SAN DIEGO – The last month hasn't been the best for a San Diego State football program that has achieved the most solid footing of its Division I era.
First, the Aztecs suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the New Orleans Bowl, f alling 32-30 to Louisiana-Lafayette on a last-second field goal after taking the lead with half a minute left. Then, though it was expected, they absorbed last week's decision by star running back Ronnie Hillman to give up his final two years of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft, completing a major one-two punch of personnel losses along with senior quarterback Ryan Lindley.
Eleven days before the start of winter workouts and about six weeks before spring practice, however, things seem to be looking up for the Aztecs, who are on track to welcome three transfers from the Pac-12 Conference by next week.
Former USC wide receiver Brice Butler has decided to transfer to San Diego State, multiple websites reported and an independent source confirmed Wednesday. Butler, who visited SDSU last weekend and also considered Kansas, is an academic senior who would be immediately eligible under an NCAA provision that allows graduated students to play their final season at another school.
Butler was a highly touted recruit – ranked No. 79 overall in the nation by Rivals.com out of high school in Norcross, Ga. – who never achieved his potential with the Trojans, catching 41 passes for 554 yards and three touchdowns in three seasons. But he will offer the Aztecs a tall (6-foot-4) and physically gifted target to pair with the speedy Colin Lockett, who enjoyed a breakout season as a sophomore.
As for who will be throwing passes to Butler, it could be another Pac-12 import. Ex-Oregon State quarterback Ryan Katz, who announced his intention to transfer after the season, is expected to enroll for the spring semester and begin classes on Jan. 18, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Katz, too, would be eligible in 2012 as a fifth-year player who will have graduated.
A 6-1, 214-pounder from Santa Monica, Katz started in 2010 – completing 60 percent of his passes for 2,401 yards, with 17 TDs and 11 interceptions – but lost his job during the 2011 season opener to redshirt freshman Sean Mannion, who went on to earn Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America.
Because of his experience, Katz would probably enter spring practice with a leg up on the other candidates to replace Lindley, a four-year starter who leaves as the school record-holder in almost every significant passing category. Backup Adam Dingwell attempted only one pass as a redshirt freshman last season, and the other contenders (junior-to-be Jake Bernards, Chad Jeffries – a true freshman in 2011 – and Temecula Chaparral High senior Matt Morin, who plans to enroll early) have combined to throw just one college pass.
"I don't think anyone has an edge, and I think it's going to be highly competitive, which is the way it should be when you lose a starting quarterback who's taken almost every snap for four years," Aztecs coach Rocky Long said this week, without accounting for Katz (he can't discuss transfers until they're enrolled).
At the same time they gain a possible successor to Lindley, the Aztecs could also bring in the eventual replacement for Hillman. Former Mission Bay High standout Dillon Baxter - like Butler, an ex-Trojan - has chosen San Diego State as his transfer destination, a source said. Unlike Butler and Katz, Baxter would have to sit out the 2012 season, after which he would have two years of eligibility remaining.
Baxter was an even bigger catch out of high school than Butler – a five-star recruit ranked 17th overall in the nation by Rivals – but he made more headlines off the field during his two seasons at USC, where he rushed for only 281 yards and one TD. He was suspended for the 2010 season opener for undisclosed disciplinary problems before leaving the team in late October of last year; Trojans coach Lane Kiffin refused to call it a suspension or dismissal.
With Baxter sidelined for the upcoming season, the job of stepping into Hillman's sizable shoes will likely be shared by a group of runners led by senior-to-be Walter Kazee (1,030 career yards and nine TDs as Hillman's backup) and sophomore Adam Muema, who rushed for 119 yards and two TDs in a Nov. 19 loss to Boise State when Hillman was injured.
"I'm not sure any of the backs can be as good as Ronnie, but maybe three of them will alternate and we'll get the same production out of them," Long said. "That's one of the positions where we have really good depth."
During an interview in his office this week, Long was sorting through applications for the position of SDSU strength and conditioning coach, which has been vacant since Rick Court left to become an assistant strength coach at Ohio State last month. Long said he wants to have the new coach in place by Jan. 23 and that he's relying heavily on the input of both Court and Aaron Wellman, the previous strength coach who followed former Aztecs coach Brady Hoke to Michigan.
"That position is as important as any position in this football program," Long said. "There are a lot of guys out there who have the qualifications. The two strength coaches who have been here over the last three years have made a world of difference in our football program, so you have to find someone who's as good or better than they are and do things very similar to the way they did them because we're still in the infancy of developing the program."