Five Team Strengths For 2009

Inside Sparta continues its series of articles, leading up to the start of the 2009 season. Each article in the series covers five aspects of the team. Previously we looked at five questions that need answers before the season begins. In this edition we take a look at five areas of the team that we believe to be strengths.

1. Linebackers
Experience is a tremendous asset in any sport. The 2009 San Jose State linebacker corps is absolutely oozing experience. With 200 game appearances and 67 starts spread out among nine linebackers, there is good reason why Phil Steele's 2009 College Football Preview rated this unit as tops in the WAC. This year sees the return of all three starters from 2008, including last season's leading tackler, senior Travis Jones (37 games, 12 starts). Joining Jones are two of the top defensive players in the Western Athletic Conference. Senior Justin Cole (37 games 32 starts) was a Second Team All-WAC selection in 2008, and was recently rated one of the top 25 senior prospects by Junior Duke Ihenacho (22 games, 18 starts), playing the Rover position, was a 2008 First Team All-WAC selection. Returning to action after missing all of 2008 is Ryno Gonzalez (19 games, five starts), bringing with him the ability to play all of the linebacker positions. Senior Mohammed Marah (28 games, six starts) spent 2007 as a fullback (three starts) will be a key member of the rotation. Four underclassmen will provide ample back-up support, juniors Eric Bucholz (12 games), and Braden Storaasli (22 games); sophomores Wade O'Neill (10 games), and Kyler O'Neal (13 games). Ihenacho and Cole are already known as two of the top linebackers in the WAC. Look for Travis Jones to join them.

2. Wide Receivers
Not since the early 1990s, when San Jose State had their "Young Guns" receiving corps, has SJSU seen this much talent at the wide receiver position. Wide Receiver Coach Ken Margerum thinks this group is as talented overall as any he's been associated with. Last season's devastating loss of Kevin Jurovich to illness after two games has turned into a huge plus for this coming season. Jurovich was a Second Team All-WAC performer in 2007, when he caught 85 passes for 1183 yards and nine touchdowns. In the first two games of last season he was on pace to match his 2007 numbers (15 rec. 185 yards, One TD) before being sidelined. Jurovich brings superior hands, speed, and precise route running. Also returning, after missing a good portion of the 2008 season due to an ankle injury is Jalal Beauchman, who may be the most improved receiver on the roster. If spring practice is any indication, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Beauchman will give the Spartans a large target on third down pass plays. The loss of Jurovich and Beauchman in 2008 opened the door for two speedy young receivers to gain valuable playing time. Both sophomores, Mike Avila and Josh Harrison may be the two fastest players on the roster. As freshmen last season Avila appeared in 11 games, with one start, and Harrison started five of the 10 games that he appeared in. Highly touted junior college transfer Marquis Avery (6-4, 205) reminds many of former Spartan James Jones. Avery possesses not only the speed to pull away from defenders, but also the strength to go up and take balls away. The move of Terrance Williams to tight-end, after being the No. 3 receiver the previous two seasons is an indication as to how strongly the coaching staff feels about the group. Look out for true freshman Noel Grigsby to make his case for playing time as well.

3. Coaching Staff
Everyone knows about Dick Tomey's coaching history. He left both the Universities of Hawaii and Arizona with the most wins the their respective histories. He turned a floundering program at San Jose State into a bowl winner in two seasons, and has managed to keep the Spartans competitive each season after that. He has not done it alone. Looking over his current staff, one sees a number of coaches with experience in big time programs. Defensive Backs Coach Keith Burns, a former head coach at Tulsa, has worked at Arkansas and Southern California. He has recruited two players to San Jose State that are now in the NFL, and coached a third. Linebacker Coach Kent Baer as been a defensive coordinator for six Football Bowl Subdivision (Formerly D-1A) schools, including coaching one of the top defenses in the nation in 2002 while at Notre Dame. Offensive line coach Steve Morton has coached over a dozen players that have made it to the NFL. Quarterback coach Terry Malley, another former head coach, had one of the most successful offenses in the Arena Football League for several years. Nine players that have been coached by WR Coach Ken Margerum have played in the NFL. Running backs coach Charles Nash has proven to be a key recruiter, covering the Southern California area. Factoring young assistants like Brent Brennan, Kenji Green, and Ezekial Staples, and the addition of the afore mentioned Malley, Dick Tomey has built a very strong coaching staff, with a nice mix of veterans and talented young coaches.

4. Offensive Line Experience
In 2007, San Jose State's freshman offensive linemen had their baptisms under fire. Injuries to the veterans on that squad forced the Spartans to play with mostly freshmen throughout the season. Six freshmen saw game action that season, (seven if you count Ailao Eliapo who was then a defensive tackle) with four of them members of the starting unit at some point in the season. When the Spartans traveled to Boise State that year, the starting offensive line had three freshmen and a sophomore on it. Now with extensive game action under their belts, 2009 should be the year that those early growing pains begin to pay off. Senior center Ronnie Castillo(6-0, 292) has 18 games to his credit, with 15 starts. Junior guard Isaac Leatiota (6-4, 295) has 22 games and 19 starts. Junior Ailao Eliapo (6-2, 320) is regarded as one of the top linemen in the WAC, and started all 12 games last season, his first as an offensive lineman. Junior tackle Fred Koloto (6-3, 290) missed most of last season due to a back injury, but started eight games his freshman year. Senior tackle Jon Moreno (6-4, 276), a transfer from Cerritos College in 2007, has 14 starts over the 16 games that he has played for the Spartans. Junior tackle John Konye (6-4, 270) started 11 games last season, and played in 11 more his freshman year as a tight end. Massive senior guard Steve Lightsy (6-4, 370), also a JC transfer, appeared in every game last season. Junior center Robbie Reed (6-3, 290) has played in 13 games, with four starts. Suddenly, San Jose State's young, inexperienced offensive line has become a veteran unit that showed marked improvement over the spring. With a new found enthusiasm stemming from Offensive Coordinator Terry Malley, and solid coaching from veteran Steve Morton, this year's O-line should not be the issue it has been the past two seasons. With only two of the expected starters being seniors, things are really looking even brighter for 2010.

5. Safety
San Jose State's defensive secondary took a big hit from graduation. Gone are both starting cornerbacks (Coye Francies and Christopher Owens) from last year; both to the NFL. As a result, 2008 starting safety Devin Newsome will be switched back to corner. With the graduation of Kyle Flynn, the other starting safety in 2008, the Spartans will have two new starting safeties this year. So, why is safety a team strength? Simple. The players that will be filling those roles are outstanding, and three of them have plenty of experience. One safety spot will be filled by junior Pompey Festejo (6-0, 200) who's 42 tackles in 2008 were the highest for any non-starter on the team. Sophomore Tiuke Tuipalotu (5-10, 186) was the top true freshman last season. The San Mateo native (Serra HS) played extensively in all twelve games last season, and was also a special teams standout. Another sophomore, Tanner Burns (6-1, 175), provided very good pass support in the final nine games of 2008. A new face on the roster is perhaps the most intriguing Spartan. Manu Ngatikaura (5-10, 195) is a walk-on and former track athlete from San Jose City College. He had an outstanding spring, where he was also looked at as a wide receiver. He has great speed and athleticism. He should provide solid protection against deep passes. Senior Billy Ring (5-10, 185) and redshirt freshman Evan Taylor will provide good back-ups. Two incoming freshman will also get strong looks from the coaching staff. James Orth (6-2, 190) from Central Catholic in Modesto and Jason Simpson (6-0, 200) from Woodside High School could both see playing time this season.

Next up in the series: Five Team Weaknesses

Previous articles in the series:

Five Pressing Questions For Fall 2009 Camp

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Mike Morgan is a Senior Editor for Inside Sparta. You may contact Mike with any questions, comments, or tips at

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