As San Diego State discovered firsthand in spring practice, replacing two all-conference linemen and one of the top shutdown cornerbacks in the country is no easy task.
With the departures of center Alec Johnson and right guard Nik Embernate, almost the entire right side of the offensive line is up for competition in fall camp.
SDSU head coach Rocky Long announced that junior Zack Dilley -- the Aztecs' No. 1 center in the spring -- will enter fall camp as the starter at right tackle, the position he started at all last season. Sophomore Jordan Smith will take Dilley's place at center, and Long said that if the season started today that's how the offensive line would look.
But of course there's still a month and a half left until the season opener versus Eastern Illinois, and the Aztecs will be searching for the fifth-best offensive lineman, whether that's Smith or Lenicio Noble at center, or Paul Rodriguez or Terry Poole at right tackle. Whichever one of those four establishes himself as the fifth-best lineman will determine whether Dilley is SDSU's starting center or right tackle next season.
"We'll let guys compete at center, and we'll let guys compete at tackle," Long said. "Whichever one of those four guys look like the fifth-best player on the offensive line, he'll start and Dilley will play the other spot."
"We liked what Jordan Smith did in spring practice more than what the tackles did in spring practice," the SDSU head coach added.
With the graduation of Josh Wade and Leon McFadden off to the NFL, both starting cornerback spots are wide open for competition.
Junior Mahbu Keels and sophomore Pierre Romain are listed as the starting CB's on SDSU's pre-camp depth chart, but that's far from being set in stone.
"Those were the two guys we thought had the overall best spring," Long said. "Those two guys are No. 1 on the depth chart, but that's probably the most wide open position we have on the team.
"The one with the most experience is King Holder; he's played the most. We think J.J. Whittaker has a lot of ability but he's never gotten to the season yet because of injuries. Hopefully he can stay healthy and compete. I think we've got some quality athletes there, we just don't have anybody that has proven they can be at the same caliber as the ones we had last year."
Aztecs picked to finish second in West Division
Last season's Mountain West championship not only raised SDSU fans' expectations of their team next season, but media members throughout the conference have taken notice of the Aztecs as well.
After going 9-4 with a 7-1 league record last season, SDSU earned one first place vote in the preseason media poll and was picked to finish second in the West Division behind Fresno State, which garnered 39 first place votes.
But after being predicted to finish fifth in last season's poll, Long isn't putting much stock into preseason rankings.
"We were co-champs last year and we were fifth in pre-season. So whoever the fifth-place team is, you've ought to be talking to them about expectations. The only expectations that matter are our personal expectations and team expectations. It doesn't matter what everybody else thinks."
Four freshmen won't join team in fall
At Mountain West Media Day, Long announced that incoming freshmen Addison Morrow (wide receiver), Sergio Phillips (offensive lineman), Randy Ricks (outside linebacker) and Julius Wilson (wide receiver) will not be joining the team in the fall.
According to Long, Phillips is "missing just a few points on the test score, so he's going to greyshirt and continue to take the test during the fall."
Morrow, Ricks and Wilson were academic non-qualifiers by NCAA standards, so they'll have to go the junior college route and earn their Associate Degrees before they will be able to join SDSU.
Tight end Dominique Bierria's Aztec career may turn out to be a short-lived one.
Bierria joined SDSU in the spring, but is currently off the team due to academic issues.
"He's struggling with academics so we're going to give him the semester off, see how he does, and hopefully have him back in January," Long said. Whether he's enrolled in school or not depends on how he finishes summer school."
Long also said that walk-on defensive lineman Lukas Lopez didn't show up for summer school and was left off the roster as well.
Additions make Mountain West stronger
Long believes the additions of Utah State and San Jose State (which both went 11-2 as members of the Western Athletic Conference last season) have made the Mountain West the strongest of the non-BCS leagues. The Aztecs head coach would even argue that the MW is better than a couple of BCS leagues.
"It dramatically helps the perception of the Mountain West. With the seasons both of them had last year and the number of players they have returning from last year's team, I think it really upgrades the league's competitiveness from top to bottom. Those two teams just made the league a whole lot tougher."
Fully healthy for fall camp
Every member of the team is expected to be fully healthy for the start of fall camp next month, although one player in particular hasn't been cleared to practice yet.
"The slowest one I think is (offensive lineman) Kwayde Miller," Long said. "He hasn't been cleared to do everything yet. The trainers and doctors think he'll be cleared by practice time. That's yet to be seen. Everybody else has been cleared already."
- Linebacker Ryan Jack (knee) is going on medical scholarship and will no longer count against SDSU's scholarship limit.
- Long mentioned that there will be two walk-ons put on scholarship when the fall semester starts, which will put SDSU at the scholarship limit of 85. Long was not allowed to make those names public at this time.
- There will be another junior college transfer walking on in the fall.
- Defensive line coach Osia Lewis had knee replacement surgery back in Texas in May, but he's fine and back with the program.