Every year under Brent Brennan is of persistent positivity, energy, and big expectations, as it should be for any program.
The last three years started with high hopes from real roster potential. Things should be ratcheted up even higher this year coming off a disappointing 5-7 record last year and after winning the Mountain West Championship back in 2020.
The Spartans’ worst case scenario from our 2021 MWC season preview foretold a 7-5 record and a bowl berth, but things fell agonizingly short.
“The biggest thing we have to fix from a year ago is the turnover margin,” said Brennan. “That was so detrimental to us in so many ways last season.”
Brennan’s program in now at the minimum expectation to have a winning season every year. Even some media upped their rhetoric: “don’t be surprised by the Spartans,” or “watch out for the Spartans,” (though winning that mindshare is always finicky).
A 2021 summation
The conference games the Spartans should have won, they won by one possession. The games they were competitive but lost was generally the same.
But when and where the Spartans really suffered were the last three losses, especially the last two home games of the year. Uncompetitive blow out losses to Utah State and Fresno State were a double downer to the frustrating year. But something else faded last year.
“You’ve got to work at brotherhood and togetherness every single day,” said Brennan on what they lost track in those losses. “We need to make sure the team is always, always stuck together, especially when we’re bringing new people into the family. We have to continually educate them on what this brotherhood looks and feels like no matter what, so it can continue to be a healthy environment.”
Brennan went on to describe how the coaches talk of togetherness and brotherhood being weaved into every aspect of the program, as corralling these elusive life qualities can be fleeting and challenging.
What’s clear too is to avoid any type of complacency this year that showed up last year.
Also, right in the middle of that 2021 season was a certain key game the Spartans should have undeniably won over then ranked 24th San Diego State. Instead, it was a frustrating 19-13 OT loss to the Aztecs, where Spartan penalties mucked the game. It was a season swing game that could’ve instilled solid momentum and confidence right when they needed it.
Adding up all the tangible factors to the down year: a 7.25 penalty average per game, which gave up 65.2 yards per game, too many dropped passes and the glaring -10 turnover margin.
Those Pre-Season Polls
In 2020, the Mountain West Media had SJSU slotted for a fifth-place finish. The Spartans ended as conference champions.
In 2021, the Spartans were expected to finish second in the conference. They finished fourth with a 5-7 record. Keep in mind, Utah State was expected to finish fifth and San Diego State third. They both met in the conference championship, where the Aggies thoroughly defeated the Aztecs (the transfer portal served USU very well).
The 2022 media expectation is a third-place finish for the Spartans, which broadly factors from a Derrick Odum defense and the Chevan Cordiero QB effect.
The safe bet from the MW media this time is for SJSU to be average this season, but...Brennan’s talent base looks the best it’s been since he came on.
Reasons for optimism:
The transfer portal brought immediate juice to the Spartans starting with the obvious.
Cordiero at QB is proven. The now junior QB threw for 6,167 yards with 58.6 % completion rate during his time with the Rainbow Warriors. Last season with Hawaii, Cordiero also led a sixth-ranked MW passing offense vs. an 11th ranked MW passing offense QB’d by Nick Nash and former Spartan Nick Starkel. Cordiero’s last two seasons saw 4,874 passing yards vs. Starkel’s 3,819 combined for 2020 and 2021.
Basically, Brennan again has his quarterback and leader.
“Obviously, we’re excited about Chevan and what he brings every day,” said Brennan. “We’re also excited about the other guys too from Nick Nash to Natano Woods to Tyler Voss. It’s an exciting QB group all-around.”
The difference with Cordiero is he’s a deceivingly strong and accurate quarterback first, who can run very effectively as a close second. He’s a quintessential dual-threat quarterback. It’s something the Spartans haven’t truly had in one package during Brennan’s and OC Kevin McGiven’s tenure.
Cordeiro will continue to shine and enable the entirety of the offense (while being healthy and protected, of course). If so, the Spartans will do well.
Also, from the portal, you have former Nevada receivers Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart (and Charles Ross from Nevada the previous year). Along with TEs Sam Olsen and Dominic Mazotti, Cordiero has as much or more weapons at his disposal than before; meaning more big plays are expected.
The portal also looks to have helped harden the offensive line with freshman James McNorton from Washington State, Marist Talavou from Utah and Malik Williams from Wyoming to join seniors Jaime Navarro and Tyler Ostrom and a slew of other young and quite promising prospects under OL coach Josh Oglesby.
When it gets down to it, the Spartans need to be better than the 20-points-per game average in 2021. For reference, the conference leaders were all around 30-points-per game last season.
Reasons for concern:
Last year, the lack of a big passing game was a weakness without receivers Bailey Gaither (now with the Ravens) and Tre Walker. This year, it’s the running game.
Senior Kairee Robinson is the leader (280 yards in 2021, 313 yards in 2020) followed by junior Shamar Garrett and Kenyon Sims. From there, things drop off considerably, but only in the sense of lots of young, burgeoning, unproven talent under RB coach Alonzo Carter.
Carter’s done a great job getting and keeping the running game well above a 100-yards-per-game average (2020 saw a 132.5 yards per game average. 2021 was at 120.5 yards.) With a generally smaller backfield, there’ll be heavy reliance on the offensive line to help keep pace for another 100-yard-per game running game average in 2022.
The onus is on Carter’s running back corps to at least minimally compliment the offense; meaning first-down short yardage and goal line consistency and “minimally” meaning keeping the defense second guessing because of a confident run game.
Beside the big stats to minimize, a more subtle stat to increase is to be better than 33% on third and fourth down conversions last year, which means the offense is staying on the field longer and is a sign of a well-rounded offense too.
When Robinson gets a head of steam, he’s a punishing running back. Like a good dunk in basketball, it’s motivating and exciting to see. If Robinson can get some initial open space, even as a receiver, he’ll be a big gold nugget this season. A wildcard prediction: 500+ rushing yards for Robinson.
Reasons for optimism:
On paper, then during spring practice and the spring scrimmage, the entire defensive line looked good.
Flushed with a few pre-season accolades like last year, DEs Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko are the edge anchors expected to cause havoc. This benefits everyone between Hall and Fehoko from Soane Toia and Noah Lavulo to Jay Kakiva, Noah Wright and Lando Grey - each capable to cause big disruptions.
Hall is also the face of the Spartan defense with NFL aspirations rightly in his sights:
- Preseason Mountain West Co-Defensive Player of the Year
- Preseason All-Mountain West
- Third Team Athlon Preseason All-Mountain West Defense
“I really do my absolute best not to think about all of this,” said Hall on if there’s added pressure in his last season. “Nothing changes with what I have to do in practice or game days, so I really try not to think about it.”
The calm, cool and collected Hall also shared his basic philosophy and thought process on football and life.
“With football, it’s more of a day-by-day approach,” said Hall. “I try to attack each day as best I can and I try to stay away from using a marker or comparison to see how far I’m away from something. So, I mostly go out and try to have great days and have as many of those as I possibly can.”
The certainty of more great days and a great life are even better assured with his recent engagement announcement (three cheers!).
And...we can’t forget about no-nonsense Kyle Harmon at linebacker. 133 tackles last year (third best in the nation). Pre-season all Mountain West. Harmon is expected to unleash hell.
Reasons for concern:
Can they pass cover better as a unit than last season?
Flanking Harmon at linebacker are upperclassmen Jordan Cobbs, Dion Leonard, Alii Matau, Rico Tolefree and Rahyme Johnson. Leading the secondary is solid safety Tre Jenkins who had 72 tackles last season and CB Nehemiah Shelton with 62 tackles in 2021.
Once upon a time, teams use to run at will on the Spartans. It’s been a reverse scenario where teams know that isn’t the case any more, so they’ll scheme to pass and to keep the aggressive Spartan defensive off balance.
Run stop-wise, SJSU was fourth best in the conference in 2021 allowing 135.2 yards rushing. Pass defense was ranked ninth last year giving up 236.1 yards against. In addition, the Spartans were giving up more big pass plays and more 300+ yards of total offense against.
The question is if the Odum defense can play the chess game well-enough to counter the counters. With nine returning starters for Odum, this is where the players’ collective experience and intelligence must pay off.
The easy one is the lack of interceptions most folks talk about. There were “only” six last year, but in the 2020 championship season, consider there were only three picks made.
The defense will shine brighter if their linebackers can cover and the secondary can play penalty-free defending the pass. So again, it’s those subtle stats that only show up when things are bad.
Based on Odum’s multi-look 3-4 defense with a base of three down linemen, it really is a guise for anything and everything, thus again, success is greatly assisted by the real-time defensive brains on the field and if they’ve studied up well each week.
It would be a surprise if the Spartan defense is not better than last year. That said, one name seems to stick out: freshman linebacker Justin Ecklund should get some playing time as the season progresses. He is potentially in the light of a Harmon and former Spartan Frank Ginda.
Reasons for optimism:
Place kicker Taren Schive comes to mind first. Last year as a freshman, his kickoff performance was solid. Schive is also expected to pickup field goal kicking duties. The slender 6-foot sophomore is a powerful kicker. His potential to enhance scoring is very good, but the competition is still open in fall camp.
“All six kids are really good,” said analyst and special teams assistant Fred Guidici. “You can see they really like each other, support each other, and are coaching each other up.”
The snappers, kickers and punters over the years have been a mainstay for San Jose State.
“Since 2012 or so, we’ve had kicking success with the likes of Austin Lopez, Harrison Waid, Michael Carrizosa, Bryce Crawford, Alex Galland, Matt Mercurio, and Will Hart, but we’ll see who wins it this year,” said Guidici.
Reasons for concern:
The kick return game was average last season. Garrett led the way last year, but was prone to fumble and actually gave way to other returners last year. All said, the return game should still be no less than average this year, because Guidici and linebacker and special teams coordinator Scott White won’t let it.
“Seeing things through Scott’s eyes, he a great coach and teacher for these kids,” said Guidici on fifth-year Spartan coach White. “So, we’ll have a good year with special teams, because Scott helps us grow and gets us through the process well, including for myself. I really love him and I even see him being a head coach some day.”
2022 Regular Season Schedule
|Thu., Sept. 1||vs. Portland State||7:30 PM|
|Sat., Sept. 10||@ Auburn||4:30 PM||ESPNU|
|Sat., Sept. 24||vs. Western Michigan||7:30 PM||CBSSN|
|Sat., Oct. 1||@ Wyoming||4:30 PM||CBSSN|
|Fri., Oct. 7||vs. UNLV||7:30 PM||CBSSN|
|Sat., Oct. 15||@ Fresno State||TBD|
|Sat., Oct. 22||@ New Mexico State||TBD|
|Sat., Oct. 29||vs. Nevada||7:30 PM||CBSSN|
|Sat., Nov. 5||vs. Colorado State||TBD|
|Sat., Nov. 12||@ San Diego State||TBD|
|Sat., Nov. 19||@ Utah State||TBD|
|Sat., Nov. 26||vs. Hawaii||12:30 PM|
ESPN power index has the Spartans winning 5.8 games with a 1% chance to win the conference. Our MWC worst case foretells a 7-5 record considering the relative roster strength and favorable insights. Even with the Covid parity effect still around the conference, this familiarity should be an advantage to a worthy staff.
Best Case Scenario:
After the second game of the season, we’ll have a good barometer to what kind of Spartan team we have this year. How well they beat Portland State to how well they lose to the Auburn Tigers should be telling. With a spectrum of extremes in just the first two games, we’ll see how well everyone works together.
Regardless, every single game is its own entity.
If all’s well and without going too overboard, an 8-4 record is within the realm of reason in a best case. This means conference wins over UNLV, Wyoming, Hawaii, Nevada, Colorado State, AND San Diego State. Beating the Aztecs isn’t such a stretch looking back at the last three years; (even in the new Snapdragon Stadium this year), and given the emotional intensity feels highest against the Aztecs.
The best case scenario will also come from beating one other team you’re not supposed to. The Fresno State rivalry was non-existent last year. It’s something to bet on this year to be part of a re-validating away win. This game is also right at the middle of the season and can be telling for the remainder of the season just like the San Diego State game last year.
Now, if the Spartans can overcome Bulldog QB all-star Jake Haener, getting to the conference title game is also within reason. Stopping short of calling an actual conference title for the Spartans because of cowardice or a little healthy skepticism for this writer is reasonable considering the contenders on the Mountain side of things.
Worst Cast Scenario:
Any losing record is bad considering the overall makeup of this 2022 roster. Even a .500 record would be looked upon as disappointing, though just a few years back, it would have been a breakthrough. It goes to show where the program is at this point.
What’s Likely to Happen?
The one game difference from worst to best case is obviously thin. In trying to be pragmatic, it also shows what kind of pressure and parity is out there.
We’ll be a bit bolder this time and say an 8-4 season happens, because the old gut feels it better than past years for some reason and the transfer portal factor and all the blending of existing experience, young talent and transfers will be handled well with the veteran San Jose State coaching staff.
“Whenever you’re dealing with such a big group of people, and new people, there’s always different personalities, thought processes and ways to go about things,” said Brennan on the challenges of dealing with even more tight competition. “Some guys learn differently and work differently. As I’ve said, we’re always trying to keep it healthy for growth and keeping it together all the time.”
Behind the scenes, it’s worth mentioning, there’s also a Jeff Konya effect driving the university’s effort towards success like never before. The athletic-director-force-of-nature is on a mission and everything football is the spearhead he’s going to sharpen one way or the other. Like an NFL owner to GM to head coach, Konya is a quality GM equivalent, and looking across all other Spartan sports, Konya’s cadre is already pushing the needle with everything moving up and forward. It’s all part of the pressure of creating and sustaining viable college programs.
But to cap off this year’s preview on a lighter note, Guidici’s says it best when asked of his take on things: “I’ve never had a job in my life! It’s been so fun being around football for the last 33 years for me and I’m sure for all our coaches too. It’s just been outstanding and such a blessing to be here at San Jose State.”