If you’ve already grown numb to the preseason drama surrounding the 49ers’ receiving corps, or are in need of something — anything — to take your mind off the abysmal summer of Giants baseball, rejoice: this week blesses us with college football.
And who better to kick things off in the Bay Area than the defending Military Bowl champion San Jose State Spartans, a team looking to prove 2012 wasn’t a fluke? A preview of their first game and opponent Sacramento State probably isn’t worth the time; here’s all you need to know: The Spartans open as 33.5-point favorites over the Hornets. While Sacramento State isn’t a pushover by FCS standards (they defeated Colorado last year and opened 2011 with a victory over Oregon State in Corvallis), it stands to reason that a team returning many of the players that took it to an 11-win season last year should handle business decisively at home against the Hornets on Thursday night.
5. SJSU needs to establish a consistent run game
The Spartans actually had a decent ball-carrier last year in De’Leon Eskeridge, who rushed for over 1,000 yards but graduated to a free agent contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Overall though, the run game was lacking through most of the season, accounting for only 113.5 yards per game (in the Military Bowl the Spartans actually had negative rushing yards). The offense relied heavily on the passing game, which probably won’t suffice as they take on tougher defenses in their new conference.
Perhaps their most explosive player, Tyler Ervin, is solidified as the featured back in 2013. But at 180 pounds and already coming off an injury plagued 2012, he probably can’t be counted on to be a workhorse each week, and he won’t be much of a threat on the goal line. Not to mention he’ll be returning kicks and punts. His primary backup, Jason Simpson, has better size (6 foot, 207 pounds), but the senior has less than 100 rushing yards in his career. JC transfer Alvin Jelks will probably need to live up to his all-state hype right away.
4. They must overcome keys losses
During spring camp, it didn’t look like too tall an order to replace some of the graduating seniors that had big roles in the team’s success last year. Tight end Ryan Otten and his backup Peter Tuitoupou looked to be the biggest void, as there is only one catch in an actual game amongst the tight ends currently on the roster. As it is, freshman Billy Freeman appears to have taken the starting role.
They also need to replace perhaps the greatest pass rusher in school history, Travis Johnson, although they seem to have enough depth and experience to hand those duties to several players. The aforementioned running back situation merits attention, and some starting DBs graduated but might actually be replaced by younger players with more talent. The offensive line returns mostly intact, save for the man who guarded David Fales’ blindside, David Quessenberry (drafted in the sixth round by Houston).
Now there is the problem of replacing injured starters. Outside linebacker and All-WAC performer Vince Buhagiar is presumed lost for the season. Free safety Damon Ogburn will likely miss the start of the season, forcing coach Ron Caragher to move some true freshmen into more prominent roles at that position. Reshirt freshman Christian Tago, the presumed starter at inside linebacker (and the guy who apparently forced the senior Buhagiar to the outside) missed the fall scrimmage and his status is up in the air at the moment.
In the past, all of these concerns would have been an early nail-in-the-coffin for the Spartans. Now in their second season with a full 85 scholarships and after several seasons of solid recruiting, it adds a little intrigue to go with concern. Several young players are going to have to step up, and if they rise to the occasion it bodes very well for the team next year and beyond.
3. Adapting to the 3-4
Its a common theme for the Spartans this offseason: Caragher came in and swapped out the 4-3 alignment San Jose State ran the last few years, had quite a few players switch positions (some players even found out the switch would relegate them to the offense) and now the Spartans have to hope they’ve mastered it enough, and been coached up enough, for their defense to keep up in the quarterback rich Mountain West.
Four-year starter Keith Smith (linebacker) and cornerback Bene Benwikere, who finished second in the nation in interceptions in 2012, provide much needed stability. Defensive lineman Travis Raciti, one of the best interior linemen in the nation, has to adjust to new responsibilities but is talented enough that it shouldn’t be a problem. With many players adjusting to new roles within the linebacking corps, the Spartans need to work out the kinks quickly (Stanford awaits them in Week 2).
2. Handle business at home
The Spartans have, on paper, the tougher division in the Mountain West as Fresno State, San Diego State and Nevada all reside in the West, and all are considered legitimate contenders for the conference title. Fortunately, they might have lucked into the most favorable schedule of any team in that division.
Both Fresno State and San Diego State come to Spartan Stadium, as does Utah State, the only team considered a threat to Boise State in the Mountain division. Speaking of the Broncos, the Spartans avoid them during the regular season and would only play Boise State in the conference title game. They get Navy at home late in the season, and their toughest road game (and opponent period) is a 20 minute ride away at Stanford. They have to ride out a September with only one home game, and after traveling to Hawaii on October 5th, they’ll turn around and head off to Colorado State the following week. Fortunately, neither opponent appears to be all that daunting this year.
The Spartans round out the regular season with three of their last four games at home, and need to take advantage of that.
1. Keep David Fales safe and sound
I could go on about how Fales needs to have a stellar follow-up season after leading the nation in passing completion last year, but after seeing how well his offseason went and how on-point he looked in the Spartans’ fall scrimmage, I’m convinced he’s primed for an encore performance. The only concern is the ever present possibility that he could fall prey to injury.
Fales showed off his toughness last year when Utah State pummeled him to the tune of 13 sacks, and he still threw for 467 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. We know he can handle pressure, and having four returning starters on the line is a positive, but losing your best lineman–who happened to be the left tackle–is always cause for concern. Add in the fact the Spartans will face better defenses week in and week out, not the least of which will be a Stanford defense hellbent on making sure San Jose State doesn’t play them as close as they did in 2012, and you have a tougher overall task for the offensive line this year.
The fact is the line, along with everyone else, needs to be even better in 2013 than they were in an 11-win campaign the year before. If they can do that, eight or more wins is a real possibility, as is a conference championship game appearance.
***If you’re interested in following even the mundane, daily news surrounding SJSU football this season feel free to check out my blog as well***