With Spring ball over, head coach Brent Brennan’s pivotal third year at the helm looks its most promising for his squad. It has to be.
After two woeful seasons, it would actually defy logic if the Spartans did not at least come closer to a .500 season in 2019:
1) Brennan’s coaching staff has continuity (only losing its linebacker coach to Utah State, and promoting Scott White who was already there last year).
2) Recruiting classes have remained on par or better than other Mountain West teams.
3) There should finally be no quarterback uncertainty this time around.
4) The line on both sides of the ball looks deeper and more experienced going into this season.
Last season, as well, did show glimpses of life that belie the 1-11 record. There were seven games the Spartans were competitive and four games where there was a real chance of winning, but obviously fell short. So, 2018’s record could have been as good as a 5-7.
In descending order of strength, here’s why the SJS pendulum should be on the upswing :
QB Josh Love
Love’s looked smooth this Spring and is clearly the most experienced and successful in the QB stable. Love is a strong pocket passer who looks to stay the course on every play almost to a fault. Though he was sacked far less than the other SJS QBs last season, Love took some vicious hits; some that put him in concussion protocol. But if he stays healthy, the Spartans will see more winning ways. Love’s 122.9 rating is also befitting of a very tough, stoic competitor, though you’d never guess it meeting him in person. His long ball accuracy was his hallmark (over 17 yards per completion) and his leadership skills will be a must, if there’s a chance for a Cinderella season.
The other Spartan QBs are still in a “grooming” stage with 6’4” 215 lb. dual-threat Chance LaChappelle showing next best promise. Maybe a Hawaii Cole McDonald type in the making?
Depth in the trenches
Last year saw a very young offensive line give up another year of 30+ sacks fronting a run offense that ranked dead last in the FBS. This year two seniors lead the way; 6’5”, 308 lb. Troy Kowalski and 6’6”, 305 lb. graduate student Quinn Oseland. Their experience, leadership and physical presence were felt right off this Spring. They’ll be key to sustaining drives and to lead the rest of the O-line, who’s still relatively young. Also, a better run game than last year will conversely help the overall efforts here.
On defense, the depth is more pronounced than last season. Though the Spartans lose some of its previous stalwarts to graduation, they have a larger core of returning and new contributors, who’ve made their marks coming into this season. Defensive lineman Cade Hall, Demanuel Talauati, Lando Grey and Junior Fehoko expect to make up the D-line and Sailosi Latu should make a nice surprise comeback this year. Senior linebackers Ethan Aguayo and Jesse Osuna were forces last season and expect to at least be the same this year.
Also, in the closing Spring game, the defense was the showcase; gaining two sacks, seven 3-and- outs, an interception and giving up only field goals on two goal line stands.
Junior Tre Walker is the most athletic of the wide receiver bunch and he continued to show well this Spring. Though NFL-bound Josh Oliver was the premier target last year, Walker was the leading receiver. In his last five games of 2018, he totaled over 500 of his 714 total receiving yards on 39 receptions overall. It will be a matter of consistency this year that will make a break out season for Walker.
Senior Bailey Gaither has always shown great promise and versatility before experiencing a season-ending lower leg injury in the fourth game of last season against Hawaii. Bailey was a high-impact receiver starting last year on fire with 137-yard game against UC Davis, 90 yards against Oregon and 97 vs. Hawaii. If Gaithers is fully recovered, he should be the big-play threat he was last year. Love will basically need at least two or three reliable go-to receivers of which Walker and Gaithers should be.
On the tight-end front, the Spartans are showing real firepower here too with junior Billy Humphreys, JUCO senior Derrick Deese, Jackson Burrill and a bona fide 3-star recruit in Dominick Mazotti. So overall, there’s enough to have a formidable breadth of receivers.
Second-year offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven will also be a key to success here. He has probably more pieces and options at his disposal to help make the jump the Spartans need this year.
The secondary should hold steady this season or fair no worse than their 126th rank in passing yards allowed, which yielded 283.9 passing yards per game. They also struggled last year against teams with great receivers like Fresno State, Colorado State, Hawaii and Utah State, who expect to have great receiving corps this year, as well.
Hard-hitting safety Jonathan Lenard, acrobatic cornerback Nehemiah Shelton and running back turned cornerback Zamore Ziglar at corner left good impressions from last season that continued this Spring.
Though technically, this is still a worrisome area, several factors can help the secondary out:
1) Offensive time of possession
2) Consistent pressure from the defensive front
3) DC Derrick Odum’s play calling, which gained some notoriety stymieing teams like Oregon, San Diego State and Fresno State for good stretches.
The biggest area of concern is still around the running game. Last year, it ranked last with only 61.5 yards per game, which contributed to one of the worst time of possession ratings in the FBS; meaning there were too many times the running game couldn’t help sustain drives or run down the clock, which contributed to some losses. In the Spring game, the starting backs struggled to get red zone yards and into the end zone.
Junior Tyler Nevens was the most reliable with 554 hard-earned run yards in 2018. Nevens expects to share time with Dejon Packer, but the Spartans seem to have a potential ace up their sleeve.
Three-star Texas recruit, Darrin Smith, could be the spark the program needs to revive not just the running attack, but the program itself. A true track sprinter (4.46 in the 40), Smith is also an athletic, all-purpose back, who can catch well. If the staff can loosen up the conservativeness even more to assess, teach and utilize Smith right away, Brennan and OC McGiven should do it. They’ve shown all the signs to take chances on young players before.
Sparta is chomping at the bit for a good season and dreaming of glass slippers. It’s what the community at-large needs just to start to re-recognize the program and what the conference and the SJS program as a whole needs in more ways than one.