WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Jimmy Durkin, who covers San Jose State football for the San Jose Mercury News in San Jose, California.
Follow on Twitter: @Jimmy_Durkin
Look for Q&As with beat writers that cover UW football opponents every week throughout the season.
One of the most noticeable improvements for San Jose State is defensively. It entered last week’s games leading the Mountain West in passing defense and total defense. Where has the biggest improvement been and how much better, overall, is the Spartans’ defense?
The biggest improvement is coaching. Greg Robinson is a huge upgrade over the inexperienced and overmatched Kenwick Thompson, who last year chose to make San Jose State’s players adapt to his defense, rather than him adapting his scheme to the skills of the players.
Beyond that, the Spartans have what can pretty easily be described as the best secondary in the Mountain West. Cleveland Wallace III is a transfer from Washington and teams with Jimmy Pruitt at cornerback to give SJSU two players who can lock on in man coverage. True freshman Maurice McKnight is the free safety in nickel situations and is another shutdown man coverage defender and great open field tackler. The group is brought together by senior Forrest Hightower, who has turned into a great support man in the run game and is making plays in the pass game as well. With a couple good linebackers in Christian Tago and Vince Buhagiar and a potential NFL draft pick in defensive tackle Travis Raciti, it’s just an overall solid group and has been brought together by a veteran, experience defensive coordinator in Robinson — the two-time Super Bowl winner with the Denver Broncos.
How has the change at quarterback to Joe Gray helped or hindered the Spartans, and is he the guy for San Jose State moving forward?
It’s helped quite a bit. While the competition may not be equal, the difference in numbers are staggering. SJSU is averaging 494 yards per game in the two games with Gray as the starter and just 326.3 when Blake Jurich was in charge. Sure, Jurich had to face Auburn and Minnesota, but he also got to face FCS North Dakota.
I think the players feel more confident in Gray. He was the presumed starter all along. He looked to have won the job in spring, spent all summer as the presumed starter and then Jurich won it with a good fall. Gray’s a much more polished passer, has better pocket presence and is much calmer under pressure.
How would you assess this San Jose State team so far. With the West Division of the Mountain West up for grabs, are the Spartans a contender for the division title?
I can’t come up with a reason why not. They actually could end up being the most complete team in the West Division. They play defense, something the conference as a whole isn’t exactly known for. And they’ve got an improving offense settling in under a quarterback who at one point was bound for the Pac-12 (Gray committed to Washington while in high school). Add in the factor that, for whatever reason, nobody is really looking at them as a contender outside of San Jose, and I think they could be a dangerous sleeper candidate to win the West. As we all know, it’s a pretty mediocre conference this year and yet somebody has to win it. The loss to Nevada two weeks ago doesn’t help. Had they held on to their 10-7 fourth-quarter lead and won that game, I think we’d definitely be calling them the favorite right now.