Although the secondary represents the last line of defense, it is often the first topic among Sunday morning quarterbacks in the pass-happy Western Athletic Conference, where offenses flood the field with four and five receivers and teams frequently score 40 points.
At San Diego State, which plays host to UCLA (1-2) tonight at 5, three former Los Angeles prep standouts and a coach are trying to win one for the defense.
The Aztec secondary includes junior Eric Sutton of Inglewood High and sophomore Craig Weems of Harbor College. Senior Terrill Steen, a St. Bernard High graduate, starts at linebacker. Ron Mims, a former L.A. Southwest coach, coaches the secondary.
The Aztecs (3-1) are giving up 197.8 passing yards a game and a 43.7% completion rate. Most importantly, the defense has been coming up with the big play.
“Whenever something goes wrong, because (defensive backs) are out in the open, we’re blamed,” Sutton said. “We just take the heat. We’re the last line of defense.”
As a sophomore, Sutton had arthroscopic knee surgery before the UCLA game and was sub-par in a 35-7 loss to the Bruins at Pasadena. Tonight the 5-foot-10, 170-pound criminal justice major hopes for some payback.
“Any game for us is a chance to make a statement,” he said. "(The media) label us unable to win the big games. I just play my butt off every game. Any game excites me.”
Sutton, who has started since midway through his freshman season, has emerged as San Diego State’s best cornerback. Coach Al Luginbill said Sutton has yet to play his best football.
“Eric’s had the three best games he’s played at San Diego State,” Luginbill said. “And he’s capable of much more. He’s got a great attitude and he’s matured a lot from last year.”
Sutton, who knocked down a potential touchdown pass in Saturday’s 48-17 victory over Minnesota, agrees with Luginbill.
“I feel I’ve only scratched the surface,” Sutton said. “I can play a whole lot better--a whole lot.”
Weems, who splits time at the other corner, transferred from Harbor in time for spring practice and earned a starting job.
But Weems, whose father Don is the Harbor coach, lost his job to freshman Micheal Driver in the fall. Driver has been slowed because of injuries, giving Weems added playing time.
Luginbill says Weems’ problems are attributable to adjusting to Division I-A football.
“Craig had an excellent spring,” Luginbill said. “Then I think the intensity of fall camp, two-a-days, got to him and Driver beat him out. It’s an adjustment and it shocked him. I think next year he’ll play a lot of football for us.”
Said Weems: “I just didn’t execute my technique like I did in spring. Coach Mims had to start from scratch with my technique. I respect the decision they made.”
The 5-foot-9 Weems looks forward to playing against the pro-style attack of UCLA and WAC opponents.
“I love to play the pass,” he said. “At my size you don’t like to play the run too much. That’s why I love the WAC.”
Weems also plays on special teams.
“I think I can help out the program,” he said. “I’ve just gotta screw my head on.”
Steen, a fifth-year senior, missed the second half of the 1992 season because of a knee injury. His play this season has been impressive.
“He showed a physicalness at Cal (a 45-25 loss) he had not exhibited before,” Luginbill said. “That was the one area we felt he lacked. He’s always had excellent coverage, but never been a point-of-attack player. He’s playing well.”
Steen, a 6-2, 215-pounder, said his improved play is a result of being asked to be more involved in the defense.
“I didn’t change anything,” he said. “I do what I’m asked to do. I was used to using my speed. I can play physical. I like (playing the run) because there’s more tackling. Against passing teams I cover the H-back. Whichever they ask me to do, I’m glad to be healthy and be able to contribute.”