San Diego State, ready to celebrate its football centennial along with the opening of the program’s new home, Snapdragon Stadium, nonetheless must contend with the shadow that’s been cast over the upcoming season.
At first, one storyline might have been how the team dealt with the loss of a high-level contributor like national award-winner Matt Araiza.
Now, Araiza, who drew the spotlight to SDSU last year for his punting prowess, has brought the program a whole different kind of attention, after being named Thursday in a lawsuit accusing him and two other former players of sexually assaulting a high-school student.
He left the program early to try his fortunes in the NFL, but the Buffalo Bills released him two days after the civil suit was filed, an action that took place during a criminal investigation of the alleged assaults that came to light in June. Authorities have not publicly identified the targets in the case.
That’s the backdrop to the season, which starts at 12:30 p.m. Saturday when the Aztecs welcome the Arizona Wildcats to Snapdragon.
Things already turned awkward Monday, when athletic director John David Wicker, joined by head coach Brady Hoke at a news conference, read from prepared statements, then, as shown in multiple video reports, repeatedly refused to answer questions not focused on the ballgame or the stadium.
Hoke addressed a question about transfer Braxton Burmeister, praising the quarterback, but when reporters tried again to turn the conversation to the investigation, Wicker shut down the conference and he and Hoke walked out.
So it will be a struggle to focus on football as San Diego State returns to local play, after two years of hosting home games in Carson while Snapdragon, a $310 million, 35,000-seat venue, was under construction.
The Aztecs, though, will try. They return 13 starters off the 2021 squad, which went 12-2, and 7-1 in the Mountain West – three on offense, seven on defense and three from special teams. They are predicted to finish second in their MW division.
San Diego State’s 12 victories in 2021 were its most in 99 seasons of football, and led them to finish at No. 25 in the Associated Press season-ending college football poll.
This year’s team rewarded four players who contributed to that success with titles – they will be team co-captains.
Seniors Jesse Matthews (San Diego/Christian High), Patrick McMorris (Santa Ana), Jonah Tavai (Manhattan Beach) and Alama Uluave (Laie, Hawaii) received the honor. All have received pre-season honors:
- A former walk-on, Matthews led the Aztecs last year in catches (57), receiving yards (642) and receiving touchdowns (9), the most since Vincent Brown had 10 in 2010.
- McMorris, who last month was named the MW preseason co-defensive player of the year, was a 2021 MW first-team selection with a team-high 90 tackles.
- A two-time honorable-mention all-MW pick (2020-21), Tavai had 47 tackles, last year, including 14 tackles for loss,
- Uluave started all 22 games the past two seasons at center and also is a preseason first-team all-MW pick.
When he did get to focus on the upcoming season, Hoke said he’s pleased with the team’s crew of running backs and eager to see the play of Josh Simmons, an offensive lineman out of Helix High, calling the redshirt freshman “pretty special.” At safety, though, he said, “we may be a little shy there.”
The Aztecs also face literal heat, not just figurative heat Saturday, as temperatures are expected to reach 95 in Mission Valley. But the at times hot and humid August prepared the team during fall camp, Hoke said.
“I think that we’ve had enough of that … we’ll do everything that we possibly can from the standpoint of keeping our guys hydrated and ready to play,” the coach said.