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San Jose State football hopes it’s found its own version of P.J. Fleck

The Spartans have already recruited like Fleck, but it hasn’t amounted to much yet.

Oregon State v Stanford

Ahh, memories. From two years ago:

On February 4, the San Jose State Spartans and head coach Ron Caragher signed a recruiting class that ranked 57th, according to the 247Sports Composite.

San Jose State! A team that ranked 116th in the F/+ rankings and faded late, inked the second-best mid-major class, better than Western Michigan's and nearly better than Boise State's!

So how quickly can one great class make a difference? At WMU, the answer was "very quickly!" But can a bunch of freshmen fix some serious explosiveness issues? Can freshmen and a couple of JUCOs shore up an iffy front seven?

We toss around words like "upside," but there's no question that San Jose State will have a lot more of it in 2015 and beyond.

From a pure ratings standpoint, it was the kind of recruiting class that P.J. Fleck rode to a 13-0 start at Western Michigan in 2016. It was the type of class that Boise State uses to build the deepest depth charts in the Mountain West.

It was only one class, and it was a bit of a house of cards. Some members either didn’t qualify or took a while to.

Still, in 2016, the lineup included...

  • a senior quarterback who’d led the Spartans to their fifth bowl win the year before.
  • a four-star running back backed up by a mid-three-star back.
  • a seasoned No. 1 receiver and sophomores who were four- and mid-three-star recruits.
  • five offensive linemen starting for at least the second year.
  • two senior defensive ends who would combine for 22 tackles for loss.
  • a secondary that featured two mid-three-star juniors and a four-star junior.

That’s a combination of experience and recruiting that a mid-major doesn’t compile often.

With this lineup, San Jose State went 4-8, and Caragher was fired. The Spartans ranked 100th in Off. S&P+ and 112th in Def. S&P+. The Spartans were miserable until November, and when they began to improve, it was too late.

Recruiting is step one. It is only the first few miles of a journey that includes the Player Development River and the Tactics Trail, but getting through recruiting with interesting tools makes you more likely to succeed overall. And it jazzes up the fan base.

You still have to nail a lot of other steps, though. Caragher didn’t, so now it’s Brennan’s turn.

Nobody else is P.J. Fleck, but SJSU is hoping Brennan’s Fleck-like enthusiasm provides a shot in the arm. Basically any article about Brennan uses the word “energy” approximately 4,000 times. (Here’s an example.)

The 44-year-old former UCLA receiver is regarded as an enthusiastic recruiter, and he has California ties and SJSU-specific experience. He was Dick Tomey’s recruiting coordinator, eventually working his way to offensive co-coordinator in 2009. When Mike Macintyre took over, he remained on as receivers coach before taking the same job at Oregon State.

Brennan has spent most of his career as either a receivers coach, recruiting coordinator, or both. His single year as co-coordinator is his only experience at that level, and now he takes the reins of a program. It always feels risky when you’re asking a guy to skip a rung or two.

Still, Fleck and WMU proved it can work. Will it for the Spartans? And even if it does, can it work with what Brennan is inheriting — high-caliber, unproven athletes in the skill positions, major experience on the offensive line and in the secondary, and a brand new quarterback — or, like Fleck, will he have to strip the house down to the studs?


2016 in review

2016 SJSU statistical profile.

My 2016 San Jose State preview was a swing-and-miss. I declared the Spartans were “a couple of ifs from nine or 10 wins.”

If a big-play threat emerges on offense and a young secondary gels, SJSU could end up ranked in the 70s or so with a chance at about 9-3. If the offense is still too reliant on efficiency and the pass defense regresses too much, the Spartans could slip into the 100s and go 4-8.

I at least nailed it with the latter scenario. The passing game produced a few big plays, but the run game produced none, and the pass defense slipped from 45th in Passing S&P+ to 83rd. More importantly, SJSU waited two-thirds of the season to show the promise I thought it had.

SJSU vs. Vegas
  • First 8 games (2-6): Avg. percentile performance: 23% | Avg. score: Opp 37, SJSU 22 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.7, SJSU 5.2 (minus-1.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-9.4 PPG
  • Last 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 39% | Avg. score: Opp 31, SJSU 29 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, SJSU 5.6 (minus-0.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-11.5 PPG

Neither the offense nor defense were good, but SJSU played at a top-80 level or so over the last few weeks, winning close games over UNLV and Fresno State and dropping competitive games to Boise State and Air Force.

Had the Spartans established that level earlier, they could have maybe eked out six wins and another bowl berth and saved Caragher’s job. Instead, a series of egg-layings — most notably a 34-17 home loss to Hawaii — did the Spartans in.


Offense

SJSU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

When Charlie Strong brought Sterlin Gilbert to Texas last year to save his offense, the 37-year-old son of the air raid brought a younger brother of sorts, 27-year-old receivers coach Andrew Sowder. When the experiment failed, Gilbert followed Strong to USF, and Sowder got a call from Brennan and headed west.

(As fate would have it, SJSU opens the season against ... USF.)

Sowder was a student assistant at Baylor early in Art Briles’ tenure and ended up following Dino Babers to Eastern Illinois in 2012 and Bowling Green in 2014. Every coach has his own spin on things, but we can make some assumptions. SJSU is probably going to play with extreme tempo, spread the field as wide as it can, and try to create quick reads for its quarterback.

When you’ve got the right pieces, the Briles/Babers offense is almost untouchable. So let’s start counting the pieces.

NCAA Football: San Jose State at Iowa State
Justin Holmes
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
  • Receiver Justin Holmes. The junior is SJSU’s No. 1 returning receiver, and he’s exciting. He combined a 51 percent success rate with a lofty average of 15.7 yards per catch. He was a two- or three-catches-per-game guy last year, but he erupted for six and 106 yards against Boise State.
  • Receiver Tre Hartley. More of an all-or-nothing threat, he averaged 17.3 yards per catch and was a difference maker in three wins. He caught a combined 14 balls for 273 yards and three touchdowns in the victories over Portland State, Nevada, and UNLV.
  • Running backs Malik Roberson and Zamore Zigler. The duo averaged 5.2 yards per carry as backups to Deontae Cooper with questionable efficiency (only 35 percent of carries gained at least five yards) and excellent explosiveness. Both are former three-star recruits, as is incoming freshman Tyler Nevens.
  • Receiver Rahshead Johnson. The former four-star was big early (two catches for 75 yards against Tulsa) and late (four for 72 against Air Force) and, at 5’11 and 169 pounds, appears to be a slot prototype.
  • Young receivers Bailey Gaither, JaQuan Blackwell, Billy Humphreys, Antwaun Ayres, and maybe Jeremy Kelly. All are former three-stars, and aside from Kelly, all are sophomores or younger. Kelly was listed as a safety but now as a receiver.
  • Six offensive linemen with 125 combined career starts. SJSU ranked in the 80s and 90s in basically every line stat last year, so this experience doesn’t come from an amazing line, but it’s experience.
NCAA Football: Air Force at San Jose State
Malik Roberson
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of explosive backs, an experienced line, and a deep receiving corps? For an offense that works quickly and distributes the ball to a lot of weapons, that’s a strong list of assets. There’s just one thing I didn’t mention: a quarterback.

That’s not to say there aren’t candidates. Sophomore Josh Love, redshirt freshman Montel Aaron, and true freshman Terrell Carter are all former three-stars, and another true freshman, Ryan Johnson, is a 6’4 prospect who nearly hit a three-star rating as well.

Love got a head start by backing up Kenny Potter last year, but he didn’t nail his audition. Filling in against Utah and Iowa State, he completed just 24 of 48 passes, averaging a decent 14.1 yards per completion but throwing five interceptions.

Granted, that was against power-conference competition. Perhaps Love would have done fine against lesser defenses. Still, he entered spring with plenty to prove.


Defense

SJSU defensive radar

Brennan has adopted “Spartan Speed” as a catchphrase; he wants SJSU’s philosophy to be tempo on both sides of the ball. That explains the Sowder hire. To bring aggression and pace to the defense, Brennan brought along a co-worker.

Former Oregon State defensive backs coach Derrick Odum takes over a defense that has some rebuilding in areas of weakness but boasts one of the stickier pass defenses in the Mountain West.

Odum occupies branches on the June Jones (SMU, 2008-14), Kyle Whittingham (Utah, 2005-07), and, yes, Briles (Houston 2003-04) trees, which suggests he knows how to install an aggressive mindset. But one has to wonder if he’s got the pieces to turn that into production against the run. SJSU could be strong up the middle but shaky on the edges.

The backbone — defensive tackles, middle linebacker, safeties — could be excellent. Or at least, it will be experienced. Every tackle returns, including juniors Owen Roberts and Bryson Bridges, who combined for 14 tackles for loss and six sacks last year. Throw in junior linebacker Frank Ginda (11.5 TFLs) and safeties Maurice McKnight and Trevon Bierria (combined: two TFLs, 13 passes defensed), and that’s a good spine.

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Jose State
Bryson Bridges
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s top four defensive ends are gone, however, which means redshirt freshman Cameron Alexander — the star of Caragher’s 2016 recruiting class — needs to produce immediately. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure who will.

Meanwhile, Ginda is the only of the top three linebackers returning. Senior William Ossai saw time on the first string last year, but there’s probably a reason why Brennan signed three JUCO linebackers. Of the trio — Jamal Scott, Brando Phillips, Justin Parcells — at least one will need to become a disruptive contributor early on.

The Mountain West is loaded with run-happy teams, so the fact that the Spartans had a glitchy run defense and a good pass rush didn’t pay off. Now the pass rush has major question marks.

Maybe the secondary can pick up the slack. McKnight, Bierria, Ethan Aguayo, and Chad Miller are seasoned, exciting safeties, and senior corners Andre Chachere and Jermaine Kelly made quite a few plays to offset the plays they allowed last year. Because they had to play an extra role in run support, they got burned quite a bit on first down (passer rating: 171.9), but they were lights-out on third (103.2). They will be asked to do more with the rebuilt pass rush, but they might pull it off. If opponents ever have to pass.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at San Jose State
Frank Ginda
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Caragher left Brennan with a pretty solid special teams unit. Bryce Crawford is automatic inside of 40 yards, and Michael Carrizosa has a strong leg for both punting (44.3 average) and kickoffs (69 percent touchback rate). The return game wasn’t consistent, but in terms of both field position and finishing drives, SJSU should be able to do damage.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug South Florida 56 -11.7 25%
2-Sep Cal Poly-SLO NR 11.3 74%
9-Sep at Texas 16 -28.0 5%
16-Sep at Utah 45 -18.3 14%
23-Sep Utah State 73 -6.6 35%
30-Sep at UNLV 118 -0.1 50%
7-Oct Fresno State 115 4.3 60%
14-Oct at Hawaii 109 -1.8 46%
28-Oct at BYU 46 -18.1 15%
4-Nov San Diego State 52 -12.3 24%
11-Nov at Nevada 117 -0.4 49%
18-Nov at Colorado State 43 -18.5 14%
25-Nov Wyoming 80 -4.3 40%
Projected S&P+ Rk 105
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 105 / 99
Projected wins 4.5
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -11.6 (112)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 100 / 88
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -5.5
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 63% (51%, 76%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 3.4 (0.6)

Last year, I said SJSU was a couple of ifs away from a pretty big season. It was probably more like a few ifs, but the schedule appeared conducive to success.

This year, not so much. S&P+ projects the Spartans 105th, which could earn you a few wins in the MWC. But a brutal non-conference slate features trips to Texas, Utah, and BYU and a visit from USF, and S&P+ says SJSU has no better than a 25 percent chance in any of those games. The same goes for conference games against SDSU and Colorado State.

The schedule also features six relative tossups with win probability between 35 and 60 percent, but the Spartans might have to win all of them to reach bowl eligibility. Even if Brennan turns out to be SJSU’s Fleck, that’s probably not going to happen.

San Jose State is building for 2018, then. The Spartans will have rebuilding at cornerback and on the offensive line next year, but an abundance of sophomore and junior starters should make next year’s squad pretty dangerous.


Team preview stats

All preview data to date.