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Young Talent looks to Bright Future

Published On November 8, 2014 | By JamesD | News

San Jose State had a good quarterback and a .500 2013.  This year with a new quarterback in Joe Gray the Spartans have had a an up and down 2014.  They are currently below .500 and are hoping to let strong finish to this year be the jump start they need for 2015.  Even though their year may not be what they had hoped it doesn’t mean that the Spartans do not have talent to play in the NFL.  Jimmy Durkin of the Mercury News gave us some of his busy time to discuss the present and future of the San Jose State Spartans as well as a few players who could, potentially, play on Sunday.

 

J: What has this first half of the season shown you both offensively and defensively?
JD: Offensively, they’ve got potential. They can move the ball up and down the field pretty well in between the 20s. It’s once the field shortens that they really struggle. They haven’t found any consistency in the red zone. They lack a power run game once they get inside the five and quarterback Joe Gray and his receivers don’t quite have the right chemistry yet to be on the same page in the passing game.Defensively, it’s been a mixed bag. They shot up really high in the national rankings (they were up to No. 12 at one point) and a lot of that was because they were playing pretty well. But it was also based somewhat on the teams they faced, the fact that they weren’t backing teams up and giving them long fields to drive and they had an offense that was controlling the ball pretty well to chew up close. But overall, they have a good secondary that plays man-to-man coverage very well against most receivers. Colorado State’s Rashard Higgins burned them pretty badly though. The pass rush has been fairly non-existent and they struggle defending the run, particularly any option-based attack.
J: Could you name 3 or more players on each side of the ball that have really blossomed this year? What about this season contributed to the blossoming?
JD: Running back Tyler Ervin has really finally fulfilled his potential. He’s always been a stud athlete. As a true freshman, he played cornerback before switching to running back. Injuries while playing running back the past two years led to questioning his durability and he was switched to slot receiver this year. But attrition at running back moved him back to the position and he’s stayed healthy and excelled. He’s ridiculously fast and so he’s dangerous in open space and has already taken two carries more than 80 yards to the house, plus he caught a wheel route 78-yard touchdown at Auburn, probably his most impressive play.Wide receiver Hansell Wilson has also been solid as he’s developed into their No. 2 receiver. He’s a former walk-on who was placed on scholarship this year and the biggest reason he’s emerged is there has been some clearing in the depth chart at receiver and he’s been able to get on the field. (The unit was senior heavy last year). He’s another speed guy that can be a deep threat. Fullback Chris Dadson is my last one on offense. His role isn’t huge. He’s only had three carries, but each time it’s been on third or fourth and short and he’s picked up the first down. For a team with a young offensive line and not much of a power running game, he’s been perfect when called upon for big carries and I imagine he’ll begin getting more opportunities to do so.Defensively, Travis Raciti has sort of re-blossomed. He was great two years ago with an 8.5 sack season, but regressed last year mostly because he was misplaced in a bad defense. San Jose State spent one year in the 3-4, with him moving from defensive tackle to defensive end. It’s back in the 4-3 this year and he’s been supremely active. He leads the Mountain West in tackles among defensive lineman.True freshman Maurice McKnight has been a big revelation. On the surface, he looks to skinny to do much other than play the ball. But he’s turned into a huge part of the nickel defense entering the game at free safety. At 6-foot and (maybe) 175 pounds, he’s a very sure tackle and leads the secondary and is third on the team in solo tackles.Cleveland Wallace III is the last one and his emergence is really a product of playing time as well. He transferred from Washington, where he did play a little last season. But his transfer was because of a family situation (he’s a San Jose native) and he quickly became a starter here. He only has one interception (team aren’t throwing the ball much against SJSU), but leads the squad with 10 breakups and his 11 passes defended also leads the conference.J: Building on the previous question, do you see players who could potentially play at the next level? Why? What about their attributes and skill sets leads you to think that way?

JD: Raciti will have the best chance among the crop of seniors. He’s a durable player with great endurance. He dropped some weight this year in order to make sure he can be an every down player. At the next level, he probably needs to add some weight, especially to stay as a defensive tackle. But given that he has experience in the 4-3 and the 3-4, has a good frame to add more weight and will likely showcase some pretty good speed for his size at either the Combine or Pro Day, he should get a shot.

Down the line, Wallace and fellow cornerback Jimmy Pruitt could definitely get looks. Pruitt in particular is well-built and brings nice strength to the position. He’s also got a knack for chasing guys down and forcing fumbles (he corralled Auburn’s Nick Marshall at the goal line after a 49-yard run and forced a fumble that went out of the end zone).

Ervin has NFL-type speed. He’s too slightly built to play running back there, but if he works on his receiving skills he could be a role player as a deep threat receiving option and returner.

J: What about the system in place offensively and defensively prepares these players to possibly make the transition to the next level?

JD: On offense, they do a lot of different things. They’ll empty out the backfield one play and be 21, or even sometimes 22 personnel the next. So chances are, whatever offense a team runs, a guy on this team has some experience in that. The exception really comes in the running game though. There’s really no power running element to the offense, so running backs and offensive linemen are in a tougher position.

On defense, they’ve got a coordinator who spend a decade-plus in the NFL and won a couple Super Bowls running the show in Greg Robinson. At this level, he keeps things a little more simple than I’m sure he did in the NFL, but obviously he’s got a knowledge base to help these guys understand NFL-type defenses.

J: What is the biggest difference between this years team and last years?  Is the talent level any different? 

JD: The quarterback. Simple explanation but really that’s it. David Fales was a once-in-a-generation talent for San Jose State. Joe Gray has flashed potential, but also made rookie mistakes not seen in the Fales era. A wide receiving corps that isn’t as deep as last years is also a big difference, but defensively they are better this season.

J: Biggest surprise at the mid point of the season from players and teams around the league both positive or negative?

JD: I’ve been impressed with just about everything from Colorado State, in particular quarterback Garrett Grayson and wide receiver Rashard Higgins. I’ve seen Grayson play SJSU the past three years now and hadn’t been that impressed the first two times, but he’s really grown. He played SJSU on one leg it seemed because of a groin injury and still found ways to get a lot on his passes. Higgins’ growth is even more dramatic. He was a ghost when the Spartans played CSU last year, but just torched them this season.

I haven’t watched a ton of their games because SJSU doesn’t play them this year, but Air Force’s improvement is pretty impressive as well. The win over Boise State was remarkable considering the dominance of it.

Fresno State has obviously been a disappointment. Its dismal defense hasn’t surprised me (it was dismal last year too) but to be in its 10th game and still not have the quarterback situation settled is startling.

J: How does next year look for San Jose State?

JD: I think San Jose State is built much more for 2015 than it is for 2014. The Spartans still have a chance to make something out of this year, but next season it should be a much more experienced group. The offensive line will suddenly have four starters returning and Joe Gray will presumably have at least eight starts under his belt at quarterback with nearly all of his receivers back.

The defense has some guys to replace up front, namely Raciti, and both of its starting safeties. But they’ve got some good options in the secondary for those guys. McKnight should be a natural to move into free safety for Forrest Hightower and David Williams, a highly touted prospect who is redshirting, is the likely new strong safety. As good as the secondary is this year, the potential is there to be even better next.

I haven’t written off this season in terms of reaching a bowl, but I think the expectations will certainly be there next year to get back to the postseason.

Thanks Jimmy for the excellent breakdown on the Spartans season and a sneak peak of the talent that is there on the team.  If you would like more on the Spartans you can go to blogs.mercurynews.com/sjsu/ or follow him on twitter @Jimmy_Durkin

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