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2020 SJSU Spartans Preview Special

How does it all play out? (7 min. read)

SJS WR Bailey Gaither (84)
Photo by: Pierre Whitsey

Season four of the Brent Brennan era is going to be different as different can be, as it’s been for all of us.

Obviously, life-altering forces are the reason. But still underneath it all - the next level of progression is expected for the Spartans.

Even without 2019 Mountain West offensive player-of-the-year Josh Love, some critics could view the landscape and assess the Spartans get five meaningful wins this year and a winning record (assuming the previous conference-only scenario).

Brennan and staff have shown clear foundational progress. They have coaching stability, good recruiting, a strong blue-collar philosophy, and have established an attractive on-and-off field culture. The backbone intangibles are there and are invaluable, especially now.

From three wins the first two years and a 5-7 record in 2019, the Spartans were a fingernails length from at least two more wins in each of the last three seasons. It was enough for the powers-that-be to reward Brennan a $2.5 million, three-year extension - putting him on track to be among the top three longest tenured coaches in SJS’ 127-year history.

Of course, the Mountain West and many conferences are in uncharted territory. Players’ body clocks use to year-in-year-out football can take advantage of the extra time, but it’s still difficult to know how teams deal with the unknowns.

Offense

Once the staff understood what was transpiring with Love last year, the Spartans rode him.

Love’s numbers speak for itself - 3,923 passing yards, 22 TD passes (8 INTs) and a 141.2 passer rating. Even the +13 turnover ratio was largely due to Love’s success. Replacing his production is the Captain Obvious question.

OC Kevin McGiven will identify his primary horses and scheme to them harder this year. No doubt he continues to be creative until he finds the secret sauce to a more balanced offense.

The reasons for Spartan optimism:

#1 - The edge is the most spectacular area for the Spartans. Senior WR Tre Walker garnered 1,161 yards on 79 receptions and nothing less is expected this season. Sixth-year senior Bailey Gaither is just as explosive. Both he and Walker averaged 115.5 yards and 116.1 yards receiving per game, respectively.

Add in sophomore Isaiah Hamilton’s 2019 production of 718 yards on 43 receptions, tight-end Derrick Deese Jr. and WR Isaiah Holiness and it’s certain to be one of the most high-caliber units in the MWC.

#2 – We’ll lay it out there and say what most are thinking – McGiven rides QB Nick Starkel’s final year of eligibility to the max. The Arkansas Razorback transfer also bridges the QB experience gap. Collectively, the other Spartan QBs got about 10% of the playing time of what Love received.

Starkel has the leadership panache and is just more proven among the Spartan QB corp. His SEC experience also helps. It’s doubtful too that Starkel sees SEC caliber defenses in the MWC. So that might be another worthy intangible.

At the least, Starkel’s presence helps narrow down candidates. It also makes sense to leverage Starkel while continuing to groom the youngsters for the following season.

Who are the other two QB candidates? QBs Nick Nash and Chance LaChappelle are formidable and have game time experience, though McGiven leaned on them more to run.

On the kicking game front, PK Matt Mercurio is looking ready for a breakout year.

Causes for concern on the offense:

In the last three seasons, there’s still no operable run game - though 11 rushing TDs from now departed DeJon Packer was a highlight last season. But no matter what the Spartans did, this area has been among the bottom 10% in the entire FBS.

The last three seasons run game tallies: less than 50 yards 11 times, under 100 yards 22 times and only 89.4 yards per game last year.

The running back revival committee to look for this year: senior Tyler Nevens, sophomore Kairee Robinson and freshmen Shamar Garrett.

Key offensive statistic:

It’s basic. The run game average has to be well-over 100 yards. It all translates to getting more and converting more short yardage scenarios, scoring in the red zone and increasing time of possession.

Offensive wildcard:

6’4, 230 lb. Dominick Mazotti came in as a tight-end prospect and is now competing at QB. Mazotti is a Swiss army knife athlete who also excelled at linebacker and safety and was a high jumper and sprinter. Something about him says, “let’s get creative.”

Defense

You can count on DC Derrick Odom continuing his multi-look 3-4 defense. His challenge is a chess game of matchups to primarily stop the run, which was also ranked at the bottom 10% in the FBS last season.

The key to success is scheming up to teams they just don’t match up to AND stopping the big plays at the most inopportune times. Often, the defense would get in good sequences, but too often they got bit by big plays.

Odom’s 2019 signature is the 16 interceptions (9th in the nation) from the scheme-induced confusion and pressure.

Reasons for optimism on the defense:

#1 – The secondary led by safeties Jay Lenard and Tre Webb are solid veteran leaders who tallied 95 and 58 tackles, respectively, last year. Also, Nehemiah Shelton had 42 tackles, three INTs, two forced fumbles and is also one of the most athletic corners in the MWC.

An interesting dimension in the mix this year could be 6’4, 220 lb. hybrid DB/LB Rahyme Johnson.

#2 – Linebacking by committee. The loss of Ethan Aguayo and Jesse Osuna leaves the next set of very capable linebackers in Kyle Harmon (89 tackles), Rico Tolefree (50 tackles), Tysyn Parker (52 tackles).

High energy, Alii Matau also comes back from injury after a lost 2019. Matau could very well be a difference maker if he remains healthy.

Causes for concern on defense:

Whatever is clearer than crystal, DLine coach Joe Seumalo’s BIG challenge again is stop-the-run 101.

Any DLine is the core of that effort and 6’2, 260 lb. junior DE Cade Hall is the anchor and leader. A beefed-up Junior Fehoko, E.J. Ane, Christian Johnson, and Cameron Alexander seem the likely ones in the rotation.

Another overall concern for the defense is tackling. They missed more than their fair share of tackles last season, which led to no good.

Key defensive statistics:

Prevent more third down conversions. Opposing teams were successful 47% of the time on third down conversions in 2019.

And by not respecting the Spartan run-defense, opponents felt statistically safe on 4th down conversions - a 62% success rate on Odum’s defense (16 of 26 attempts in 2019).

Also giving up an average of 443.8 yards per game in 2019 and 495.1 yards in 2018 and 499.3 per game in 2017 is another key statistic that would keep you awake at night.

Defensive wildcard:

6’2, 230 lb. Lorenzo Burkes came in as a running back but is setting his sights as an outside linebacker. If Burkes picks things up, his athleticism and speed can add another creative wrinkle to an already multiple look defense.

Last known 2020 Spartan schedule:

2019’s prediction was close:

“After two woeful seasons, it would actually defy logic if the Spartans did not at least come closer to a .500 season in 2019.”

Close but no cigar after the Spartans 5-7 record last season. That record could have easily been flipped making the prediction still wrong, but eating less crow.

Best case scenario:

The Spartan program naturally continues its upward trend. They’re highly competitive in every game and pull out a 7-2 record (six in conference and one outside). Basically, it’s a breakout year.

The wins come over UNLV, San Diego State (finally), New Mexico, Nevada, Hawaii (finally), and Fresno State.

The reasons for the best case scenario: Starkel shines, the run game goal is met and Brennan’s program is fully matured. Program evolution as it should be.

A big success indicator could also be seen right off at Boise State. Even with a loss, the Spartans are in no way intimidated and stay defiantly competitive. But pulling off that long-shot could be a bigger win than Arkansas and the harbinger of what’s to come.

Worst case scenario:

With every group losing their leaders this year, the Spartans regress by little or no field leadership. They end up at 3-6.

They don’t come close to replacing Love’s production and lose all the close games again. It also means the running game remains below par along with the run-stop game.

The three wins come over UNLV, New Mexico and Nevada.

Some will chalk it up as an asterisk year which can probably be said for the best case scenario.

What likely happens:

It’s usually something in between. The Spartans go 5-4 and the altered season is considered a success. Technically close to the 5.5 over/under.

It’s a success because of consistent, reliable performers at every position group. The receiver group is outstanding and the next season standouts start emerging.

It’s uneventful to most but the slow, steady, sure pace to long-term program viability is clear.


An MWC wish list to defy the naysayers:

The MWC gets to be a hero and announces a detailed engagement plan - getting all the behind-the-scenes factors dialed in to safely play conference games, protect players and keep schools in lockstep.

They take advantage of the time and space out games by at least two weeks to allow the logistics and preparation time and quarantine time. And they coordinate some non-conference action.

They communicate and publicize the plan and report out regularly so the conference displays transparency and gains confidence.

They get good press because they’re executing and doing it right and it’s great new added exposure.

People are craving football and something special. Why not the MWC? It’s almost the perfect feel-good story from a most unexpected place in the most unprecedented time.

In any case, for better or worse, they and we are all in this together.

S Jay Lenard (27) & CB Nehemiah Shelton (23) - Photo
Pierre Whitsey