Building a program from the ground up is no easy task, especially when there isn’t much tradition to go off of. The Brennan era at San Jose State is entering their third season, and thus far, they only have three wins to their name over the first two seasons. However, building takes time, and often an increase in wins is towards the end of the process rather than the beginning. Instead, creating a culture and winning battles in recruiting are the building blocks. For San Jose State, it appears those building blocks are now in place.
San Jose State had been one of the better teams in the Mountain West when it comes to doing well in recruiting despite struggling on the field. Perhaps they are the best at it. In the past two years, they finished 6th (2018) and 12th (2019) in the MWC according to the 247 composite rankings. In the MWCConnection final team recruiting rankings, the Spartans checked in at 6th and 9th respectively. In addition, they landed one of the top ten players in all the MWC recruiting classes and ten total players on the all-recruit teams over the past two seasons (both composed by MWCConnection). That sounds more middle of the road in the conference than a bottom-dweller.
To learn more about how the Spartans are getting it done on the recruiting trail, our guy Vic Aquino talked to their guy, recruiting coordinator and running backs coach Alonzo Carter.
It’s late May, well into the football off-season on a cool Friday morning at the San Jose State stadium center. You wouldn’t think to expect much activity, but not surprising, there’s the hustle and bustle of coaches planning their last recruiting visits, along with touring middle school athletes and their coaches ready to hear what it takes to reach the collegiate level. While football is in hibernation to the outside world, this type of activity is pretty typical inside many university programs.
For the Spartans of San Jose State, hearing and understanding all the underpinnings of the recruiting trail is not all one would expect. Running back coach, Alonzo Carter, is the recruiting coordinator anointed by head coach Brent Brennan in 2017 and rightly so. As we settled in, there was the expected level of passion and intensity, but I did not expect the level of detail, and information Carter dishes out to hopeful athletes and their parents.
Carter’s core recruiting approach is centered around finding athletes with character, academics and goals beyond football and college.
But if you’re serious, “Here’s how and what you need to do.” Carter makes himself readily available to support and guide not just the kids, but also the parents and high school staff itself.
Carter’s rattling off with ease the differences in core and unweighted GPA, SAT and ACT scores, DI and DII and DIII NCAA eligibility in FBS vs. FCS. It just make your head spin. Carter’s presentation is eye-opening to what a taste of the real world will be like, and actually provides a deep perspective against the other recruiting pitches these athletes will be getting, in terms of core course requirements, full qualifier, academic redshirt and so and so on. And this is all before presenting what the university uniquely offers, let alone the football program.
Carter is also probably most known for his dancing association with the famed rapper artist MC Hammer in the early 1990s, but his football substance is his proven, winning coaching history in the East Bay with McClymond and Berkeley High and Contra Costa College. There’s no doubt Carter’s community and football ties continues to pay dividends wherever he goes.
According to Carter, everything (on the field, off the field, recruiting and academics) stems from the vision of head coach Brent Brennan.
“Coach’s Brennan’s first emphasis when it came to recruiting was our “Shield the Bay” mantra. The majority of our recruiting is down in California and as much local as possible. We spend the start of each spring eval period having all our coaches going to every high school around the Bay in hopes to build that barrier around our Bay. We visit every school at least once and some we try to do twice. Plus, Coach Gunderson and I split up the bay area schools in our usual recruiting areas as well during the season. When we got here, we heard from high schools and colleges in the area that they were a bit peeved SJSU didn’t have a recruiting presence in the area. We set out to fix that.”
Shield the Bay is bearing fruit, as 12 players from the past two recruiting classes are from the bay area. Plus, several more from the surrounding outer-bay area. In fact, only four players over two years have not been from the state of California. Coach Brennan is definitely cultivating that mindset in recruiting, and Coach Carter is an extension of that. In fact, Carter becoming the recruiting coordinator was another Brennan idea.
“When Coach Brennan asked me to take over the recruiting coordinator role, we had to sit down and map out what schools we wanted to emphasize. We looked at some under-recruited areas around us. We made some tiers for schools, putting a bigger priority on some over others, and went from there. I have some deep ties in the Bay area, being born and raised in Oakland.”
The where is, of course, important in recruiting but much more important is the who.
“In our weekly meetings, we have a list of players ranked on our boards. But we all know recruiting isn’t an exact science. Coaches are constantly coming back with no players to add to our lists and boards as well.” That statement probably isn’t much different from recruiting at most other college programs. However, the Spartans have their own unique aspects they look for in recruits. Coach Carter explains:
“It starts with the top and moves down. Coach Brennan has changed the culture and tells us we need high character young men that can not be compromised. Regardless of film, we ask if that player fits our culture. If so, then we move forward. That’s number one. I’ve been in three rebuilding programs in my time and normally that third or fourth year is the charm for progress. We sell the academic piece as well as the athletic piece. We are trying to recruit high character, good young men, and emphasize the character. We have students who want to be part of that rebuild, who want to be part of the change to get to a winning culture. We believe when you have enough good young men who are football players, the wins start to come. We don’t want to compromise the type of student-athletes we are looking for.”
Preparing a recruiting pitch for high school athletes is extremely important. Coach Carter also sheds some light on the importance of knowing what not to say in a recruiting pitch.
“It’s easy to look at Fresno State, and Nevada, who had new staff come in at the same time as us and have more success sooner. But we believe the progress is there, we lost close games and believe we easily could have had more wins. Also, we can’t compete with certain things outside of our control. But we have new facilities that we will be breaking ground on. We have great administrative support, and we don’t worry about the other things. What is in our control is what we pitch to recruits. There’s only one Silicon Valley, and we think that really makes us unique compared to other MWC schools. Players can become professionals in life and have all these connections right on their fingertips.
Those who follow San Jose State recruiting carefully may notice the Spartans have brought in quite a few junior college players over the two years. Carter explains their philosophy (or lack thereof) behind that.
“With JUCO and high school, we go by need. Obviously, you always want a high school emphasis, but it’s about need. In a junior college player, they need to be good academically and be on track in the classroom. Also, we need to see if that position is a real need for us for depth purposes. This year we needed depth on the OL, so we recruited a JUCO lineman and a grad-transfer lineman. We never have a number of JUCO players we want or don’t want.”
A lot of coaches are good at talking the talk. But Alonzo also walked the walked this past recruiting season. He got to see the Spartan recruiting pitch firsthand. “This past year, I was on both sides of the recruiting process. My son (WR Malachi Miller) is coming here, and I got to be the father and listen to San Jose State and what they had to offer.”
Year three is often when a jump occurs if it is going to take place. This is when the players the staff recruited are the majority of the players on the field. Some of that has already happened, as Brennan and his staff haven’t been afraid to play athletes early. Carter explains how it will benefit them in this upcoming year.
“The evolving depth chart and wanting to develop young players, they are bringing in has its benefits, even if it doesn’t show up in the box score. There’s a chance to play early as a true or redshirt freshman and gain valuable experience in hopes of it paying off down the line. Cade Hall is a perfect example of playing as a true freshman. We didn’t know if he would play or not but prepared himself to play and we took notice. A few injuries happened, and he ended up starting in a number of games for us. Now he’s one of our top returners, and he’s in great shape. Also, with the redshirt rule, a lot of guys know they have opportunities to play in a few games right away and maybe more. That’s very valuable in our recruiting efforts.”
The coaches and players are excited for the anticipated jump to take place. “I have a great feeling about this year. I love the staff, love the systems we have. Everything has grown, and the culture has taken shape. I couldn’t be more excited. Especially the running backs, my guys in the room.” If it does happen, the foundation of solid recruiting will have been a vital aspect of the San Jose State success.