Offense Will Dictate How Far San Jose State Football Goes In 2019
If San Jose State takes a step toward a sustainable revival next fall, it’ll be because of Josh Love, Tyler Nevens and company. Here’s why.
The time is now for SJSU to take a leap.
You’d be forgiven for overlooking San Jose State football in the past couple of years but, under head coach Brent Brennan, 2019 is beginning to look more and more like the first real crucible for the program’s current leadership. They’ve recruited fairly well despite the on-field losses, ranking sixth, seventh and sixth among Mountain West teams, according to 247 Sports, from 2016 to 2018, and gave headaches to well-regarded teams like Oregon and Fresno State for not-insignificant stretches, though substantial progress has remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Why pay attention now? The Spartans may not have all of the pieces to march toward bowl eligibility, but Kevin McGiven’s offense might be ready to make some serious hay and turn SJSU into an exciting, if still flawed, product. Here’s a few reasons why.
1. The Spartans have two receivers who could be significant difference makers.
San Jose State was the only team in the Mountain West with two receivers that had at least 30 targets and Marginal Explosiveness rates of at least 0.75. In a nutshell, that means Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither were able to create bigger plays than expected. It also means that, for 2019, the Spartans will need to figure out how to make that happen, say, one or two more times per game.
Better health is one obvious solution: Walker played in just nine games last year while Gaither was lost for the year after September. Finding a reliable third option in the passing game, with Josh Oliver’s departure to the NFL, is another. JaQuan Blackwell, who caught just eight passes last fall after grabbing 32 as a freshman in 2017, might be that key guy. It might be Leki Nunn or Antwaun Ayers or perhaps one of their 2019 three-star recruits, Jamar Simpson or Malikhi Miller. Whatever the answer, it’s a matter of continuing to turn potential into production.
2. The running game will improve almost by default.
If you examine San Jose State’s advanced statistical profile, one of the things that will probably jump out to you when thinking ahead to 2019 is that the running game quite literally has nowhere to go but up. The Spartans ranked dead last nationally in Rushing S&P+, 129th in Opportunity Rate (the percentage of plays to gain more than five yards), and 126th in Stuff Rate (percentage of plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), but things are not quite so dire when you look more closely at Tyler Nevens.
In his two years leading the SJSU backfield, he’s shown some ability to be a grinder: Nevens has averaged 4.27 yards per carry in seven games where he managed at least 20 carries against 3.91 YPC in games with fewer than 20 carries. Furthermore, his individual Opportunity Rate was a solid 47.1% last season, a figure which sat between more heralded runners like Alexander Mattison (48.7%) and Juwan Washington (46.2%).
Where their paths diverge has more to do with what could be done after reaching the defense’s second level: Mattison and Washington had 37 and 29 plays of 10-plus yards on the ground, respectively, while Nevens had just 14. And if you’re thinking that means the offensive line will need to turn a corner at some point, you’d be right.
3. The offensive line flashed some promise last fall, too, especially when the rest of the offense was at full strength.
On the season, SJSU allowed a sack on 7.9% of dropbacks, but the difference between the three quarterbacks who saw extended playing time is staggering: Michael Carrillo’s sack rate was 10.1% and Montel Aaron sat at 13.8%, but Josh Love had a more acceptable 5.9% rate, the best figure by any Spartan quarterback since at least 2015.
If you want to take an optimistic view, you can argue that the team’s trial by fire along its young offensive line – where San Jose State started two sophomores and a true freshman by season’s end – had a modicum of success and continuity will only make them better.
Right guard Jack Colman is the only player of note graduating from that unit so, depending on how things shake out, the Spartans could feature a starting five in spring ball that have started nearly 70 combined games with only one senior, Troy Kowalski, in the mix. It might only take a modest improvement, as SJSU hasn’t allowed fewer than 36 sacks in a season since 2014, for the entire attack to make a dramatic leap forward.
Overall, progress in San Jose is likely to be defined by better health luck and greater consistency next fall. We’ve seen glimpses of what this offense could become, most notably in the third-quarter barrage against Colorado State and in their win over UNLV, but complete 60 minutes on that side of the ball, as obvious as that sounds, will likely be the difference between another lost year and a fascinating, if incomplete, revival in Silicon Valley.