Fall camp practices look a bit different this year, and it's evident almost right off the bat.
As soon as the team finishes stretching and warming up, new special teams coach Kevin McGarry barks out orders and the players break out into special teams groups and practice punt formations and kickoff coverage over and over until they get it perfect.
After SDSU finished 100th nationally in punt returns (out of 120 teams) and ranked 111th in kick return defense last year, the Aztecs are putting increased emphasis on special teams this camp by making it the first thing the team does every practice.
"We've re-structured practice a little bit," head coach Rocky Long said. "We're doing a lot of special teams at the beginning of practice, and then we go to our main part of practice where we do fundamentals and we compete against each other, offense and defense. And then at the end we're doing scout team work, which we haven't done in the past this early in the season, but we think it's right because we're a pretty veteran team, even though people might not think that. We're pretty veteran."
Yes, it's the first day of camp and SDSU is already preparing for Washington. With the Aztecs playing their toughest opponent this year on the road in the season opener, Long is wasting no time in preparing for the Huskies.
"Washington has a really good team coming back," SDSU's head coach said. "In my opinion, they are in the top third of the Pac-12. They have, in my opinion, one of the top five quarterbacks in the country. He's really good. If you watched the bowl game between Washington and Baylor, you know what I'm talking about.
"So we will know early in the season how good we can or will be, because that will be a very tough opponent on us. It's in a pro stadium and I heard that's really loud. They will get a big crowd. We are playing late at night and we have got a whole bunch of things against us and we'll see where we stand."
But despite the increased emphasis on special teams and scout work, Long's favorite part of the first practice came right in the middle when the team conducted its good, old-fashioned offense versus defense competitions.
"Here we're trying to prepare for special teams, we're trying to prepare for Washington, so the only part I really liked was right in the middle when we were going offense versus defense," Long said. "But you can't spend your whole time in the fall going offense versus defense like you can in the spring. So the fall practice right in the middle, between special teams and scout work, I really liked that. We were moving around good, they were getting after each other, but then it was kind of slow at the beginning and slow at the end."
Long says the team will do scout team work at the end of every fall camp practice, which is different than what they've done in the past.
QB duel kicks off in camp
Although Ryan Katz took more reps with the first team than Adam Dingwell did on Monday, Long says the quarterback race is still very much even.
"If you were to count reps I would guess that they're within five reps of each other with the first team," Long said. "But there'll be a decision at the end of this week. We gotta get at least one or two days with full pads in where there's actually people running into each other with the live action going around the quarterback before you really get a good feel for them. But we'll make a decision early."
Although SDSU won't put on the full pads until Friday, Long is still taking a good long, hard look at each quarterback.
"All you can look for now is them calling the right play or making the right check when they see things in the defense. And you can check their accuracy on how well they throw the ball. There's still bodies around, but they know they're not going to get bumped into, and it makes it a little bit easier."
Whoever wins the job -- Katz or Dingwell -- the SDSU head coach is actually more comfortable in the overall quarterback situation he has this year than he did last season with four-year starter Ryan Lindley.
"Ryan Lindley might be considered the best quarterback who ever played here. We've got two quarterbacks now. I don't know if they are as good as Ryan, but last year I was really worried Ryan might get hurt because I didn't know who the backup was going to be. Now we have two guys that can play that are competing for the job."
Defensive depth will be key
SDSU freely substitutes players in and out of the 3-3-5 defense.
"On defense, we play a lot of guys," Long said. "Last year, we averaged 24 guys in a game on defense and that's the same way we'll do it this year. I mean, Rob Andrews got hurt, broke his foot last year and he's coming back and he was a starting middle linebacker before he got hurt and (Jake Fely) took over. So you've basically got two starters at middle linebacker. That's a good problem to have."
This season the Aztecs will look to use their defensive depth to their advantage, and the WARRIOR safety position was a good example of that on Monday, with Gabe Lemon and Eric Pinkins subbing in and out for each other working with the first-team defense.
"Those two guys are going to play equal amount," Long said. "They were probably rotating with the first and second team. I did see Pinkins in there a little bit with the first teamer's. I expect both of them to play about the same number of snaps, probably like Marcus Andrews and Rene Siluano will on the other side. That's kind of the way we do it on defense."
Whittaker back in action
Sophomore cornerback J.J. Whittaker, who has missed the past two seasons with back-to-back ACL injuries, was back in action on Monday. Whittaker looked quick and fluid, and even came down with an interception.
"It's the first time he's actually been with us, the first practice that he's actually made it all the way through and that's good to see," Long said. "I'm sure he's a little rusty, but he should get better as we go. If you rehab the right way you can come back from knee injuries."
Depth chart changes
Prior to the start of practice, SDSU made several changes to its official depth chart that was handed out to the media on Monday. Here were the notable changes:
Riley Gauld switched from backup right guard to backup left tackle, and Garrett Corbett moved from backup right tackle to second-string right guard.
-- Long was smiling when he strolled over to speak with the media, which usually means he's happy with the intensity level and physicality at practice.
"I'd rather be in full pads," Long said. "When you come out with just helmets, which is the NCAA rule, you have a hard time finding out if they can really play football. Now, they were pretty aggressive without pads on, and that's a nice way to be."
-- Defensive tackle Kenny Galea'i, who is out with a broken foot, was out at practice watching from the bleachers. Long says he's "probably got another two to three weeks before he would be cleared to go 100 percent." The other injured player not participating in fall camp is wide receiver Paul Pitts, who is out another six-to-eight weeks recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in spring ball. Pitts will likely not play this season.