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San Jose State Spartans 2023 season preview

Optimism, progress & concerns rolled into year seven of the Brennan era & the coach Carroll effect

SJSU QB Chevan Cordeiro at 2023 fall camp
photo by: Vic Aquino

Last season’s preview “safely” forecasted the Spartans to finish 8-4. They finished 7-5 in 2022 and remained in the conference championship run late into that season finishing second behind conference champions Fresno State in the west.

Other 2022 prognosticators predicted the Spartans in the upper middle class of the conference. And up to the middle of last season, SJSU was going like gangbusters, even temporarily convincing fans and non-fans they were the favorites to win the conference.

Then came a hard-fought physical rivalry game against Fresno where the Spartans loss 17-10. It’s a game that seemed to alter the momentum of the season going forward. Going 4-1 up to the point with three big double-digit wins before the Bulldogs, the Spartans had been dominating after they found their legs in a close opener win against Portland State and a “good loss” against Auburn.

Looking at last season as a whole, as in other seasons, there were moments in games that could have swung SJS’ way that would’ve easily output two more wins. It’s the old adage - the devil is in the details.

But still, SJSU’s expectation of success are generally agreed upon last season given the Spartans also reached a bowl game for the second time under head coach Brent Brennan; now in his seventh year.

This year has very similar winning vibe expectations even with a roster that’s younger, newer and more unknown than the previous six years with Brennan.

This year also has a unique spotlight on the conference as a whole given the Pac-4 flux and seemingly illogical realignment of conferences as a whole. The “rich getting richer” will face its own backlash down the line. The Mountain West is stronger and of more value than the experience of the experts supposedly know.


Reasons for optimism

The obvious is Chevan Cordeiro at quarterback in his final year. His overall trajectory has been nothing short of amazing and yet, there’s still a big goal on his mind to cap off his career. He’s said it numerous times: to win the conference championship.

Last season, Cordeiro’s career-high 3,251 passing yards, 23 TD passes and nine rushing touchdowns earned him the 2023 Mountain West preseason player-of-the year, among numerous other accolades. With 9,418 career passing yards, 68 TD tosses and 135..3 passer rating, he’ll have to get a pro look, especially, with another breakout year.

It also isn’t completely clear yet who Cordeiro’s go-to receiver will be, but it’s fair to say there’s a deep receiving corp available with Justin Lockhart, Charles Ross, Nick Nash and more, including a slew of wily veteran tight-ends.

Besides that obvious optimism, the quarterbacks are also the most robust it’s ever been. Ever. The likes of pro-style QBs Tyler Voss and Jay Butterfield leaves a very formidable bullpen for OC Kevin McGiven, though no one could replace Cordeiro’s quick feet and running vision.

SJSU QBs Walter Eget (5), Jay Butterfield (9), Tyler Voss (10), Anthony Garcia (16) & Chevan Cordeiro (2)
photo by: Vic Aquino

Observing the running backs through spring and the first few fall practices, this RB core has pop and bowling ball oomph led by senior Kairee Robinson. With Robinson’s 752 yards rushing and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2022, it would be a safe guess a 1,000 yard rushing goal in 2023.

Another backfield gem who can quickly bust out this season is recent transfer Quali Conley.

“All our backs - they’re all very physical,” said Robinson. “They’re all getting ready to go. It’s going to be exciting to be out here and exciting for the fans for sure.”

Exciting for the fans too given the new 55,000 square foot facilities making up the new eastern side of CEFCU Stadium. That major infrastructure could only be matched by the veteran offensive line infrastructure expected to be one of the best in the Mountain West.

“Coach Carroll is all about being prepared, making sure we show up ready to go from the weight room to the field,” said Robinson. “Having coach Carroll here definitely helps put me in a better spot to deliver.”

Reasons for concern

As with any team, there’s a high priority to keep players healthy and durable.

A recurring theme heard from coaches and players over the last year has been to get bigger and stronger so to last the entire season with gusto. The more subtle and collective “dings & nicks” can slow a player and team just a half-step enough to make all the difference in the world.

“All of us from the running backs, receivers and the entire defense feels more prepared than ever,” said Robinson. “I can’t completely explain it, except to say, coach Carroll”

Cullen Carroll is the new Head of Athletic Performance. Less than a year into the job coming from Stanford, Carroll’s approach and impact is near-immediate, as his is a name many players bring up.

“Like anything, it’s always coach-fed, but in the end, it has to be player-led to truly work,” said Carroll on the buy-in that’s taken place. “It’s been the coolest, fun thing to see in terms of what we teach and what they need to value and setting the standards for the players to operate in.”

Short of a dissertation, Carroll is immersed in the world of sports and physical science backed by nutritional science. How it’s all mixed, crafted and customized down to each position and position group is his and his staff’s science and art.

By now, you might sense an underlying theme of health and durability. Another case in point, looking at Cordeiro, he looks to have reached at least one of his mentioned off-season goals with notable added size.


Reasons for optimism

Weeks before the Mountain West media days last month, the ol’ gut said safety Tre Jenkins seems the obvious choice to represent the Spartan defense - not just because Jenkins is a senior who had 60 tackles and two INTs last season (72 tackles 2021 & 41 tackles in 2020). Jenkins body of work is also framed by power, intelligence, intimidation and a hyper competitiveness one sees and notices over the last few years.

Along with cohort Chase Williams in the defensive backfield, you have two perfect overseers and leaders of a young, active and rambunctious defense with depth.

The level of maturity is there with enough collective experience to fill in the gaps left by the Fehokos, Halls and Harmons of the world.

Reasons for concern

SJS has been known for solid linebackers of late. More noticeable this year than in others for some reason is the undersized LB corp. Though speed and athleticism abounds in an almost perfect split of upper and lower classmen, only three are well above 230 lbs, while the others hover between 200 and 220 lbs.

One linebacker firecracker is 6’1” 235 lb. Jordan Cobbs coming off a season-ending injury last year. Cobbs says he’s progressing well and is one of many players commending Carroll’s program to help get him right.

“The end goal of all the training and rehabbing we’re doing is to get everyone where they need to be and for all the coaches to see all of their athletic ability and potential,” said Carroll. “I need to get them healthy into and out of fall camp because it’s such a physical demand. It rivals anything they can see throughout the year.”

“We want them healthy for that November and December run and beyond,” added Carroll.

Before even considering the late season, the Spartans have an incredible onslaught the first-half of the season vs. USC, Oregon State, Air Force, Toledo and Boise State.

With this off-season, Carroll’s theme to be more durable echoes throughout the team.

Regardless of SJSU’s record at that midway point, if the Spartans can finish the second half of the season strong, that will still be another big program maturity point Brennan and Carroll can certainly hang their hat on.

“I’m already excited to see what the next off-season can look like and the year after that when from a cultural standpoint from class to class all the technical and fundamental understandings we’re trying to do is natural,” said Carroll. “That’s where we’ll see how this all truly progresses.”

SJSU TE Nate Lewis (89) & LB Jordan Pollard (10)
photo by: Vic Aquino

Special teams:

Reasons for optimism

The kicking and kick return aspects is as strong as it’s been in any of Brennan’s six seasons, but that’s relative, of course.

Former Hawaii kicker, 5’10” 183 lb. Kyler Holversen amps up the field goal game. His counterpart of nearly the same exact stature is Taren Schive, so there’s depth and experience there to not be a major concern.

The kick return game in general looks safe to say the least with several players in the fray and the attention to detail in terms of fortifying that aspect has been notable this fall.

Reasons for concern

As implied above, kicking certainly was not a strong suit last year. Every facet of the kicking game among the conference was at or near the very bottom in 2022. Stepping up this aspect up a few notches could be resolved with the addition of Holversen.



Best Case Scenario

In a possible tale of two seasons, the Spartans finish the onslaught of the first six games 4-2 with losses only to USC and a competitive loss to Boise State. That would mean SJSU is surely on a good, strong path. A second 4-2 set for the latter half of the season would only show losses to Fresno and San Diego State leaving an 8-4 overall record.

Worst Case Scenario

The first half of the season proves to be too much. The Spartans see the first half of their season at 1-5 with a slightly better second half of the season that sees more of their 2024 talent start to get more playing time. The second half of the season the Spartans go 3-3 with a final 4-8 record.

What’s probably going to happen

Conservatively, and looking across the rosters for at least the first six games, SJSU has the firepower to make a 3-3 first half of the season a reality. Combine that with an optimistic second half of the season, mainly because of the health & durability factor and Cordeiro finishes even stronger than last season, a 5-1 close out is most possible.

“We all had to get on the same page in short order with how I was going to coach with all my expectations,” said Carroll on the physical fortification. “When we turned that corner on how we’re going to train and push, the kids were all outstanding and I knew anything was certainly possible.”

So, what we’re saying is another route to an 8-4 season.

Final takeaway

Almost every teams’ roster is as cleansed out over the last six-seven years to the point a couple surprise teams may pop out and make all those pre-season predictions for naught; similar to the 2021 season with Utah State taking the conference cake.

The Spartans are upper-tier middle class in those 2023 pre-season polls; meaning many see Brennan’s program in the thick of things every season now, which was always one of Brennan’s most basic goals.

Ok. Ok. Ok. What’s the final takeaway?

As the MWC SJS writer, 8-4 is what this writer sees and feels. A step further than that is difficult to take, but based on the intangibles that Cordeiro will culminate his college career in his most ideal fashion and the new feisty roster will get better and stronger, the conference trophy could be within reach again in 2023.

photo by: Vic Aquino
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