NCF Nation: Gavin Escobar

R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl

December, 4, 2011
San Diego State Aztecs (8-4) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns (8-4)

Dec. 17, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

San Diego State take from college football blogger Kevin Gemmell: The Aztecs are going to back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 1966-67. Last season, Brady Hoke led the Aztecs to an 8-4 record before they throttled Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl. Defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Rocky Long matched that record as the Aztecs overcame a 21-point deficit in their season finale to top Fresno State.

Quarterback Ryan Lindley's numbers are down a bit, but that's to be expected when your top two receivers from last season are drafted into the NFL. So the Aztecs have been relying on Ronnie Hillman, one of the nation's top running backs, who rushed for 1,656 yards this season and 19 touchdowns.

With injuries to the receiving corps -- the Aztecs lost three potential starters before the season even started -- converted defensive back Colin Lockett has stepped in as the top receiving threat, tallying 46 catches and five touchdowns on the season. Tight end Gavin Escobar leads the team with seven touchdown catches.

The offensive line, which returns four starters from last season, is one of the best in the country, ranking 10th nationally in sacks allowed.

Linebacker Miles Burris is a bona fide play-maker who should be playing on Sundays next season. Defensive lineman Jerome Long is having an outstanding season, as is defensive back Larry Parker, who leads the Mountain West Conference and is tied for third nationally with seven interceptions.

Louisiana Lafayette take by Matt Fortuna: First-year head coach Mark Hudspeth began his campaign with the Ragin' Cajuns with a bang. Their 6-1 start was the best in Sun Belt history and followed a 3-9 campaign from a season ago. Two losses to end the season tempered that a bit, but the season still showed much progress.

Hudspeth replaced starting quarterback Chris Masson with Blaine Gautier, and Gautier delivered by throwing for 2,488 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Gautier has passed for 300 or more yards in a game four times this season. His 20 touchdowns this season are tied with Jake Delhomme for most in school history in one season.

Five true freshmen have started for the Cajuns, both running backs are first-year players and receiver Harry Peoples and safety Jemarlous Moten have been impact junior-college transfers. Moten earned conference defensive player of the week honors in the regular-season finale, recording two interceptions and returning one for a score, the team's seventh pick-six of the season, tying an NCAA single-season record set by Tennessee in 1971.

Lindley, Hillman must lead Aztecs

August, 25, 2011
Ryan Lindley and Ronnie HillmanGetty ImagesRyan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman will be called on to carry the San Diego State offense this season.
There is no disputing that Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman are the two best players for San Diego State. But perhaps more than last season, their fortunes this season seem to be tied together.

Hillman burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2010, announcing himself as a legitimate threat each time he carried the football. He ran for 1,532 yards, ranking No. 10 in the nation in rushing as the top freshman running back. He is no longer a surprise, nor a revelation.

Couple that with the challenge Lindley faces. His two leading receivers, Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, are gone. Two receivers pegged to replace them -- Dominique Sandifer and Jay Waddell -- were both lost for the season during the summer. Lindley has one receiver currently on the roster that has caught a pass in a collegiate game -- Dylan Denso with four. So, you would have to think that teams will load up the box to try and stop Hillman, forcing Lindley to beat them with a fairly green receiving corps.

"Obviously, that's the smart thing to do," Lindley said. "If I was a defensive coordinator, I would do the same thing. But it's something where those guys are going to have to grow up pretty quick. We're going to have to draw some stuff up to get our playmakers the ball. That's where Coach [Andy] Ludwig is such a great offensive mind and he's already doing that. It's the game of football. They're always going to do something to stop your strength and you're going to try to do something different to affect their weakness."

Indeed, there are ways to try to counter the glaring weakness San Diego State has on offense. Hillman will be counted on to do more out of the backfield. Though he only had nine catches for 68 yards and a touchdown, Hillman does have good hands. He had 853 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns as a senior in high school.

In addition to Hillman and Lindley, San Diego State has as talented a group of tight ends you will find in the nation with Gavin Escobar, Alston Umuolo returning from injury, Bryce Quigley and D.J. Shields. True freshman Adam Roberts is likely to play this season as well. It is a guarantee they will be more involved.

There is one other benefit for San Diego State this season. Ludwig, the new offensive coordinator from Cal, has adapted the Aztecs system already in place. That meant less of a transition for everybody returning. Still, there have been some rough patches this fall. In two scrimmages, the offense has failed to score a touchdown. Coach Rocky Long is still waiting on receivers to step up, but he is going to run out of time quickly with the Sept. 3 game against Cal Poly looming.

Meanwhile, the Aztecs took extreme precaution with Hillman during camp. He has been kept out of live tackling drills to avoid injury, a clear indication of how much San Diego State must rely on him this season.

"From what the coaches tell me, it’s prevention," Hillman said. "So nobody goes rolling on me or my ankles. They don't want to wear me out so they can keep me healthy."

Hillman fully anticipates more of a spotlight on him this season, but shrugs that off.

"It’s nothing I’m stressing about. I’m going to play for the team and have Ryan Lindley to take some of that pressure off me," Hillman said. "I expect for people to put nine in the box or eight in the box. Once they start to realize we have guys that can beat them deep, they’re going to play us honest again, and we'll be right back to where we were last year."

First, those receivers have got to step up -- for Lindley and for Hillman.