San Jose State finished the 2015 season 6-7 after beating Georgia State in the AutoNation Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla., 27-16 on Dec. 19. Entering its fourth season with Ron Caragher as head coach, the team has many changes in store as it seeks to improve further on this bowl-winning season.
Shortly before the bowl game, defensive coordinator Greg Robinson announced that he would retire after the game. Robinson began his coaching career in 1975 and was in his second season as the Spartans’ defensive coordinator. Also, many leading players from the 2015 season have graduated, including running back Tyler Ervin, defensive back Jimmy Pruitt, and offensive lineman Wes Schweitzer. What are the key areas of the team that fans should observe, in projecting the team’s path in 2016?
1. Major defensive coaching shakeup
Following the retirement of Greg Robinson, FootballScoop reported that two other defensive coaches will not be retained for the following season: defensive line coach James Jones and outside linebackers coach Joe Staab. These two coaches have been with the program since Caragher’s first season in 2013. Since then, San Jose State’s run defense has consistently allowed five yards per rushing attempt and over 200 rushing yards per game. Because this weakness has not been resolved in three seasons, a major change in the defensive coaching staff was fitting and bound to happen.
Meanwhile, defensive backs coach and recruiting coordinator Donte Williams emerges as a top candidate for defensive coordinator, according to Jimmy Durkin of the San Jose Mercury News. The Spartan secondary has ranked among the best in passing yards allowed and passing efficiency in Division I FBS during Williams’ tenure. Caragher seems determined to keep Williams on staff, as Williams has made San Jose State a leader in Mountain West recruiting. Williams has applied for coaching positions at North Texas and Texas Tech. The best way to do so, with Robinson’s retirement, would be to promote Williams to defensive coordinator.
Jon Sumrall, the current DC at Tulane, could also potentially succeed Robinson. Sumrall’s ties to Caragher date back to 2003, when Sumrall played at Kentucky as linebacker when Caragher was an assistant there. Later, they worked together as assistant coaches at Kentucky, and Sumrall was a defensive line coach at San Diego from 2007 to 2012 during Caragher’s tenure as San Diego head coach.
2. Quarterback competition
Kenny Potter might have led the Spartans to the bowl victory, but nothing is guaranteed in life, especially being a Division I starting quarterback. After four straight games with eight touchdowns and no interceptions, Potter’s passing game took a step back in the last two games of the season, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Also, Potter passed for just 89 yards in the Cure Bowl, after having passed for over 300 yards in both the Hawaii and Boise State games. Come March, the senior Potter will be competing against four other quarterbacks: fellow seniors Malik Watson and Mitch Ravizza, sophomore JC transfer Sam Allen, and walk-on sophomore Josh Love. It remains to be seen if Potter plays well enough through spring and fall camps to keep his starting position or loses his job to one of these less experienced quarterbacks. Among them, Watson has the most experience, having played in three games as a backup in 2015.
3. A mature offensive unit
The team is expected to return an experienced nine of eleven offensive starters. Four of this year’s offensive line starters will be juniors in 2016: Jeremiah Kolone at left guard, Keoni Taylor at center, Chris Gonzalez at right guard, and Nate Velichko at right tackle. Quarterback Kenny Potter, tight end Billy Freeman, fullback Shane Smith, and wide receivers Tim Crawley and Tyler Winston will be seniors.
The left tackle and running back positions have become open for competition, with the graduations of Wes Schweitzer and Tyler Ervin. Next season, Ervin’s starting spot could most likely go to junior Thomas Tucker, sophomore Malik Roberson, or senior Jarrod Lawson. Tucker rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns this season, and Roberson rushed for 98 yards and often helped convert first downs. Lawson showed much promise as a walk-on freshman in 2013 with 788 rushing yards and four touchdowns. However, suspensions and injuries limited his playing time in 2014 and 2015.
Those competing for left tackle include senior Kyle Wright, who played three games in 2015 in relief of Schweitzer. Senior Evan Sarver, who played as a reserve in all 13 games last year, could also compete for this position, as he played left tackle in high school.
4. Recruiting in the trenches
Offensive and defensive line disadvantages doomed San Jose State in the 30-7 loss to San Diego State on homecoming night. Donte Williams has done a great job recruiting skill position players, but the San Diego State game showed how line play matters as well. With National Signing Day coming up on Feb. 3, the verbal commit list shows much promise for more lineman depth. On the week of the Cure Bowl, San Jose State scored seven commits including three JUCO front-seven players, Chibu Onyeukwu (Contra Costa) and Sitiveni and Suliasi Tamaivena (Mt. San Antonio), as well as defensive end Dante Abono out of Alhambra (Calif.) High School. These commits are in addition to six high school line position commits.
Onyeukwu and the Tamaivena twins will provide much-needed depth to the defensive line, especially with the graduations of starting defensive tackle Tony Popovich and backups Nate Falo and Cedric Lousi and to supplement the possible returning starters who will be juniors or seniors, like Nick Oreglia, Christian Tago, and Isaiah Irving.