Answers Are Also Questions for Aztecs : New People, System Are Sources of Both Hope and Anxiety for Football Program

Times Staff Writer

Another football season is about to begin at San Diego State. Time once again to examine the Aztecs’ prospects for breaking out of what can be considered a decade-long slump.

The Aztecs were once as successful as any college program in the country. Their record in the 1960s was 80-17-2. In 1970s, it was 82-26-2. But in the 1980s, they are 44-57-3.

With one season left before the calender flips into the 1990s, it is too late to turn that record around, but the Aztecs would like to get a head start on the next 10 years.

Will they or won’t they? Pro or con? Bear or bull? Heads or tails? Half empty or half full?

With the opener at Air Force one day away, no one can say with certainty. But anyone is free to take a guess.


There are a half-dozen reasons each why the 1989 Aztecs do or don’t figure to be a better team than the 1987 and 1988 teams, which combined for a 8-15 record and led to the firing of Denny Stolz.

Why: Al Luginbill

Luginbill was named the 13th Aztec coach last November and pledged to bring enthusiastic play, discipline and intensity to a program that lacked all three, according to the athletic administration.

His effort in this regard has not been put to a game test, but in the more than nine months since he has been in charge, Luginbill has preached, practiced and prodded his team to follow his doctrine. Luginbill oversaw one of the best defenses in the country at Arizona State; he wants to build this program the same way.

Why Not: Al Luginbill

It has been four years since Luginbill last walked the sidelines, having spent three years as an associate athletic director at SDSU. He has not coached since he was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State, and his only head coaching experience was one season at Pasadena City College in 1977.

If he is the least bit rusty, with the first two games at Air Force and against UCLA, the baptism could be rough.

Why: Dan McGwire

Luginbill has been careful to not put much pressure on his new quarterback, but there is no hiding his physical talents. At 6-feet-8, he sees the field and can reach most of what he sees. McGwire can the throw the deep pass. His arm strength and field vision give the Aztecs an offensive threat few teams can match.

Why Not: Dan McGwire

It has been almost two years since McGwire, then a sophomore at Iowa, played in a game. While he appears to have all the physical tools, his experience is limited. He started two games at Iowa before losing the starting job to Chuck Hartlieb.

Much is expected of him, and it remains to be seen how he will react to a new team, a new offense and the pressure of leading relatively inexperienced teammates.

Why: The Defense

The smart-aleck answer, after the Aztecs gave up an average of 34.9 points per game last year, would be that it couldn’t be any worse, but that isn’t much of an endorsement. Luginbill, however, said there is good reason to expect improvement.

The lineup has been overhauled. Only two players--end Todd Coomes and cornerback Clark Moses--are expected to start against Air Force at the position they opened in last season at UCLA. And the scheme has been changed. The three-four front has been replaced with a four-two. A fifth defensive back has been added as a regular deterrent in the pass-happy WAC.

Why Not: The Defense

Who says it can’t get any worse? That was what the Aztecs said last year after giving up an average of 35.7 points in 1987, and their statistical improvement was slight.

The defense is painfully young. There are only two senior starters. The linebackers have been a constant concern for Luginbill. There is not a senior in the group. And if the Aztecs have anywhere near the kind of injury problems they had last season, reserves are few.

Why: The Offense

If the addition of McGwire were the only change, that would be reason enough to be optimistic for an improvement on last year’s 18.5 points per game. But there is more.

The Aztecs have installed a quick-pass attack that has become the rage in college football, and they appear to have much of the personnel to run it. Wide receiver might be the team’s deepest position with Monty Gilbreath, Jimmy Raye, Dennis Arey, Patrick Rowe and Robert Claiborne. Running backs Darrin Wagner and Ron Slack will split time in a one-back set.

The offensive line has been reconfigured in the past week, but Luginbill said he is pleased with the improvement of his starters.

Why Not: The Offense

The offensive system is new, meaning everyone has had to learn from scratch. The line is so thin that three of the five main backups did not even play offensive line last year. One--guard Jim Jennings--was last year’s starting fullback.

For all the praise of the receivers, only Gilbreath is a proven starter, having caught 60 passes last year. Rowe is injury prone. Claiborne was red-shirted last year. Raye and Arey have combined for only 13 catches.

Why: Special Teams

The kicking game could be one of the team’s greatest strengths. Joe Santos is back at punter after averaging 42.8 yards per kick last year. Kicker Andy Trakas, a freshman from Patrick Henry High, has the potential, in Luginbill’s words, to be “special.”

Gilbreath is one of the conference’s best and most durable punt returners and already holds school records for most career returns (62) and yardage (662). Rowe, if he can recover from a knee injury that will keep him out of the opener, is a threat at kick returner.

Luginbill has put extra emphasis on special teams this year, making it the first concern of almost every practice.

Why Not: Special Teams

The problem is not returns, it’s coverage.

The Aztecs have given up a punt return for a touchdown in each of the past two seasons. They are coming off a year in which they had a punt, field goal and extra point blocked. For the second year in a row, they have unexpectedly lost their long snapper to an accident, and the replacement once again is someone who has not played in a game. This time it is Jason Bill, a senior from San Pasqual High School, taking over from Bonner Montler.

Why: The Schedule

Seven of the the Aztecs’ 12 games are at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and these include several of their traditionally toughest opponents: UCLA, Wyoming and Brigham Young.

The schedule has been softened by the loss of Pacific 10 schools Oregon and Stanford and the addition of three teams from the Big West--Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and Pacific.

Why Not: The Schedule

The Aztecs must play their first four Western Athletic Conference games on the road and do not have a home conference game until Nov. 4, when they play New Mexico. This for a team that has won only two road games in the past two years and must start a 16-year home-and-home series with Miami on the road.

The Aztecs finish with a difficult three-week stretch--against Wyoming, at Miami and against BYU.