by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We’ll say this much about San Jose State football...it’s a resilient bunch. That’s because the Spartans have been floored more often than Floyd Patterson over the years, yet continue to get off the deck. Indeed, at various times over the past few decades, the gridiron program seemed down for the count, ready for a permanent KO. Calls to disband San Jose football have been as familiar in Silicon Valley as the traffic jams along the Bayshore Freeway. Things became very hairy in the middle of the past decade, when the ill-fated regime of HC Dr. Fitz Hill almost put Spartan football out of business for good until a savior appeared in the form of veteran mentor Dick Tomey, who at least stabilized the program during his tenure. Although when Tomey departed after five seasons, San Jose football seemed on the skids once more. Again, the whispers about disbanding the program began to circulate among the luncheon crowds at downtown San Pedro Square. And with the WAC looking to be on shaky underpinnings after a wave of defections (Boise State, Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii) within the last year, rumors of a move to the football-less Big West Conference, from whence the Spartans once hailed, became more and more pronounced.

But it looks like San Jose State, and the WAC, are going to weather the storm. A new era in the conference is about to dawn next season after Nevada, Fresno, and Hawaii join Boise State in the Mountain West. The WAC, which has undergone several transformations and facelifts over the years, is reinventing itself again, adding a couple of Texas-based football-playing schools, Southland Conference defectors Texas State (with its new stadium in San Marcos) and the start-up program at UT-San Antonio, led by former Miami Hurricanes head coach Larry Coker and slated to play its home games in the spacious Alamodome. Another Southland refugee, Metroplex-based UT-Arlington, will also be joining the WAC and is likely to reignite its own football program that has been dormant since 1985. The University of Denver and Seattle University have been added as basketball-playing members. Sources indicate resourceful conference commissioner Karl Benson is likely to add two more schools to eventually bring membership to ten for football (assuming UTA re-starts its program) and twelve for hoops. The WAC and San Jose look like they will survive after all.

And in the Spartans’ case, it at least means the continuation of a program with some historical roots in the Peninsula, and a connection to some of the legendary names in the game. The “Order of Sparta” counts Super Bowl winning coaches Bill Walsh and Dick Vermeil among its alumni; College Hall of Famer John Ralston is also a former San Jose head coach. The Spartans have also sent numerous future Pro Bowlers into the NFL.

What all of that means in regard to the 2011 Spartans is debatable, although it would be hard to imagine things going more pear-shaped for San Jose than they did a year ago when the Spartans slumped to a 1-12 mark in HC Mike MacIntyre’s first season in charge. Although MacIntyre, who had spent almost his entire career working outside of the western region, was a surprise hire, most gave him a mulligan last season after not only inheriting a 2-10 mess from Tomey, but seeing his lineup ravaged by key injuries almost from the outset of the campaign, which was further complicated by a thankless early schedule that took San Jose to Alabama, Wisconsin, and Utah for nothing more than nice paychecks in the first month of the season. Four important starters, including one of the WAC’s top defenders, SS Duke Ihenacho, were KO’d early, and all (Ihenacho, LB Pompey Festajo, DE Mo Marah, and C Robbie Reed) have been granted medical hardships and one extra year of eligibility for 2011 after being sidelined early last year. Another potential starter who missed 2010 with knee problems, S Manu Ngatikaura, is still awaiting word from the NCAA on his hardship appeal.

There were still signs of encouragement amid the rubble from 2010, especially the spunk displayed by the available Spartans, who at least kept battling until the bitter end. Although the campaign closed with a 10-game losing streak, San Jose, even in its depleted state, was throwing leather, losing by seven points or fewer in four of its last five games. Considering the brutal early schedule and injury concerns, WAC observers were impressed that MacIntyre had somehow instilled an admirable esprit de corps within his troops.

MacIntyre at least enters this fall with a full complement of 85 scholarship players, something the program has lacked in recent years, as well as 18 starters (plus those aforementioned 2009 first-stringers who were injured a year ago) from last season. There were also 101 available bodies for spring drills, which local observers believed smashed a school record. Although those numbers suggest the program might be able to compete on more even-footing this fall, plenty of question marks remain, including the mystery of who will be playing QB after spring work provided few, if any, clues about who might be able to replace the serviceable Jordan La Secla. His caddy from last season, sr. Matt Faulkner, was expected to emerge from the pack in spring, but didn’t, with soph Dasmen Stewart and RS frosh Blake Jurich looking just as good. The arrival of touted livewire frosh Joe Gray will only further muddle the situation in fall camp. Most WAC observers suggest that Gray has by far the most upside of the bunch, but as the “greenest” option will have to really bowl over MacIntyre in fall camp to win the job. So, unless Faulkner steps up, don’t be surprised if Stewart or Jurich, who both displayed an ability to get the ball downfield in spring (something absent from the Spartan artillery the past few years when the SJSU spread specialized in dinking away), get the call from MacIntyre for the opener at Stanford.

Of course, the QB situation is only one of the concerns for MacIntyre, who promoted QB coach John DeFilippo to o.c. after last year’s coordinator Tim Landis departed to become head coach at at lower-level RPI. San Jose must also try to locate an infantry diversion after the Spartans ranked 119th (ahead of only Bowling Green) in national rushing stats last season. Smallish (5'10, 180-lb.) RB Brandon Rutley returns after leading SJSU with a mere 461 YR a year ago, although it is hoped that converted LB Jason Simpson can provide a more-physical diversion. Another pair of LBs, Vince Buhagiar and Derek Muaava, are likely to be utilized in short-yardage running situations, a weak point for last year’s attack. Line play, spotty at best a year ago, could be upgraded by the addition of star juco OT Jon Meyer. Receiving options are likely the strength (such as it is) for the strike force, especially soph wideouts Noel Grigsby and Chandler Jones, who each racked up better than 50 catches last year as frosh. WAC sources also say to pay attention to speedy frosh WR Jabari Carr, a local product from Oak Grove High and reportedly a Pac-10 level talent who spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy before sitting out 2010.

Help is on the way, however, with former Big Ten standouts QB Tate Forcier (Michigan) and RB DeLeon Eskridge (Minnesota) both transferring to SJSU. There’s only one problem...they won’t be eligible until 2012. Which is a shame, because the Spartans could use the help now after ranking only 115th in scoring last season at a mere 16 ppg.

All eleven starters return on defense, plus a few more with the aforementioned S Ihenacho, LB Festejo, and DE Marah back in the picture after missing last season. Although the presence of all the returnees might only be a mixed blessing after the San Jose stop unit ranked between 104th and 117th nationally in all relevant defensive categories last season. At least MacIntyre and veteran d.c. Kent Baer (who, for those who don’t remember, coached Notre Dame in a bowl game once upon a time, filling in on an interim basis for the deposed Ty Willingham at the 2004 Insight Bowl in Phoenix vs. Oregon State) have a full complement of defensive linemen, with no fewer than 20 candidates on hand for spring drills. In fact, one of last year’s starters, sr. DT Pablo Garcia, was running second string in spring. One interesting position switch in April was moving promising RS frosh DE Travis Raciti to a tackle spot after he bulked up to 285 pounds, while former BYU and Snow College transfer DE David Tuitopou impressed enough that he is expected to crack the starting lineup. There are a couple of honors candidates in the back seven, including S Ihenacho and tackling-machine LB Keith Smith, who was named last year’s WAC Freshman of the Year while recording a whopping 116 tackles. Merely keeping this experienced platoon healthier than it was a year ago will be a big plus, but unless the Spartans figure out a better way to stop the run after ranking 104th in rush “D” (203 ypg) in 2010, all of the seasoning on the stop unit might not matter.

Pointspread-wise, although San Jose showed some fight late last season and ended up covering five games (its best showing since 2007), there’s still plenty of room for improvement after covering just 7 of its past 30 on the board since the later days of the Tomey regime in mid 2008. The Spartans have also covered just 2 of their last 14 away from cozy Spartan Stadium.

Summary...The fact that San Jose enters fall camp in a healthy state (indeed, there were no serious injuries in spring work, already a step forward from last season) and is being spared the series of body-bag games that marked last year’s early portion of the schedule, indicates that things probably aren’t going to be as bad as they were a year ago. That’s not saying much, however, as the Spartans won just once last season. Expect the experienced defense to likely hold its own this fall, but how much improvement the Spartans make probably depends upon one of the QBs emerging as a competent leader and the ground game becoming more of a serious diversion. Without either of the last two, upside is limited, although we would pay attention to San Jose as a possible pointspread sleeper, as its recent shortcomings vs. the number will keep the Spartans off of most handicappers’ radar and contribute to some likely hefty imposts, especially in the early going.

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