The Rant Sports 100 in 100 series makes another stop in California with a look at one of last year’s surprise teams, the San Jose State Spartans.
The Spartans finished 2012 with a bowl victory and an 11-2 record, tying the school record for wins in a season set way back in 1940. Not long ago, SJSU was more likely to see that “11” in the losses column, but former head coach Mike MacIntyre turned the team around with mind-boggling speed.
The program was 1-12 in MacIntyre’s first season; in his last, the team’s only losses were to Stanford and eventual conference champion Utah State.
MacIntyre was hired by Colorado this offseason to try to replicate the rapid success he had with the Spartans. His replacement, Ron Caragher, is a California boy who backed up Troy Aikman at UCLA and spent nine years as an assistant at his alma mater.
This isn’t the first time Caragher has had a tough act to follow as head coach. He replaced Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego when Harbaugh left for Stanford and posted a 44-22 record in six seasons at USD.
Caragher inherits an abundance of talent on both sides of the ball, but the team will need to adjust to a new coach and a new conference. After the Western Athletic Conference eliminated football, the Spartans joined the Mountain West, where they’ll face stiffer competition. Are they up for the challenge?
MacIntyre got the Spartans to 5-7 in 2011, but last year’s winning record was due in large part to quarterback David Fales. Fales transferred from Monterey Peninsula College, where he was a two-time first-team All-Coast quarterback, and became the most accurate passer at any FBS school in 2012.
The rising senior threw for 4,193 yards, with 33 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 72.5% completion percentage. He was in the top ten in the nation in passing yards, passing yards per game and touchdown passes, and he set seven SJSU single-season records.
Fales is attracting the attention of NFL scouts because of his incredible accuracy, but he was sacked 25 times last season. He’ll need to get better at avoiding pressure so he can stay upright and healthy throughout 2013.
Fales will be throwing to a very familiar receiving corps, led by senior Noel Grigsby, a two-time All-WAC receiver who tops the SJSU career list for receptions (227) and receiving yards (3,015) and senior Chandler Jones, who led the team with 11 receiving touchdowns in 2012.
The Spartans’ run game was poor (106th) but the team essentially lost its entire rushing attack with the graduation of 1,000-yard rusher De’Leon Eskridge. Eskridge had 207 carries for 1,026 yards and 11 touchdowns. The second and third-leading rushers combined for 88 carries and 379 yards. Junior Tyler Ervin is expected to become the new number one, but the rest of the backs will need to help provide more balance on offense.
Four of the five starting offensive linemen from 2012 return. All-WAC left tackle David Quessenberry, now with the Houston Texans, will likely be replaced by sophomore Wes Schweitzer. Right guard Nicholas Kaspar, another all-conference player, carries a 31-game starting streak into 2013, but the entire line needs to do more than just show up this season. They must be better at protecting their standout QB and helping the new running backs find holes.
Three of the top four tacklers from 2012 return, but defensive end Travis Johnson, the WAC’s all-time sacks leader and the conference defensive player of the year, is a huge loss.
Even with six returning starter, things will look different as the new coaching staff moves from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 system.
Senior linebackers Keith Smith and Vince Buhagiar, both All-WAC players, accounted for nearly 20 percent of the team’s total tackles in 2012 and will lead the defense this season, along with junior defensive tackle Travis Raciti and senior cornerback Bene Benwikere. Sophomore corner Jimmy Pruitt, who had eleven pass break-ups last season, moves into a starting role, and senior Damon Ogburn, Jr. will shift from corner to safety.
The Spartans don’t have to face Boise State in their first season in the MWC, and their toughest conference games — against Utah State, San Diego State, and Fresno State — are all at home.