With spring, there is always a sense of optimism in the air (as well as a high pollen count). The dark days of winter have come to an end; the weather becomes comfortably warm, and the burst of colorful foliage puts most people in a much better frame of mind.
Thus is the case with college spring football practice, which, in and of itself, has become a highly anticipated annual occurrence all across the nation. Without the stress of the season starting just around the corner, spring football practice is a time for players and coaches to shake off the cobwebs, hone their skills, and dream of great things to come by the end of the current year.
Spartan Football is no exception to this rule. Each spring, be it following a great season, or a disappointing one, the focus is always looking brightly towards the future. But, is it justified, or even realistic? For SJSU, the answer looks to be yes. The biggest question mark going into the '02 season has been," Can the Spartans play defense?" After reviewing the recently completed spring drills, it appears they just might have themselves the beginning of a respectable defensive unit. If the offense can come close to last year's late season success, the '02 Spartan squad could possibly post a winning WAC conference record.
No one doubts the Achilles Heel of last season's defense was the line. For the '02 Spartan defense to be successful, the D-line must get bigger, and faster. Redshirt JC transfer Adonis Forrest, at 6-3 294 lbs, will bring the size, and perhaps the skills to play physical on the inside. Unfortunately, due to a minor injury, Forrest was limited to non-contact drills in the practice session that I attended, and he did not see action in the Spring Game.
Joining Forrest on the inside is returning senior Mike Beams, who appears to be a team favorite. Other newcomers to the defensive line are JC transfers Jason Gustus (6-0 298), Dorsey Mitchell (6-4 327) and freshman Matt Cantu (6-2 300). The new lineman I like a lot is redshirt freshman end Justin James (6-3 237). He shows good speed on the outside, can drop back into pass coverage, and has some of the longest arms I've ever seen. Look for Mr. James to knock down a number of passes before his career is over.
Also at DE are returning players Chip Kimmich and converted TE Ethan Allen. Both of these players should be much improved. Make no bones about it, though, Adonis Forrest is the key, and must come through, in order for the Spartans to be successful. With All-American JUCO DT Eddie Brown joining the team in the fall, the Spartans could have two dominators plugging up the middle. Brown, however, needs to become academically eligible between now and August 31st. Should he fall short of that task, all eyes will be on Forrest.
Once another week spot, this is now a team strength. The linebacker position is in good hands with two players who both took medical redshirts last season. Luke LaHerren looks to be returning to his starting role, and Paul Okumu will join him in the middle. Okumu is fiery, shows great leadership skills, and always seems to be around the ball. Another newcomer, who should see a lot of action this coming season, is Philip Perry. Perry (6-1 239), who is cousin to Michael Dean and William "The Refrigerator" Perry, comes to SJSU from Cerritos College. Sophomore Mike Liranzo (6-2, 220) saw a lot of action in the spring, and could become one of the surprises in'02. I like what I see in the linebacker corps, and if freshman Tremaine Towns can contribute this season, all the better.
The defensive backfield lacks a lot of experience, but shows some real promise. Returning CB's Kevin Boyer, Melvin Cook and Carlos Koustas (who redshirted in '01) are the veterans of the unit, but look for CB Shaun Fletcher to have a big season. The top newcomer appears to be Ashanti Davison. It looks like junior Gerald Jones, by virtue of his two INT's in the Spring Game, has nabbed one of the starting safety spots. In order to solidify the entire unit, Zack Rance needs to find a way to stay healthy this fall (although, CJ Arnold, who also had an interception in the Spring Game, is ready in the wings).
Overall the defense appears to be much improved, but still must work hard during the off-season conditioning program. With the addition of a couple of key players due in the fall, SJSU's defensive woes could begin to be a distant memory.
As has been the case the past two seasons, the '02 Spartan Offensive line will be huge. OT Tim Provost (6-6 286) is the lone returning starter, but what a starter. NFL scouts like Provost a lot. Joining Provost on the line is All-American JUCO transfer Justin Arrington (6-1 296) at LG, OT Jeff Gordon (6-4 279) and Joseph Hayes (6-4 300) at RG. LaMons Walker (6-3 296) anchors the line at the center position. There's ample size and depth for the offensive line as well with Kevin Israel (6-2 309), Charles DeHoney (6-2 294), and John Toensfeldt (6-8 293).
There is no question here, Marcus Arroyo is the number one guy. Real game experience is a premium in college football, and Arroyo has tons of it. Heading into the '02 season, there are probably only a handful of QB's in the entire nation who have seen as much playing time as Arroyo. Arroyo has always been a great practice QB, and has sometimes shown the same ability in a number of games during his career. He must show more consistency early on this fall. Watching him from the sidelines now, I'm struck by his improved arm strength. He appears to have a lot more zip on his throws. He knows he's "The Man" and seems comfortable in that role. The real battle this past spring has been for the number two spot. It would appear Scott Rislov may have stepped into that position. Rislov, though, had two passes picked off during the Spring Game, so look for Beau Pierce to push him hard in August.
With Deonce Whitaker and Jarmar Julian gone, the once powerful Spartan Ground Attack is in question. This is the area of the team that seemed to be most lacking this spring. Missing from the spring drills was exciting TB Lamar Ferguson. "Little Ferg" should be in uniform this fall. We're going to need him. Clarence Cunningham runs hard, and has some speed, but needs to be more explosive. Lance Martin ran for 50 yards in 9 carries in the Spring Game, but may not be the starter come August. Look for JUCO transfer RB's Rayvon Johnson and Oscar Riggs to get into the mix in August. Also, not to be forgotten, is the arrival this fall of freshmen I'Lario Vital and Trestin George.
Just as with the RB position, the WR's seemed to be missing something. Oh yeah! I know what it is, it's All-Amercian JUCO transfer Kendrick Starling! He was in attendance for the spring drills, but in street clothes, as he has not yet enrolled at SJSU. The top dog at the WR position is Charles Pauley. He catches, runs, throws, and does all three very well. Clearly he is the leader of the receiving corps. Tuati Wooden will see a lot of playing time this year. Rufus Skillern is another who can put up some numbers for us. The star in the making for the Spartans however is 6-7 TE Courtney Anderson. Mark my words; he'll play on Sundays.
One area I have no concern about (barring injury) is the kicking game. Returning punter Michael Carr is one of the WAC's best, and PK Nick Gilliam, who was 5-5 in the Spring Game, including a 53 yard blast, seems to have found the accuracy to go long with his leg strength.
All in all, I was most pleased with what I saw this past spring. Not only does the defense seem to be greatly improved, but also the overall team has a good foundation in which to build from. Once additional key players arrive in the fall, and the competition for starting positions heats up, things are going to be exciting. The coaching staff seems to be well organized. The drills were very fast paced, and there's a lot of enthusiasm by both players and coaches.
There must be something in the air. Ah yes! It's springtime!
SJSdude "If you don't have dreams, you've got nightmares."