2011 Season Preview: Extreme Youth Movements And The San Jose State Spartans

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

In most coaching jobs, especially in reclamation projects, the first year is a one giant mulligan. You're just getting the lay of the land, and you're trying to figure out what you have. In the second year, you actually start building what you want. All of this goes double when seemingly half of your decent players get hurt.

San Jose State head coach Mike MacIntyre's first year in the land of silicone chips and organic food definitely fell into the "goes double" category. Due to injuries, iffy talent and more injuries, the Spartans were incredibly, ridiculously young in 2010. The best receiver was a redshirt freshman, two starting offensive linemen were true freshmen (another part-time starter was a redshirt freshman), the No. 2 defensive end was a freshman, the No. 3 defensive tackle was a redshirt freshman, and the top outside linebacker (a second-team all-conference performer), top middle linebacker and top strong safety were all true freshmen. That's ridiculous. But hey, if you're going with a youth movement in your first year on the job, go with a youth movement.

That a few of the newbies actually performed at a rather high level says good things about the future, as does the fact that SJSU actually improved its overall performance (even though the win total did not follow suit). And that they actually get some of their injured players back in 2011? All the better. I'm not going to try to convince anybody that San Jose State's ceiling is tremendously high, but with a squad that will still be rather young for a year or two, we should at least find out what their ceiling is.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 1-12 | Adj. Record: 1-12 | Final F/+ Rk**: 107
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Alabama 3-48 L 11.4 - 36.2 L
11-Sep at Wisconsin 14-27 L 23.4 - 26.2 L
18-Sep Southern Utah
16-11 W 13.2 - 30.5 L
25-Sep at Utah 3-56 L 13.5 - 38.7 L
2-Oct UC-Davis 13-14 L 14.7 - 27.8 L
9-Oct at Nevada 13-35 L 24.8 - 34.2 L
16-Oct Boise State 0-48 L 6.7 - 31.6 L
23-Oct Fresno State 18-33 L 19.1 - 30.5 L
30-Oct at New Mexico State 27-29 L 24.2 - 36.0 L
13-Nov Utah State 34-38 L 37.3 - 37.1 W
20-Nov at Hawaii 7-41 L 12.0 - 29.7 L
27-Nov Louisiana Tech 38-45 L 24.1 - 30.7 L
4-Dec at Idaho 23-26 L 32.6 - 33.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 16.1 115 34.7 105
Adj. Points Per Game 19.8 110 32.5 103

So let's review. Two-year starting guard Fred Koloto was lost for the season, as was starting center Robbie Reed. Star safety Duke Ihenacho played two games. Starting middle linebacker Pompey Festejo played none. All of the above were replaced by first-year players. That the team was generally awful over the first half of the season, under a new coach, was no surprise. The offense improved rather significantly over the second half of the year, and four of the Spartans' last five losses came by a touchdown or less (they were 1-5 in such games overall).

First Seven Games: SJSU 15.4 Adj. PPG, Opponents 32.2 (-16.8)
Last Six Games: SJSU 24.9, Opponents 33.0 (-8.1)

As has been mentioned before here, a late-season surge that spans a game or two does not tell us what we tend to think it will about the next season. But sustained growth does. After mid-October, San Jose State was a much better team. Not a good one, but a better one.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 96 90 100
RUSHING 109 105 108 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 88 77 94 106
Standard Downs 89 69 95 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 119 120 113 80
Redzone 60 42 74
Q1 Rk 104 1st Down Rk 74
Q2 Rk 93 2nd Down Rk 105
Q3 Rk 112 3rd Down Rk 120
Q4 Rk 62

They may not have been a very good offense, but San Jose State knew what they wanted to do under offensive coordinator Tim "Not This Guy" Landis in 2010: pass first, then pass second. With Landis taking the head coaching job at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (Go Fight Win, Engineers!), John DeFilippo slides over to take the coordinator headset, and with his background as a quarterbacks coach -- he's held that job for everyone from Fordham to Columbia U. to the New York Jets -- odds are decent that the Spartans will heap quite a bit of responsibility on the quarterback once again.

Of course, if San Jose State actually can run the ball in 2011, they might not mind doing so. Last year, it just wasn't an option. The Spartans had one of the 12 worst running games in the country, though the turnover on the offensive line certainly didn't help matters. With Koloto and Reed out for the year, freshmen Moa Ngatuvai (guard), Nicholas Kaspar (guard) and Reuben Hasani (center) combined for 25 starts; that is not a recipe for success. Now, all three sophomores return, as do Koloto, Reed, tackle David Quessenberry and tackle Andres Vargas. Seven players with starting experience, 91 career starts, and almost guaranteed improvement up front.

For whom will this supposedly improved line be blocking? Some iffy running backs, for starters. Brandon Rutley (461 yards, 3.6 per carry, -9.9 Adj. POE, 4 TD; 183 receiving yards, 1 TD) was SJSU's leading rusher, but he brought little to the table. Backup David Freeman (163 yards, 4.2 per carry, +0.3 Adj. POE, 1 TD) actually showed a hair more potential in limited opportunities, and 225-pound converted linebacker Kyler O'Neal could be an option when and if he returns from a broken ankle. None of these players are guaranteed to thrive, but the line alone suggests the run game will involve a smidge more quality.

Other tidbits:

  • Quarterback Jordan La Secla (2,860 yards, 7.3 per pass, 59% completion rate, 16 TD, 16 INT) is gone, and three potential replacements are duking it out: senior Matt Faulkner (206 yards, 5.3 per pass, 54% completion rate, 1 TD, 1 INT), sophomore Dasmen Stewart and redshirt freshman Blake Jurich. Faulkner offered nothing in limited opportunities last year, but I'm guessing he's the most likely candidate. Look out for Jurich, though; he is, after all, a MacIntyre recruit. In all, La Secla was a solid quarterback, but either he or the receivers around him just didn't have it in them to make plays on passing downs. SJSU's offense was at least semi-palatable for a WAC unit on standard downs, but they were the least efficient passing downs offense in the country. Second- or third-and-long meant quick death for a Spartans drive.
  • Sophomore Noel Grigbsy (822 yards, 14.7 per catch, 64% catch rate, 4 TD as a redshirt freshman) was SJSU's best receiver last year, but the Spartans do have to find a replacement for co-No. 1 Jalal Beacuhman (835 yards, 13.9 per catch, 63% catch rate, 6 TD). Chandler Jones (474 yards, 8.8 per catch, 74% catch rate, 1 TD) and sophomore Kyle Nunn (250 yards, 10.4 per catch, 52% catch rate, 2 TD) are interesting possession receivers, but if it's a big play SJSU is looking for, either Grigsby or Josh Harrison (260 yards, 13.7 per catch, 51% catch rate) are the most likely candidates.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 93 104 83
RUSHING 104 100 104 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 82 93 75 107
Standard Downs 77 94 68 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 99 104 96 66
Redzone 54 53 51
Q1 Rk 109 1st Down Rk 81
Q2 Rk 73 2nd Down Rk 79
Q3 Rk 71 3rd Down Rk 90
Q4 Rk 49

Looking at individual pieces, you'll find quite a bit to like about the San Jose State defense. The Spartans have all-conference candidates at end, outside linebacker, middle linebacker, cornerback and safety (candidates, mind you, not shoo-ins), and they must replace almost nothing from last year's unit. The entire two-deep on the line, all three starting linebackers (and a strong 2009 starter) and the top six defensive backs (and a strong 2009 starter) all return. MacIntyre, former Duke defensive coordinator and NFL DBs coach, has quite a bit to work with here.

It appears this was a defense that wanted to attack in 2010, especially with incredible freshman Keith Smith (87.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks) flying off of the edge. The problem was, in order to avoid big plays, cornerbacks offered large cushions to receivers and gave opponents easy pitch-and-catch opportunities if Smith and a pair of solid ends -- Travis Johnson (45.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks) and Vincent Abbott (30.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) -- couldn't get to the quarterback. (It also appears they were quite susceptible to draw plays.)

Experience is a good thing in a lot of ways, but it is difficult to assume epic improvement when you're dealing with exactly the same personnel. That said, SJSU really did tamp down big plays reasonably well (those large cushions served a purpose), and with the installation of two of 2009's best players -- safety Duke Ihenacho (68.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 6 PBU, 2 FF in 2009) and linebacker Pompey Festejo (60.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU in 2009) -- one has to like the potential.

Other tidbits:

  • When you attack the line of scrimmage a lot, you put corners on islands, and you quickly find out how well they can tackle in space. Corners Ronnie Yell (41.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 10 PBU) and Brandon Driver (35.0 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PBU) certainly proved themselves in this regard. Yell had 38 solo tackles to just six assisted tackles; Drive: 27 to 16. That they were able to handle their business and combine for 16 passes defensed is an encouraging sign. Throw in Peyton Thompson (68.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 10 PBU), and you've potentially got a strong unit of cornerbacks. Granted, they will continue to have a lot asked of them, but they will pass tests as often as not.
  • Four sophomores could give the front seven some solid depth: ends Foloi Vae (17.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) and Cedric Lousi (18.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks), tackle Anthony Larceval (15.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and linebacker Vince Buhaglar (62.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU). Again, I don't want to make it sound like SJSU is going to have a fantastic defense, but options and depth lead a defense to realize whatever upside it has. And it wasn't too long ago (2008) that the Spartans fielded a downright fantastic mid-major defense.

San Jose State's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Someday Baby" by Bob Dylan ... or Big Joe Williams ... or North Mississippi Allstars...

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Top Ten Non-BCS Defenses Outside of the Big Four*, According to Def. F/+ (2006-10)
1. 2008 Central Florida (+13.9% | seventh in overall 2008 Def. F/+ | 4-8)
2. 2009 Air Force (+11.8% | 16th | 8-5)
3. 2009 Middle Tennessee (+9.8% | 20th | 10-3)
4. 2007 New Mexico (+8.7% | 19th | 9-4)
5. 2008 East Carolina (+7.8% | 23rd | 9-5)
6. 2008 San Jose State (+7.2% | 26th | 6-6)
7. 2008 New Mexico (+7.2% | 27th | 4-8)
8. 2007 Central Florida (+6.9% | 27th | 10-4)
9. 2010 Central Florida (+6.9% | 32nd | 11-3)
10. 2009 Ohio (+5.8% | 31st | 9-5)

That 2008 squad ranked seventh overall in Def. Passing S&P+, 11th on passing downs. Unfortunately, the SJSU offense ranked 119th out of 120 teams, and it took a 3-0 record in one-possession games just for them to get to 6-6.

Actually, that leads us to another list...

Largest Discrepancy Between Def. F/+ Ranking and Off. F/+ Ranking (2006-10)
1. 2008 Central Florida (113 spots -- seventh in Def. F/+, 120th in Off. F/+)
2. 2010 Boston College (98 spots -- sixth, 104th)
3. 2009 Nebraska (93 spots -- first, 94th)
4. 2008 San Jose State (93 spots -- 26th, 119th)
5. 2009 Middle Tennessee (91 spots -- 20th, 111th)
6. 2007 New Mexico (89 spots -- 19th, 108th)
7. 2007 Iowa (89 spots -- 22nd, 111th)
8. 2008 Tennessee (88 spots -- 12th, 100th)
9. 2008 New Mexico (88 spots -- 27th, 115th)
10. 2010 Texas (85 spots -- 21st, 106th)

* The "Big Four" consists of TCU, Boise State, Utah and BYU.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 113
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 113
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -7 / -8.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (7, 11)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +6.2

I used the words "depth" and "potential" and "options" a lot with San Jose State, and that's odd considering, well, how poor a team the Spartans have been in recent years. I talk up the corners for a defense that ranked 83rd in Passing S&P+. I talk up the receivers on a passing offense that ranked 88th. I talk about the upside of a front seven on a defense that ranked 104th in Rushing S&P+. But you have to admit ... it's a bit logical. There is some individual upside here. Keith Smith is a potentially amazing outside linebacker. There is an incredible amount of depth for a mid-major defense. There are some really interesting young weapons on offense. This is a really interesting coaching staff.

I always say that injuries ding you in the present tense but benefit the future tense. Now we get to find out if I'm right. Of course, it will probably be difficult to gauge progress in terms of wins and losses again. SJSU faces road trips to Stanford, UCLA, BYU and Fresno State this fall, meaning they will have to win six of eight even remotely winnable games to make a bowl. That probably isn't realistic, though a jump to 3-4 wins will be nice, tangible progress for a team that is putting together some decent pieces. With the teams remaining in the WAC, there is an opportunity to seize some power. San Jose State will still be a young team well into 2012, and they may have something to say about becoming a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today. The college portion is available for just $5, and the print version is now available!

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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