NCF Nation: Dominique Sandifer

MWC preseason prediction

July, 25, 2011
I am traveling to Las Vegas Monday for Mountain West media days. You already saw my top questions for the league headed into the annual interview extravaganza. Now you get my predicted order of finish for 2011:

1. Boise State
2. TCU
3. Air Force
4. San Diego State
5. Colorado State
6. Wyoming
8. New Mexico

I have the Broncos as the champion based on a few factors. First, they have a huge advantage with Kellen Moore returning at quarterback. Moore was a Heisman finalist last year, and has a huge challenge on his hands without his top receivers in Austin Pettis and Titus Young. But Moore will make guys like Tyler Shoemaker, Kirby Moore and Geraldo Hiwat into solid standouts. Moore and Doug Martin form the best quarterback-running back duo in the league. On defense, the line should be one of the best in the league with veterans Billy Winn, Shea McClellin and Chase Baker returning. Factor in Boise State getting Air Force and TCU at home, and that completes my prediction.

The Horned Frogs, of course, would love nothing more than to leave the league as champion. But I am not sure the team will be able to match the heights it reached the last two seasons without an experienced quarterback. Casey Pachall may end up being one of the greats at TCU, but we have no idea right now. Replacing Dalton is going to be incredibly hard, and the TCU schedule is tough this year with trips to Air Force, San Diego State and Boise State.

I placed Air Force ahead of San Diego State for a few reasons: the Falcons have consistency in a coaching staff returning, and Tim Jefferson proved last season he has the capability of dominating the league. This is no shot at Ryan Lindley, who also came into his own last season. But the Aztecs are going to have a huge challenge on their hands at receiver.

Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson are gone, and now comes word that Dominique Sandifer and redshirt freshman Jay Waddell are going to miss the season with injuries. Teams no doubt will load the box to stop Ronnie Hillman and force Lindley to beat them with a group of inexperienced receivers. The good news for San Diego State is their talent at the tight end position is the best in the league.

The departures of Utah and BYU leave an opening for another team to break through into a bowl game. My pick is Colorado State, which has one of the most experienced teams returning in the league and has a schedule that should make the Rams bowl-eligible. Pete Thomas is a rising star at quarterback.

The bottom three all have issues to work out. Quarterback is a big question for all three.

My preseason choices for players of the year should not come as a huge shock: Moore for offensive POY; TCU linebacker Tank Carder for defensive POY; Air Force return specialist Jonathan Warzeka for special-teams POY.
San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley has a pretty long to-do list for this summer:

1. Work with new receivers

2. Work on becoming a better leader

3. Work on mastering the offense

Lindley has been through plenty in his Aztecs career, but how well he does everything on his to-do list will go a long way toward determining what type of season his team has in 2011. Granted, not everything will be on his shoulders. But Lindley is skilled enough and smart enough to know that he is a big key in the offense.

[+] EnlargeRyan Lindley
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesAztecs QB Ryan Lindley makes good decisions and is dangerous in the medium-range passing game.
He is coming off the best season of his career, having thrown for 3,830 yards, 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He finally got help from his running game in the form of Ronnie Hillman, and had his always-reliable receivers Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, who both went over 1,000 yards.

But much is different in San Diego this season. Brown and Sampson are gone. Coach Brady Hoke is gone, along with offensive coordinator Al Borges. So Lindley has taken it upon himself to step up as a leader, not only to help break in his new receivers, but to rally his teammates as well.

"It’s been a new experience," Lindley said in a phone interview. "The quarterback position is a leadership role, but the past three years I’ve been playing there’s been a strong senior leader in the receivers room and this year they’re young. There’s not a senior in the group. I stepped up a little bit, to take on more of a vocal role, getting these guys ready and letting them know what it takes to compete."

Lindley tried out several different styles with his receivers during practice. He got on them when they made mistakes, but then realized it would be much better to just pull them aside and explain what they did wrong.

"There’s a time and place to get in a guy’s grill, but you have to understand and remember they’re younger guys working their way in," Lindley said. "As long as they’re not making the same mistake over and over, there's no reason to get on a guy like that."

Among those who could fill in nicely is Dylan Denso, who had a breakout spring. Dominique Sandifer could also be a go-to player. Also, San Diego State could utilize the tight end position even more. Gavin Escobar had a great season as a true freshman in 2010, and Alston Umuolo is back from injury.

For Lindley, all these changes come with a new coordinator in Andy Ludwig -- the third coordinator he has played for in his San Diego State career. But the offensive scheme remains relatively the same. In fact, new coach Rocky Long had Ludwig keep the same terminology so his players would not have to learn an entirely new offense. Ludwig has added in his own wrinkles, though, and Lindley wants to be as in sync with his new coach as possible.

"I need to get into Coach Ludwig’s head and know what he’s going to call. When a quarterback can know and anticipate what the coordinator is going to call, it works best," Lindley said. "With Coach Ludwig, it started to come at the end of spring. With film study, by fall camp I’m highly confident we’ll have that down."

Spring rewind: San Diego State

April, 13, 2011
Time to check in on San Diego State, which is trying to build on a 9-4 season -- its best since 1996. With a new coach in Rocky Long and new coordinators, the spring was mainly used to get comfortable with the new staff, schemes and build depth.

Questions answered: One of the big ones is how Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman would adjust to new coordinator Andy Ludwig. Ludwig does have a different coaching style, but San Diego State will still run a pro-style offense, with plenty of runs and play-action. But where the key in 2010 was getting the run game established, it is the reverse in 2011 because of inexperience at receiver. Teams are going to load the box and dare Lindley to beat them. Lindley does not have Vincent Brown or DeMarco Sampson to rely on, and he has been mistake-prone at times. Getting that balance going again is going to be huge. Alec Johnson has moved from left guard to center to replace Trask Iosefa. Emilio Rivera is penciled in to start at left guard.

Questions unanswered: Receiver. Losing Brown and Sampson is going to hurt. No receiver that is currently on the roster caught a touchdown pass last season. Brown and Sampson combined for 18. Dominique Sandifer and Dylan Denso are most likely to replace them. Also in the mix are redshirt freshmen Jay Waddell and Ezell Ruffin. Sandifer missed most of the spring with a groin injury. Long was not overly impressed with his receivers early in camp. It is obvious somebody is going to have to step up quickly for the Aztecs to have any shot at building on 2010. Rob Andrews and Jake Fely are competing to start at middle linebacker.

Spring stars: Denso did stand out, especially in the spring game. He ended up catching four passes for 66 yards -- tops among all receivers -- and had a 19-yard touchdown reception. Lindley told the San Diego Union-Tribune that Denso "has been a rock." Lindley will need more of the same come fall.

Of note: Defensive end Perry Jackson was dismissed from the team for an unspecified violation of team rules. Meanwhile, cornerback J.J. Whittaker re-injured his knee. Long is hopeful he will return in the fall. Whittaker was a highly prized recruit who chose the Aztecs over Arizona, but redshirted last season with a knee injury. Fullback Anthony Miller has decided to transfer... San Diego State could have a two-way player in Leon McFadden. The all-MWC defensive back took some reps at receiver this spring in case he is needed, given the inexperience at the position.