NCF Nation: Ryan Lindley

Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore kicks off his quest to prove he is a bona fide NFL quarterback this week as he begins practicing at the Senior Bowl.

You get the feeling he is going to be one of the more talked about prospects. Not only is Boise State one of the most polarizing schools in the nation, there is also a major curiosity about whether Moore can play in the NFL given his size (5-foot-11) and arm strength. Can those questions be answered during a week's worth of practice and the game on Saturday?

Todd McShay breaks down his top storylines for the big collegiate all-star game, and Moore happens to one of the quarterbacks he lists with plenty on the line.

McShay says, "The closer Moore is to 6-foot the better it will be for his stock. He's also looking to show NFL scouts he's capable of finding passing windows and reading [the] entire field from inside the pocket."

Among the other players McShay is going to keep an eye on from the non-AQ ranks:

San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley. McShay writes: "He has been working on being more consistent with his mechanics, and Lindley has a chance to improve his draft stock if his accuracy is better during the practice week. He currently projects as a Day 3 pick."

Louisiana-Lafayette tight end Ladarius Green and Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner are two of his under the radar prospects. McShay says Green has a chance to really raise his stock if he proves he can make plays against a higher level of competition. Wagner is "quick, tough and instinctive but scouts will want to see how well he stacks and sheds against bigger blockers in phone-booth situations."

That's as good as it gets during bowl season. Dramatic comebacks from both teams and a final-second field goal blew the roof off the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans as the Ragin' Cajuns gutted out the victory. Here's how it all went down:

Turning point (1): With 1:40 remaining, on fourth-and-2 from his own 39-yard line, SDSU quarterback Ryan Lindley threw an incomplete pass, but pass interference kept the drive alive, and nine plays later, Lindley connected with Colin Lockett on a 12-yard touchdown pass to put the Aztecs ahead with 35 seconds to play. Game over, right?

Turning point (2): The failed two-point conversion left ULL with a small window of hope. Quarterback Blaine Gautier moved his team from the 18 to the SDSU 43, setting up a 55-yard game-winning field goal attempt from Brett Baer. But a defensive penalty moved the kick from 55 to 50 yards, and Baer drilled it as time expired. Now, it's game over.

Stat of the game: Ronnie Hillman's 55 yards. The Ragin' Cajuns were determined to make sure the San Diego State running back wasn't the deciding factor. They kept Hillman, who entered averaging 138 yards per game, to just 32 yards in the first half and just 2.3 yards per carry for the game.

Player of the game: Gautier was beat up, bruised, battered and smacked around all game. But he hung in there and took every shot -- passing for 469 yards and three touchdowns. He was poised on third downs and calm on the game-winning drive.

Unsung hero of the game: Darryl Surgent had only three catches for ULL, but he came up big in the fourth quarter with a 56-yard reception and a total of three catches for 92 yards -- an average of 30.7 yards per catch. Oh yeah, he also had that 87-yard punt return for a touchdown.

What it means: Preseason predictions be damned. The Ragin' Cajuns were picked to finish last in the Sun Belt conference, and some publications had ULL ranked 120th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. But a 9-4 record, capped by a victory over a team that will eventually play in the Big East, is a significant accomplishment for this program.

New Orleans Bowl Keys

December, 16, 2011
You saw the preview and prediction; now here are three keys for SDSU and Louisiana-Lafayette in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl on Saturday:

San Diego State (8-4)

1. Run, Ronnie, run. The best running back in the country whom you’ve never heard of (but should know) is Ronnie Hillman. If he played for a bigger school, he would have gotten Heisman buzz. He rushed for 1,656 yards and 19 touchdowns, and is the focal point of SDSU’s offense. He gets stronger as the game goes on, and once he gets going, he’s almost impossible to stop.

2. Start fast. The Aztecs have trailed in the first half of their past three games. They rallied to win two of them -- UNLV and Fresno State. Against a balanced, high-scoring Ragin’ Cajuns team, early points (or early stops, for that matter) would be helpful.

3. Free the beast. Miles Burris might be one of the most underrated outside linebackers in the nation. He is fast, ridiculously strong and eighth in the country in tackles for loss. When he makes it into the backfield, havoc usually follows.

Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4)

1. Find pressure. The Ragin' Cajuns are pretty good at getting to the quarterback -- tied for 30th nationally in sacks. San Diego State is one of the best in the country at keeping its quarterback, Ryan Lindley, clean. Getting defensive linemen such as Bernard Smith active and making sure the Aztecs don’t get into a run/play-action rhythm is the best way to disrupt Lindley’s timing.

2. Shake it off. The Ragin' Cajuns enter this game on a two-game losing skid -- having dropped their final two to Arkansas State and Arizona. This also is the first bowl game in 41 years for Louisiana-Lafayette. The fact that the Ragin' Cajuns are playing in their home state should calm some nerves and make it feel like a home game. But to be successful, they have to stay poised and not let the gravity of the moment weigh on them.

3. Smart decisions. Since officially winning the starting quarterback role, Blaine Gautier has continued to evolve as a runner and a passer. He's done a better job staying in the pocket and letting plays develop, but he also knows when to cut and run (second on the team with 630 yards). Facing an unconventional defense such as SDSU's 3-3-5, Gautier will have to make some split-second decisions. If they are the right ones, he'll have success. If they aren't, he and the aforementioned Burris might become very close.
Louisiana-Lafayette is making its first bowl appearance in 41 years. Until last season, SDSU hadn't won a bowl game in 41 years. How's that for numerological coincidences? The Aztecs faced plenty of questions this season after Brady Hoke left for Michigan and former New Mexico coach/SDSU defensive coordinator Rocky Long took over. But Long has the Aztecs matching last year's regular-season record, which they capped with a 35-14 win against Navy. Louisiana-Lafayette, with new head coach Mark Hudspeth, is enjoying just its third winning season since 1995.

WHO TO WATCH: San Diego State running back Ronnie Hillman is the No. 3 rusher in the country, averaging 138 yards per game. He averages 5.7 yards every time he touches the ball and has found the end zone 19 times on the ground. He’s one of the most dynamic runners in the country with a 99-yard rushing touchdown and a 71-yard receiving touchdown to his credit. He's explosive, shifty, and the comparisons to former SDSU great Marshall Faulk have been more than warranted.

WHAT TO WATCH: Long is one of the gurus of the 3-3-5 defense. The Aztecs will be put to the test by Ragin’ Cajuns quarterback Blaine Gautier, who has a very respectable 20 touchdowns to five interceptions. The extra safety will likely be tied up trying to cover tight end Ladarius Green (485 yards, seven touchdowns), who is a mismatch for most defenses at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds. SDSU’s defensive scheme is high risk, high reward. Louisiana-Lafayette can find the holes and beat the steady stream of exotic blitzes, there are points to be scored.

WHY TO WATCH: The opportunity for the rest of the nation to see Hillman play should be reason enough. He’s a bona fide NFL talent. Expect a relatively high-scoring affair with two explosive offenses. There are plenty of playmakers on both sides which should make this one of the more entertaining non-BCS bowl games.

PREDICTION: SDSU 35, Louisiana-Lafayette 24. From a pure talent standpoint, the Aztecs have the edge. An NFL-caliber running back and an NFL-caliber quarterback (Ryan Lindley) always make for a difficult backfield to defend. Playing in their home state will be a nice edge for the Ragin' Cajuns, who will have a clear advantage in crowd support. But that won’t be enough to stop all of SDSU’s weapons.

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.
It's blowout city around the Big Ten in the first four games.

Let's check out what's happening:

Michigan 21, San Diego State 0: Denard Robinson will get the attention, and rightfully so as he continues to dazzles with his feet. "Shoelace" already has tied a single-game career-high with three rushing touchdowns and has 139 rush yards. Some team will force Robinson to pass the ball, but San Diego State isn't it. But the bigger story in my opinion is Michigan's defense has kept San Diego State off of the scoreboard despite allowing 163 yards and being on the field for 16:33. The Wolverines forced a Ronnie Hillman fumble and seem to be flustering Aztecs quarterback Ryan Lindley, who completed just 7 of 14 passes in the half. Brady Hoke and Greg Mattison have to be encouraged with the defense so far.

Michigan State 31, Central Michigan 0: The statistic that stood out for me after Michigan State's loss to Notre Dame last week was yards allowed. Yes, the Spartans got thumped 31-13, but they only allowed 275 yards to the Irish. It showed me the MSU defense could still be very good, and we've seen the unit sparkle today against Central Michigan. The Spartans recorded three first-half takeaways, including a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Isaiah Lewis. The defense is stifling Central Michigan, holding the Chippewas to 47 first-half yards. Spartans sophomore Le'Veon Bell, meanwhile, is making a strong case to be the team's top running back with three first-half rushing touchdowns. Bell and the offensive line look very good so far.

Penn State 17, Eastern Michigan 0: The Nittany Lions have a big lead, but more importantly they might -- just might -- have gained some quarterback clarity. Rob Bolden didn't play poorly, but the offense took off once Matt McGloin came in during the second quarter. McGloin was 9-for-10 for 143 yards, including the first two Penn State touchdown passes of the season -- to Joe Suhey and Derek Moye. McGloin would have had another one, but Michael Zordich fumbled at the goal line for a touchback. The defense has been stout, and Penn State came up with three turnovers -- a fumble recovery, interception and a blocked punt. The two things to watch in the second half are whether McGloin continues to play this well, and this much, and what we can find out about linebacker Michael Mauti's injury.

Iowa 28, Louisiana Monroe 3: Are we witnessing the blossoming of the Iowa offense? OK, it's only Louisiana Monroe, but this is three straight quarters now that the Hawkeyes have been humming, especially in the passing game. James Vandenberg has thrown for 200 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to Marvin McNutt. Vandenberg is one yard shy of 600 passing yards his past four quarters and is playing with a ton of confidence. Meanwhile, Marcus Coker looks like he's on his way to a 100-yard day. The defense has looked strong as well since the Warhawks drove for a field goal on their first possession. There should be no need for late-game drama in Iowa City today.

What to watch in the Pac-12: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
Ten issues to consider heading into the third week of games.

1. Luck versus Foles: Both Andrew Luck and Nick Foles are mature starters with lots of skills with NFL futures. They won't spend a lot of time comparing stats during the game, but it's hard to imagine both are completely uninterested in the other and how he performs. Quarterbacks study other quarterbacks. While both these guys want to win above all else, they'd also like to walk away with a better looking stat sheet than the other. Luck has a better running game and a better defense supporting him. Foles has better receivers. Who ends up with the best efficiency rating, oh and the W?

2. Nebraska's O-line versus Washington's D-line: The Cornhuskers offensive line is billed as perhaps the youngest in program history, with a freshman and two sophomore starters. And the 'Huskers 2010 O-line lost the battle with the Huskies D-line in the Holiday Bowl, rushing for just 91 yards. UW's 333-pound DT Alameda Ta'amu, in particular, dominated inside. While the Huskies pass defense has been suspect so far, the run defense is another story, ranking seventh in the nation. UW is talented and experienced up front. Nebraska is a run-first team, and quarterback Taylor Martinez is much more comfortable running than passing. While the Huskies pass defense, again, has been poor, coordinator Nick Holt certainly would feel better about his unit's chances if Martinez is forced to throw downfield to move the ball.

[+] EnlargeBrock Osweiler
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCan Brock Osweiler repeat the dominant performance he had against Missouri last week when the Sun Devils face the Illini?
3. Osweiler's encore? Arizona State quarterback Brock Osweiler was a tour de force in the win over Missouri, passing for 353 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 34 yards and a score. Also, he projects confidence and is a vocal leader. The Sun Devils will be challenged to match the intensity they showed against Missouri on the road at Illinois. That's where Osweiler's leadership comes in. He needs to rally the locker room and make sure distraction and complacency don't take root. It would be nice if he played like he did against Missouri, too.

4. Can UCLA run against Texas? Texas' defense has been stout in the first two games. It held BYU to just a field goal in the second half. It's yielding just 86.5 yard rushing per game. In the Bruins upset victory last year, the Longhorns couldn't stop UCLA's pistol offense, which raked up 264 yards on the ground. The Bruins are still a run-first team with a questionable passing game. But it will be much easier to throw downfield if the running game is gashing the Longhorns and giving them a sense of déjà vu.

5. Washington State's defense makes a stand? The Cougars defense has been outstanding so far, and it's particularly encouraging that it has been stout against the run, which hasn't been the case for three years. But Idaho State and UNLV are terrible, and San Diego State is not. In fact, it has two NFL prospects leading the offense in quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman. Both put up huge numbers in 2010, and they will challenge the Cougs with a potent pass-run balance. Want to know if the Cougs D is for real? This game will tell. And if the D passes the test, Washington State should win because it should be able to score plenty of points against the Aztecs.

6. Rodney Stewart gets going: Colorado ranks 114th in the nation in rushing even though it has an A-list running back in Stewart. While the passing game has been impressive, coach Jon Embree is not the sort to abandon the run and surrender balance. Colorado State gave up 150 yards rushing to New Mexico. You'd think the Buffs can at least match that, even with a injury-riddled offensive line. And if Stewart gets going, that will open up chances for quarterback Tyler Hansen to find wide receiver Paul Richardson over the top.

7. Pin your ears back, Trojans: Despite a soft schedule featuring Wake Forest and Rhode Island, Syracuse ranks 107th in the nation in rushing (78.5 yards per game). While Ryan Nassib is a nice quarterback, life won't be easy for him against a strong Trojans pass rush if he's got no running game to keep the defense honest. He's already been sacked four times, and his offensive line hasn't seen the likes of the Trojans front four.

8. Rediscover the run, Utes: While Jordan Wynn is a gamer, he looked significantly better at USC than in the season opener. But he's not the sort who can win a game alone, at least not while he's still regaining his shoulder strength after surgery. He needs a running game, which he didn't have against USC. BYU plays tough defense, but the Utes need to establish a run threat and some offensive balance to make life easier for Wynn, both in terms of opening up the downfield passing game and protecting Wynn's surgically repaired shoulder.

9. Road tough? Good teams win on the road, and good conferences have teams that consistently win on the road. Utah, Arizona State, Washington and Washington State each can make statements for themselves and for the Pac-12 if they take care of business in hostile environments. None are favored to do so. If the conference goes 3-1 in these games, it will significantly bolster the conference's Q-rating nationally. Oh, and its computer rating in the BCS standings.

10. Oregon and California? Oregon plays Missouri State and California plays Presbyterian. What to watch? Something else.

Pac-12 predictions: Week 3

September, 15, 2011
Went 8-2 last week as my upset predictions for Utah and Colorado went splat in the waning moments.

Season record stands at 17-5.

Some of you might not like these picks. In advance, sorry. I won't mind being wrong.

All games are Saturday.

Stanford 35, Arizona 24: Two great QBs going at it, but the Cardinal also have a running game and a defense. The Wildcats' chances will be a lot -- A LOT -- better if receiver Juron Criner plays.

Arizona State 40, Illinois 28: In the past, we'd circle this as a game the Sun Devils might blow. But we're leaning toward believing these Sun Devils are different. And we like QB Brock Osweiler's play and leadership.

Nebraska 30, Washington 24: Lincoln is a tough place to play for a new starting quarterback, but the Huskies will give the Cornhuskers all they can handle in what will be the best-played game in the three-game series.

BYU 28, Utah 27: Both teams are coming off tough losses, but BYU is at home, and that's the difference after the Utes won by a single point at home in 2010.

Texas 27, UCLA 14: Texas has positive momentum after a comeback victory over BYU and it's highly motivated after getting embarrassed by the Bruins in Austin in 2010. That San Jose State effort by UCLA was hard to stomach.

USC 35, Syracuse 20: With just five starters back on defense, Syracuse will have a hard time stopping Matt Barkley, Robert Woods & company. And the Orange have zero running game, which will make things easy for the Trojans' D.

San Diego State 33, Washington State 30: The Cougars are 2-0, but they've yet to play a quality foe. The Aztecs are a quality foe and they are playing at home. Seems like there will be just a little too much Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman for the Cougs' defense.

Colorado 30, Colorado State 21: The Buffaloes will get the win because they'll finally get running back Rodney Stewart going, even with a beaten-up offensive line.

Oregon 80, Missouri State 2: Chip Kelly will be unhappy with the shotgun snap from the backup center that costs the Ducks a shutout.

California 742, Presbyterian 5: We won't be taking this game seriously.
It would be easy to wildly extrapolate program transformation at Washington State based on a 2-0 start. Sure, the competition was terrible, but the Cougars asserted complete dominance on both sides of the ball.

The term "well-oiled machine" came to mind for a team that, to be kind, has looked in recent years like a rusted-out, red pickup truck that had been abandoned along a Palouse highway.

But it seems justifiable to take the bridle off the enthusiasm because things were feeling completely lost just one quarter into the season.

[+] EnlargeMarshall Lobbestael
AP Photo/Dean HareMarshall Lobbestael has been a surprise for the Cougars after they lost starter Jeff Tuel.
Let's face it: It's likely that a majority of Cougars fans thought the year was cooked when promising starting quarterback Jeff Tuel broke his clavicle against Idaho State.

Senior backup Marshall Lobbestael had experience, yes, but it was completing-less-than-50-percent-of-his-passes-and-throwing-more-interceptions-than-touchdowns experience and not the good kind.

So when Lobbestael went all Andrew Luck on Idaho State and then UNLV, well, please excuse the Cougs for grinning ear-to-ear and allowing themselves to be flushed with hope.

Lobbestael now ranks third in the nation in passing efficiency. He's completed 74.5 percent of his throws with five touchdowns and no interceptions while averaging 296 yards per game. And this isn't just dink-and-dunk. He's averaging 11.6 yards per completion.

When asked if he expected such efficiency from Lobbestael, coach Paul Wulff answered honestly: "Probably not." It's likely, in fact, that few players or coaches felt confidence when Tuel went down. Lobbestael had to win them over. By doing so he would restore the brittle confidence of a team that felt like it would be better this fall, but that still had the failure of just two conference wins over the past three seasons looming in the back of their collective minds.

"Marshall, to be quite honest, by his performance, has put everybody at ease," Wulff said. "That's where it starts."

The competition level will take a significant step up at San Diego State (2-0) on Saturday. Even though head coach Brady Hoke headed off to Michigan, the Aztecs welcomed back 13 starters from a nine-win 2010 team, including eight on offense. That offense is anchored by four senior offensive linemen and one of the nation's best quarterback-running back combinations in Ryan Lindley and Ronnie Hillman. Lindley passed for 3,830 yards and 28 touchdowns last year, while Hillman rushed for 1,532 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Not only are the Aztecs no Idaho State, they also are at home. The Cougars have one road win over the past three seasons.

But if the Cougars can steal one, a 3-0 start would have them heading into Pac-12 play halfway to bowl eligibility, which almost certainly would save Wulff's job.

The first thing Wulff talks about with his resurgent team is chemistry. "Players are all on the same page for the first time," he said. The second is experience. "They're just older. No body in college football wins with youth," he said.

The third area of improvement is defense. While the offense took big steps forward in 2010, the defense still lagged behind. Through two games, however, the Cougs are No. 2 in the conference in both scoring defense (14 ppg) and total defense (305.5 ypg).

Here's a guess that things are trending up on defense because Wulff upgraded his coaching staff this offseason with Chris Tormey coaching linebackers and Todd Howard the defensive line.

Still, Lobbestael's performance thus far has to be considered the surprising glue between the disparate parts. He certainly fits in with the program's blue-collar image.

"He's the first guy if the locker room is messed up and there's tape on the ground, he's picking it up during training camp and putting it in garbage," Wulff said.

Still, the program certainly hasn't arrived, and there are plenty of potential pratfalls ahead. For one, the Pac-12 schedule, particularly playing in the North Division, will be arduous. Five of the nine conference games are on the road, too. Even with a 3-0 start, getting three more wins won't be a sure-thing.

Further, how might the Cougs react if they lose at San Diego State? Might self-doubt creep back in? And if the Cougs string together a couple of losses, then the chirping about Wulff's job security will get louder and more distracting.

Wulff said he's aware of the "win-now" expectations -- "I'm not a dummy," he said when asked about the negative chatter -- but he also said "I don't get too caught up in it."

He sees a bright future for a team that is still young. But he's also starting to feel pretty good about the present.

"We're on our way," he said.

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.

Video: San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley

July, 27, 2011

San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley talks about the upcoming season.

MWC Day 1 wrap

July, 26, 2011
LAS VEGAS -- Here are some notes and quotes from Day 1 of Mountain West media day:

The biggest talk of the day was the arrival of Boise State and the imminent departure of TCU. To the surprise of no one, the Broncos were tabbed the preseason favorite to win the conference, a position they were quite accustomed to in the WAC.

Boise State coach Chris Petersen said: “Preseason polls are saying we’ve got some good players coming back. I don’t think it says anything about the team we have. We do have some good players but what we have to do is we have to develop our young talent. We have some older players who have played a lot of football and then we’ve got a gap between some guys who haven’t played and need the experience, need the knowledge. Our job as coaches is to narrow that gap.”

The Horned Frogs are the defending league champs, but have a new starting quarterback in Casey Pachall. Many believe the game between the two schools in Boise on Nov. 12 will decide the conference championship. Of course, that game was originally scheduled to be played in Fort Worth. But once TCU announced it was leaving for the Big East, the game was switched to Boise.

TCU coach Gary Patterson has voiced his displeasure on the matter, and said Tuesday he initially felt TCU was being treated as if it had already left the conference.

The Horned Frogs have a tough slate of games, and open MWC play in Week 2 -- at Air Force. That comes a week after opening at Baylor in a Friday night game on ESPN.

“The mark of a great football team is how you do on the road,” Patterson said. “You have to go on the road, every year we’ve ever had a great season, we’ve always started on the road.”

One thing is for certain in the game between the two teams -- Boise State won’t be wearing all blue uniforms. As part of its entry into the league, Boise State administrators agreed that the school wouldn’t wear its traditional blue jerseys and blue pants on the blue home field.

The MWC board of directors felt the all blue uniforms gave the Broncos an unfair advantage.
  • Air Force was tabbed to finish No. 3 in the conference and could be a dark horse contender in the league, especially if the Falcons pull off the upset of TCU to open conference play. They return eight starters on a solid defense, along with Tim Jefferson, Asher Clark and Jonathan Warzeka on offense.
  • San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley looked like a new man walking around media day, appearing much bigger in the upper body. Even Patterson took note, saying Lindley looked transformed. San Diego State coach Rocky Long said this about his veteran quarterback: "He’s big, he’s strong, he’s smart. He’s got a great arm and he’s got accuracy. What else do you want? The leadership role started toward the end of last year when he had complete confidence in his own ability and complete confidence in the system. That’s why we have not changed the system."

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.

MWC media days preview

July, 19, 2011
We are closing in on media day season. The Mountain West is holding its annual media event July 26-27 in Las Vegas, and I will be there to bring you the latest. Down below you will find the student-athletes each school is bringing for interviews. But first, my most pressing questions headed into 2011:

1. How will the reconfigured Mountain West fare and what will that mean for BCS inclusion? This is the biggest question hanging over the league, one that is certain to be asked of commissioner Craig Thompson. Even though we all want an answer, we will not get one until the season ends. Still, there is no debating that teams such as New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado State have to be improved for there to be any real shot at becoming an AQ.

2. Along those lines, how will Boise State fare in Year 1? The Broncos are almost certain to be the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West in their first year in the league. This, of course, is not a new position for Boise State, the preseason favorite every year in the WAC. But how does the team feel about these expectations considering it will be facing a new slate of conference games in what is a more difficult conference than the WAC?

3. How does TCU feel about being in its final MWC season? This is a similar storyline to last season with Utah and BYU. These three teams essentially put the Mountain West on the map and all are going to be gone in 2012. But TCU was given what it believes is a raw deal, when its game against Boise State was moved to Boise in November. That one could end up determining the league title. You can bet there is nothing the Horned Frogs would enjoy more than leaving the league as champion. There most definitely is a rivalry that has formed between TCU and Boise State. It's too bad we won't see that play out every year.

4. Is Air Force really a dark horse to win the league? One of the bigger under-the-radar teams that has gotten national attention is Air Force. Some are calling the Falcons a dark horse to win the league. Coach Troy Calhoun is going to do everything he can to avoid talking about or answering that question. But with Tim Jefferson, Asher Clark and Jonathan Warzeka returning on offense, and Jordan Waiwaiole, Jon Davis and Brady Amack returning on defense, the Falcons should have another strong season.

5. Is San Diego State a threat to win the league? The top four teams in the conference should be pretty strong. That includes San Diego State, which had a breakthrough season last year and returns several of its best players, including Ryan Lindley, Ronnie Hillman, Miles Burris and Leon McFadden. But there are some questions within this question -- how do the Aztecs do without Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, and can Hillman avoid a sophomore slump?

List of student-athletes attending MWC media days:

Air Force: WR/KR Jonathan Warzeka, DL Zach Payne
Boise State: QB Kellen Moore, S George Iloka
Colorado State: OL Paul Madsen, LB Mychal Sisson
New Mexico: LB Carmen Messina, TE Lucas Reed
San Diego State: QB Ryan Lindley, DL Jerome Long
TCU: WR Josh Boyce, LB Tank Carder
UNLV: TE Anthony Vidal, DB Quinton Pointer
Wyoming: LB Brian Hendricks, DE Josh Biezuns
San Diego State had success for the first time in a very long time last season. So how is that going to impact what happens in 2011?

“It will be interesting to see how our players handle that,” first-year coach Rocky Long said. “Last year, people didn't know what to expect and as the season went along, we got better and better. There are higher expectations. It's how our players are going to handle that. Are they going to embrace it or are they make them nervous and uptight?"

"It’s all about your coaches and how they have you prepare and the way you go about things leading up to a football game," linebacker Miles Burris said. "From my experience the past couple years, we never went into a football game not confident or thinking we were going to lose. We went in with the same mindset. For me, it’s not winning and losing making you feel differently going into a game or a season. You go out that week of practice and prepare as hard as you possibly can and be as confident as you can be."

The confidence is higher, no doubt. The Aztecs went to a bowl game for the first time since 1998, beating Navy in their home stadium in the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl to cap a 9-4 season. Now they will try for back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1995-96.

"Confidence almost had to be manufactured and built from within," quarterback Ryan Lindley said. "Now we know we’ve done it. We’ve made it happen in some games. There’s no level of perfection. We have a ways to go to be where we want to be and be Mountain West Conference champions."

There are those who wonder whether the program will be able to maintain its winning ways with a new coach in charge. Brady Hoke left after just two seasons for Michigan, and the Aztecs decided to promote Long, their defensive coordinator. Long had a history of winning at New Mexico, which has been awful since he resigned after the 2008 season.

Long is not new to being a head coach, and he was a part of the staff that helped turn the program around. His players wanted him to be promoted, and they have faith that he will keep the program moving forward.

"Last year, it was something to feel proud of, being a part of a program that’s changing," cornerback Leon McFadden said. "That was one of my main reasons to come here, because I felt the coaching staff could turn around the program. We are moving on with coach Long. He's a very competitive coach, and that motivates us to go out there and compete in everything we do."