North Carolina continues the season against San Diego State on Saturday at Kenan Stadium on Saturday. Tod Leonard covers San Diego State for the Union-Tribune in San Diego. I asked him some questions about the Aztecs.
Andrew Carter: San Diego State and UNC followed similar paths last season, both overcoming slow starts to make a bowl game. That's part of the reason why UNC was so optimistic entering the season. What are the expectations like for the Aztecs entering this season and, for people here in North Carolina who are completely unfamiliar with San Diego State, what has been this team's identity in recent seasons?
Tod Leonard: As with UNC, expectations have been raised not only by last season’s strong finish, but because of four straight bowl appearances. There is a sense that under Rocky Long the team is on a steady rise. San Diego State football was pretty bad for a decade, and it’s taken a while for people to believe that it would come back to any kind of competitive level. In many ways, San Diego State is one of the birthplaces of modern offensive football, with Don Coryell establishing the Air Coryell offenses there before taking his attack to the NFL. That was SDSU’s signature for a long time. Then Marshall Faulk arrived in the late ‘80s and the running game was exciting. And after the long slump, the Long era has been defined by his 3-3-5 defense and steady stream of offensive players who have gone on to the NFL. What’s been missing is a stellar quarterback, and the Aztecs probably still don’t have that guy in starter Quinn Kaehler.
AC: UNC coach Larry Fedora has some experience coaching against Rocky Long, and Fedora is expecting a defensive style that exhibits, in his words, “chaos” - with a lot of movement and blitzes. San Diego State had eight first-time starters on defense last week, but what we can expect the Aztecs to try to do to disrupt UNC's fast-paced offense?
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TL: Fedora is remembering the Long defenses of old, but Long insists that he’s going to have trouble creating that kind of “chaos” this season because of inexperience in the secondary and injuries to the linebackers. All three of SDSU’s starting linebackers were injured to some degree in camp, the worst being defensive centerpiece Jake Fely, who remains out after having surgery on a bulging disk in his neck. The other two starters, Derek Largent and Cody Galea, are just now getting close to full speed. Those injuries have made Long adjust his defense to be closer to a 4-2-5 alignment. SDSU has always done a lot with its three safeties, but is limited this year because all three guys in those positions are first-time starters. So although Long still has some unique tweaks, Fedora probably won’t see what he remembers from the past.
AC: These kinds of cross-country road trips don't happen often in college football, and San Diego State is 2-10 in the eastern time zone. How much of a concern, if any, is the travel for the Aztecs, and is Long doing anything out of the ordinary to make sure his guys are ready to go one day after a five-hour flight?
TL: Long is a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t offer excuses or let his players do so. He said on Tuesday, “It does not make a difference” when the team travels. He said in high school the bus broke down, his team got to the field five minutes before the game, and they won. He said he’s had his teams fly early and take time to adjust, and be beaten soundly. The only thing I know for sure that he did was have his team practice in the middle of the day all summer, when it was hottest, to try to prepare them for the North Carolina heat. But it’ll still be hotter in Chapel Hill at 8 p.m. than it is most of the time in San Diego.
AC: From spending some time around the players and coaches this week, what are some things about UNC that's of the greatest concern to them – and, conversely, what are some areas the Aztecs feel good about entering Saturday?
TL: I think all of UNC’s offense is a concern for them. Just like UNC, SDSU played an FCS team in its opener, and we all know there’s just a different speed to the games when you move up in class. The Aztecs know the Heels have plenty of guys in the skill spots, and considering the linebacker and safety issues for the Aztecs, I’m sure that is a huge concern to them. Offensively, though, SDSU probably has the weapons to nearly match UNC. D.J. Pumphrey is a special back, one that reminds San Diegans of a smaller Marshall Faulk. They’ve got young, but gifted receivers. Quinn Kaehler is an extremely bright quarterback in his second season, so he won’t make many mental mistakes. But he doesn’t have the strongest arm around, and that may come into play if UNC’s DBs take chances by jumping on some routes. Best chance for SDSU in my opinion: control the clock with Pumphrey’s running and try to avoid a track meet.
So there you have it. Thank you, Tod.
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .