39 Torrance 40 Albany, Ga. 42 San Marcos (San Marcos) 43 San Jose 44 Chula Vista (Montgomery) 45 Richmond 46 Honolulu 47 La Puente 49 Solana Beach 50 San Diego (Mt. Miguel) 51 Covina 52 Boulder, Colo. 53 Tahoe Vista, Nev. 55 Reno, Nev. 56 Long Beach 57 Salt Lake City 58 Lynwood 59 Oceanside (Oceanside) 60 Torrance 61 Huntington Beach 62 Pasadena 63 Palmdale 64 Torrance 65 El Paso, Tex. 66 Chula Vista (Chula Vista) 67 Burnaby, Canada 68 Tulare 69 Ventura 70 San Diego (Kearny) 71 Concord 72 Hauula, Hawaii 73 Sonora 74 Chula Vista (Chula Vista) 75 Compton 76 Escondido (San Pasqual) 77 Thornton, Colo. 79 San Gabriel 80 Ivanhoe 81 Los Angeles 82 Alta Loma 83 Vallejo 84 Phoenix 85 Danville 86 Chula Vista (Chula Vista) 87 Lakeside (El Capitan) 88 Richmond 89 San Diego (Mira Mesa) 90 Richmond, Canada 91 Lakeside (El Capitan) 93 Oklanhoma City 94 Claremont 95 Walnut Creek 96 Sonora 97 Fountain Valley 98 Honolulu 99 Escondido (Escondido)


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