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Aztecs' early recruiting class features local quantity, quality

12/20/2017, 8:00am PST
By Kirk Kenney

Tony White was distracted while coaching the San Diego State cornerbacks Wednesday morning during SDSU’s practice at Burleson Centennial High School.

As the Aztecs prepared for Saturday’s Armed Forces Bowl game against Army, White kept looking at his cell phone. So much so that he thought SDSU head coach Rocky Long might notice.

“I’m getting updates and stuff on my phone, so I’m looking down,” said White, who is also SDSU’s recruiting coordinator. “I didn’t want Coach to be mad at me when he sees me looking down at my phone on the field.”

Mad? How could Long be upset with what White was seeing on his phone. As current SDSU players prepared for Army, future Aztecs peppered White’s inbox with signed national letters of intent.

SDSU signed 16 players on the first day of the NCAA’s new early signing period, including an unprecedented nine players from San Diego County schools.

It is believed to be the most local players ever signed by the Aztecs in a single year. And the number is expected to grow by two or three more, if not in the next two days during this 72-hour signing window, then on Feb. 7 when the regular signing period begins.

“Coach Long wants us to try to build the fence around San Diego,” White said.

Key to the process was getting on the locals early, before potential Power Five offers came in.

“Building the relationships needed (was crucial) to where when those guys got offered by other places,” White said, “the young men were just honed in with San Diego State and what we’re building and doing here.”

It is an impressive group that includes players from four states — California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas — and two countries — with 6-5, 235-pound defensive lineman Daniel Okpoko hailing from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.

The real news is the local haul, which is notable for its quality even more than quantity. Seven of the nine players earned all-section honors this season. Scott was the section’s Defensive Player of the Year and Araiza was Kicker of the Year for the third straight season.

It includes a pair of players from both Helix — quarterback Carson Baker and defensive back Rashad Scott — and St. Augustine — wide receiver JR Justice and linebacker Andrew Alves.

There also is one of the biggest offensive linemen around in Eastlake’s 6-foot-5, 355-pound Bill Dunkle.

There are bloodlines — San Marcos linebacker Josh Bornes’ brother Brandon is a former SDSU running back and Carlsbad linebacker Cameron Thomas’ brother Zach is a current offensive lineman on the team.

And then there is a lifeline — Rancho Bernardo kicker/punter Matt Araiza. Special teams was such a weakness six years ago that Long vowed never again to be without a solid kicking game.

“We had a bad experience one year where we ended up without a guy that could make an extra point and a field goal,” Long said. “That was so hard on us and we lost some games because of it, so we want to make sure we always have a good kicker in the program.

“To be honest, the best thing for them is to not have the stress of being the kicker as a true freshman. To sit as a true freshman, watch a veteran guy do it the right way and then take over when you feel a lot more comfortable.”

Current SDSU kicker John Baron II is a junior, giving Araiza an opportunity to redshirt before taking over the kicking duties.

Araiza broke single-season (18) and career (37) field goal records during his career with the Broncos. White said he could see Araiza handling both the kicking and punting chores for the Aztecs. SDSU punter Brandon Heicklen is a sophomore with two years of eligibility remaining.

Scott, like many in the class, committed to SDSU over the summer. His good friend Baker had a verbal to UC Davis before SDSU came in late with an offer.

SDSU offensive coordinator Jeff Horton traveled to Sacramento last week to see Helix play in a state championship game against Folsom. The Aztecs had been tracking Baker since seeing him at their summer camps. This gave Horton one more look at Baker, who passed for 322 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a score.

After the game, Horton reportedly told Helix coach Robbie Owens: “I cannot not sign this guy.”

Baker has gained a reputation for aptitude and accuracy, two attributes that are always in demand.

“He’s going to be successful in whatever offensive system he goes into,” Owens said. “Selfishly, I’m excited. Both of them (Scott and Baker) stay right here and I get to watch them.”

SDSU now has completed most of the work for the Class of 2018, which is expected to number 25 players when all is said and done. The remaining focus is to fill in some positions of need and/or pick up a player who may have slipped through the cracks, be it a coaching change where he had committed or some other issue.

“It plays out perfectly,” White said. “You’re always talking about needs. When you’re looking at the position, it’s always about the needs. With the guys who signed early, a lot of those needs were met. ... It’s really a luxury to have signed a huge class now, be able to reassess where we are and go back out and get some guys.”

Freelancer Don Norcross contributed to this story.

SDSU’s 2018 Recruiting Class

The NCAA’s 72-hour early signing window opened Wednesday morning (the regular signing period begins Feb. 7). Members of San Diego State’s 2018 Class will move from the verbal commitment list to the signed list as player signings become official over the next three days:

Signed national letters of intent

NAME | SCHOOL | POS. | HT, WT | SIGNED

Andrew Alves | St. Augustine HS | LB | 6-2, 225 | Dec. 20

Notable: The next Calvin Munson? Alves is always around the ball. He led the Saints with 100 tackles.

Matt Araiza | Rancho Bernardo HS | K/P | 6-2, 185 | Dec. 20

Notable: Among the most prolific kickers in San Diego Section history, Araiza was a three-time section Kicker of the Year. He had a section-record record 37 career field goals, including a career-best 53 yarder this season. His 18 FGs in 2015 was a single-season record. Averaged 41.7 yards per punt.

Carson Baker | Helix HS | QB | 6-3, 190 | Dec. 20

Notable: Helped Highlanders to state championship game appearance, passing for 2,749 yards with 37 touchdowns and four interceptions. Added 330 yards and five touchdowns rushing.

Keshawn Banks | Rio Rancho (N.M.) HS | DE | 6-4, 260 | Dec. 20

Notable: Quick, disruptive force off the edge who has nine sacks this season. Also a basketball standout.

Cedarius Barfield | El Dorado (Texas) HS | DB | 5-11, 175 | Dec. 20

Notable: Passed for 5,670 yards, 59 TDs, rushed for 3,760, 58 TDs, but expected to play DB and be a playmaker there as well.

Daniel Bellinger | Las Vegas Palo Verde HS | TE | 6-6, 220 | Dec. 20

Notable: Fits the mold of SDSU’s current talented groups of tight ends. Athletic receiver (21 catches, 371 yards, 3 TDs this season) who benefits from basketball background. Potential to play defense a plus.

Josh Bornes | San Marcos HS | LB | 6-0, 220 | Dec. 20

Notable: Solid running back (785 yards, 13 TDs this season) with good hands, but Aztecs likely will be attracted to his toughness on defense. Brother Brandon Bornes was a running back at SDSU from 2004-07.

Jordan Byrd | Albuquerque (N.M.) Manzano HS | RB | 5-9, 166 | Dec. 20

Notable: Watching a small back like D.J. Pumphrey thrive at SDSU made an impression on him. Played quarterback this season, passing for 864 yards, 8 TDs while rushing for 938 yards and 15 TDs.

Billy Dunkle | Eastlake HS | OL | 6-5, 355 | Dec. 20

Notable: Titans lineman fits the mold of big, athletic lineman Aztecs are looking for to open holes for the team’s running game.

JR Justice | St. Augustine HS | WR/CB | 6-3, 200 | Dec. 20

Notable: Versatile athlete who had 46 catches last year for 932 yards, 12 TDs. He was posting similar numbers — 23 catches for 398 yards and 6 TDs through six games — before a midseason knee injury ended his season.

Elijah Kothe | Faith Lutheran (Nev.) HS | WR | 6-4, 185 | Dec. 20

Notable: Tall target had 23 receptions this season for 302 and 4 TDs before suffering an arm injury.

Nic McTear | Heritage (Texas) HS | TE | 6-5, 220 | Dec. 21

Notable: Size and athleticism to make an impact as a receiver or blocking for the run game. Basketball background should benefit him on the football field.

Allan Mwata | Liberty (Nev.) HS | DB | 6-0, 180 | Dec. 20

Notable: Plays safety now for the Patriots, but figures to move to cornerback. Has 6 INTs this season.

Daniel Okpoko | St. Joseph’s (Canada) HS | DL | 6-5, 235 | Dec. 20

Notable: Second Canadian player to join Aztecs. Freshman Ladji Bagayoko (Saint-Laurent, Quebec) came this season. Okpoko played on the Football Canada U18 National team.

Rashad Scott | Helix HS | DB | 6-1, 180 | Dec. 20

Notable: He was named the San Diego Section Defensive Player of the Year while helping Helix to a state championship appearance. Has eight interceptions, including three returned for touchdowns. As a receiver, had 40 catches for 534 yards, eight TDs.

T.J. Sullivan | Mt. Carmel | WR | 6-0, 180 | Dec. 20

Notable: A 2017 graduate who is part of 2018 signing class after grayshirting. He is also a talented kick returner.

Cameron Thomas | Carlsbad | DL | 6-5, 235 | Dec. 20

Notable: Younger brother of SDSU redshirt freshman OL Zachary Thomas has displayed ability on both sides of the ball, providing flexibility to see where he fits best at next level.

Verbal Commitments

NAME | SCHOOL | POS. | HT, WT | COMMITTED

Denaylan Fuimaono | Carson HS | DB | 6-0, 190 | Twitter, 10/9

Notable: Talented defender who got bigger and stronger while sitting out first half of season following transferring from Long Beach Cabrillo. Had 41 tackles and two interceptions the second half of the year.

Dallas Holliday | Westlake Village Oaks Christian HS | OL | 6-5, 300 | Rivals, 10/14

Notable: Tremendous athleticism to go with his size.

Mikel Oliver | Steele Canyon HS | DE/TE | 6-4, 240 | Twitter, 6/27

Notable: Pass-catching threat in Cougars offense, but profiles on other side of line in college.

Demajay Williams | Palmdale HS | WR/CB | 6-0, 185 | Twitter, 6/30

Notable: Has 23 receptions for 609 yards — a whopping 26.5-yard average —and 8 TDs. Added 5 INTs on defense, where he could figure for the Aztecs.

kirk.kenney@sduniontribune.com / on Twitter: @sdutkirKDKenney


UPDATES:

2:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes and information.

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