San Diego State has consistently been a bowl contender and a threat for the Mountain West Conference title. The Aztecs haven’t had a record below .500 since 2009.
However, is this year’s Aztecs team experienced enough to surpass last year’s MWC champion Fresno State and overcome this year’s favorite, Boise State? The San Diego State top 10 returning players indicate their biggest strengths.
San Diego State Top 10 Returners for 2023
Important to note: Analyzing the returning players at each school is a difficult task in the transfer portal era. In this instance, CFN has included transfer-portal athletes anticipated to make an impact on the ’23 Aztecs. Nevertheless, SDSU has plenty of experienced veterans back from their 7-6 season as they aim to return into the conversation of MWC champ.
From No. 1 to 10, here are the top returners for SDSU:
1) Dezjhon Malone, Cornerback
Not only did moving over to cornerback catapult Dezjhon Malone, but in the process, he’s established himself as an early contender for the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award, while also establishing himself as an intriguing NFL CB prospect.
At 6’2″, Malone has the height and wingspan that make him a challenge to throw against. His presence also forced opposing quarterbacks to throw away from his side, including red-hot New Orleans Saints rookie Jake Haener when he was with Fresno State.
If Malone puts together one full season of a strong coverage campaign or finds a way to elevate his interception numbers from the three he snatched last year, you could be looking at SDSU’s second DPOY winner in three seasons.
2) Dallas Branch, Cornerback
Malone isn’t just the only stout CB in the 619.
Dallas Branch joined him by swooping up three interceptions. While Malone is the towering option on defense, the 5’11” Branch has the speed and eyes to match up with wideouts.
The Aztecs’ defense got bolstered with Branch opting to return for his senior year. Malone and Branch are entering 2023 as the conference’s best CB tandem — and one of the more underrated corner duos in the nation.
3) Jalen Mayden, Quarterback
Now we pivot to the offense and go with the man who has supplanted himself as the starter behind center moving forward.
Jalen Mayden got eight starts at QB beginning on October 8 and responded with a 5-3 record. He delivered two 300-yard outings — 322 in his starting debut versus Hawaii, then 309 in the Hawaii Bowl versus Middle Tennessee.
Now, the former Mississippi State passer gets an SDSU legend to work with in Ryan Lindley, who was elevated to offensive coordinator. Mayden’s numbers could ascend this year under another past Mississippi State Bulldog (Lindley was in Starkville from 2021-2022).
4) Cooper McDonald, Linebacker
The former Washington Huskies commit arrived in the Pacific Northwest as a scheme-versatile and tone-setting hitter. Now, Cooper McDonald’s established himself as one of the leaders of the Aztec defense.
McDonald had five games of hitting between 5-7 tackles. One of his better games, despite the loss, was against Fresno State, which saw him snatch five solo stops against an offense featuring five future NFL rookies for 2023.
5) Davaughn Celestine, Safety
Davaughn Celestine has gone from walk-on to scholarship player on April 27…and helps spearhead the safety room.
How did Celestine get to this point? Delivering 48 total tackles, 41 solo stops, breaking up three passes, and snatching one pick…all in 11 starts. He’s become a sure tackler on a team known for having a defensive identity in the MWC.
6) Cedarious Barfield, Safety
Much like Malone, Cedarious Barfield made a switch in position that benefitted him. Except his was the reverse — going from cornerback to safety.
In the process, he produced a career-best 49 tackles with 27 solo stops but also proved his hard-hitting nature with two forced fumbles. He even blocked a kick on special teams. Not only is he a trusted tackler, but the Aztecs also named him one of the captains for the upcoming season.
7) Cade Bennett, Offensive Guard
SDSU has three returning offensive linemen, but Cade Bennett is considered an early contender for the All-MWC First Team.
The Oklahoma State transfer didn’t surrender a sack for the Aztecs, even after allowing six pressures on his side. But the Aztecs trust his brute force more in opening running lanes for their always physical ground game. The 6’3″, 305-pounder is already on the Outland Trophy watch list, which honors the nation’s best interior lineman.
8) Jack Browning, Punter/Kicker
The specialist earns love for his versatility.
After all, he became the MWC’s Special Teams Player of the Year and Jack Browning has been spotted on multiple all-conference teams. He’s another team captain.
9) Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson, Left Tackle
The L.A. native has gone from 2019 SDSU Scout Player of the Year to a fixture on the offensive line.
And, Brandon Crenshaw-Dickson made the successful switch from right tackle last season and is now an All-MWC honoree possibility for 2023 while also likely garnering attention from NFL teams for his 6’6″, 310-pound frame and mix of swift movement and powerful force on the line.
10) Samuela Tuihalamaka, Defensive Tackle
This is where we throw in its top transfer portal addition.
Samuela Tuihalamaka comes over from Oklahoma State but starred in Orange County at famed high school powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana. While in Stillwater, Tuihalamaka appeared in 32 total games and went on to log 48 tackles with eight solo stops behind the line of scrimmage. His 6’1″, 305-pound frame will come in handy as an interior plugger in the Aztecs’ famed 3-3-5 look.