Ryan Lindley walks into the press conference in his black Nike undershirt, rockin’ a scruffy beard and a sense of euphoria that only a monumental win can evoke. The quarterback sits down at the middle of the table, and looks into the bright lights, video cameras, and the expectant faces of the multitude of sports writers facing him. He was feeling high, both figuratively (after his victorious performance on the field) and literally (sitting on the raised platform), until a reporter’s question brought him back down to earth. “Ryan, is there any possibility you enter the NFL Draft?” Lindley rolls his eyes, smiles, and destroys all speculation with a shake of his head. “No. There’s no possibility at all. I’m an Aztec. I’m going to finish out and I’m going to graduate next year.” He would later admit that he did think about it, but that’s all it was: a fleeting thought. Lindley would come back for his senior season and he was looking forward to a big year.
Following last season, Lindley had a big decision to make.
The Talented Mr. Lindley had thrown for almost 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns and showed off his rocket arm, big play ability and leadership while leading the Aztecs to the Poinsettia Bowl. He had impressed NFL scouts and his head coach bolted for Michigan. He was also losing his two elite receivers, Vincent Brown and DeMarco Sampson, who left for the league. Combine that with a weak QB draft class (Christian Ponder at No. 12? Are you kidding me? And future bust Blaine Gabbert at 10? Vomit.), and the smart decision for Lindley would have been to cash in his chips and declare for the draft.
But times have changed on Montezuma Mesa. With the success of a 9-4 season and a bowl victory, expectations for the football team this season are the highest they’ve been in recent memory. And although Lindley is losing his top two targets from last year, and the current WR corps are young and unproven, he still has young gun Ronnie Hillman and one of the country’s best set of tight ends returning.
Last year I posed the question: Does Lindley make Brown and Sampson that good, or do Brown and Sampson make Lindley that good? If the answer is closer to the former rather than the latter, then Lindley has a great shot at leading SDSU to another bowl game and being a first-rounder in next year’s NFL Draft. But he’s not looking that far yet, he still has some business to take care of. And if Rocky Long’s vote of confidence is anything to consider, then the expectations for another bowling trip aren’t far-fetched.
“Ryan is one of the best leaders of a football team that I have ever been around,” the new head coach said. “He is our guy. He sets the stage. He is the one who makes them all work when the coaches aren’t around. He is the one who makes them act right and if he has the kind of year I expect him to have, we are going to have a good football team.”
It was the start of the fourth quarter at Faurot Field in Columbia. No. 25 Mizzou was leading 20-14, and had the Aztecs backed up at their own seven-yard line, 2nd-and-9. Sophomore running back Ronnie Hillman lines up behind his fullback, one foot inside his own end zone. The freshman running back had already scored on a 75-yard run in the first half, but this time he was simply hoping to gain a few yards and deny the Tigers a safety. Lindley hikes the ball, turns to his left and hands it off to a streaking Hillman, who darts to a hole in the middle of the line of scrimmage. As the hole collapses around him, the freshman bounces off one tackle and spins off another. Seemingly wrapped up, lineman Trask Iosefa grabs the freshman and twists him out of it. Seeing only green ahead of him, Hillman rumbles 93 yards for the score and a one-point lead over shell-shocked Mizzou. Hillman would rush for 228 yards in his breakout party against a power-conference team. Ladies and gentleman, I present to you SDSU’s next superstar running back: Ronnie “Heisman.”
Look that clip up on YouTube. Seriously, do it, and witness Ronnie “Heisman’s” illest touchdown run of the year. Not that any of his total 17 TD runs were any less impressive, though. On every single one of his 1,532 rushing yards (most in the Mountain West), he evoked memories of another 5-foot-10-inch Aztec running back who was just elected into the NFL Hall of Fame. In fact, the only reason “Heisman” wasn’t a consensus NCAA Freshman All-American is because South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore plies his trade in the SEC and is pretty damn good too.
And to think, the university almost completely ran him off the team in 2009 with an entrance exam controversy before he even suited up for his first game. Boy, they’d be kicking themselves if they did. How important was Hillman to SDSU last year? Well, he took a rushing game which was dead last in the MW and fourth-worst in the entire country and added some punch to it. Vastly underrated by recruiters coming out of high school, “Heisman” now finds himself on the pre-season watch lists for the Walter Camp Award (college player of the year), Doak Walker Award (top running back) and Maxwell Award (college player of the year).
But his value stretches beyond the running game. Hillman took a one-dimensional SDSU offense, which had one of the most prolific air attacks in the country, and forced opponents to respect the running game, opening up the field for Lindley.
The best part? “Heisman” will be bigger and badder this season. He added 16 pounds of muscle to better handle the rigors of being a workhorse tailback and is expected to be a threat in the passing game as well. The worst part with Hillman? SDSU fans will get spoiled watching an All-American running back for two or three more years.
It was all too much. The 48,049 screaming fans; the Poinsettia Bowl trophy; the knowledge that this would be the last time he would play under the lights at Qualcomm Stadium, his last game as an Aztec. And that feeling! Like an indescribable weight being lifted off his heart, a warrior’s heart that had battled through a 2-10 season, three different head coaches in a five-season span, and been a part of a 41-year bowl victory drought. Brandon Sullivan took off his helmet and began to cry, his tears splashing down onto the same field where minutes before he and his team had become champions. Ryan Lindley, who had been his quarterback for three years, had thrown for 276 yards and two touchdowns. Ronnie Hillman, the rookie he had taken under his wing and blocked for all season, rushed for 228 yards and three scores. His defense had completely shut down Navy’s triple option. He was damn proud of them, damn proud to be an Aztec. “It’s a family right here,” the senior fullback says. “It’s a bunch of brothers out here, and I’m real proud to be a part of this team.”
The last time we saw SDSU in action, the team had won its first bowl game since 1969. It had finished with its best record in years, and it was a great time to be an Aztec. All of a sudden, the head coach responsible for the football program’s transformation from left for his so-called dream job at Michigan. Playmaking receivers Brown and Sampson took their talents to the NFL, and the two guys slated to replace them-Dominique Sandifer and Jay Waddell—suffered season-ending injuries in training camp. The team’s most experienced wideout is currently a walk-on sophomore with four career catches. SDSU’s receivers, its biggest exclamation point last season, are now a glaring question mark. The Aztecs also have a new head coach (Long) and offensive coordinator (Andy Ludwig). Throw in a treacherous out-of-conference schedule, with Cal Poly (remember that heart-breaking loss in San Diego two years ago?); Army (a bowl team); Washington State (from the Pac-12) and Michigan (need I say more?), and it will be that much harder for the Aztecs to replicate the success of last year.
But as SDSU develops from an up-and-comer to the national contender it is aiming to be, the team will have to take those challenges head on and show that it can win against tougher competition. With success comes higher expectations, and a new era of football has dawned on Montezuma Mesa, led by a fourth-year starter at quarterback hoping to cement his Aztec legacy, and a sophomore running back who is just getting started. Expectations to make it to another bowl game? No sweat. Pressure to perform against stronger opponents? Not a problem.
“We had expectations last year too, but at the same time, at the end of the season, we played some tough teams and we already made our mark,” Lindley says. “I think we gained a lot of great experience last year. We learned some things about ourselves, about this team, and I think individually too, that is going to help us.”