UW-San Jose State football Q&A swap

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.

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Wyoming-Oregon Q&A swap

WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi did a question-and-answer swap with Ryan Thorburn, who covers Oregon football for Eugene Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, about Saturday’s game with the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Ryan Thorburn

Ryan Thorburn

Thorburn is a UW graduate and author of three books on UW sports which documents some of the most historical and important moments Cowboys football, baseball and basketball. For links to purchase those books, go to ryanthorburn.com.

Follow on Twitter: @rgduckfootball

Look for Q&As with beat writers that cover UW football opponents every week throughout the season.

At No. 2 in the country this week it is obvious that Oregon is among the nation’s elite. But what is it about the Ducks where they can seemingly flip a switch and blow open a game, like last week against No. 13 Michigan State where they scored 28 unanswered points in the second half after falling behind?

Leading up to the game, the Ducks heard about how they can’t get it done against physical teams — the so-called Stanford problem. The old narrative looked to be playing out in the third quarter when they were stuck on 18 points and trailing by nine. Marcus Mariota, who was playing on a partially torn MCL at Stanford last season, was able to make some game-changing plays on the run this time. Oregon’s defense seemed to find another gear as well, which makes this year’s Ducks even more dangerous.

How good is quarterback Marcus Mariota, and despite his obvious outstanding skill set what else makes this guy one of the nation’s best? And, is he the early favorite right now to win the Heisman Trophy in your mind?

Honestly, the kid is too good to be true. In the Register-Guard’s football special section published during fall camp, the theme was: The Mount Rushmore of Oregon quarterbacks — Norm Van Brocklin, Dan Fouts, Bill Musgrave, Joey Harrington, etc. — and what Mariota’s legacy will be. The consensus is that he is already the greatest quarterback in program history, or will be by the end of the season if he stays healthy. Yes, I think he is the favorite to win the Heisman right now because of what he did against Michigan State’s defense.

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Smith liked his California experience

Former Wyoming quarterback Brett Smith didn’t have some of the experiences as a couple of his teammates, or others who are eligible for this year’s NFL Draft, which is Thursday through Saturday in New York City.

Smith didn’t play in any of the college all-star games. But that wasn’t his fault. Those games are for college seniors. Smith announced in December he would forego his senior season at UW to enter the draft.

Brett Smith

Brett Smith

Smith also wasn’t invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Indiana, in February. That was more of a surprise to many, including Smith. Former UW receiver Robert Herron and defensive back Marqueton Huff were invited to the combine.

But Smith did work out with EXOS, formerly known as Athletes Performance, in Carlsbad, California over the winter. He worked with renowned trainer Brent Callaway and former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia. Some of the other quarterbacks that trained with Smith were San Jose State’s David Fales, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles and Washington’s Keith Price.

“I got to see a lot of cool stuff, and I love California,” Smith said. “I grew up going to California every summer with my family, and I missed it a lot. I met a lot of new people and experienced a lot of cool things.”

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Herron ready for his big day

I recently caught up with former Wyoming receiver Robert Herron, one of three UW football players who have the best chances of being taken in this year’s NFL Draft, which is Thursday through Saturday in New York City.

For more on that story, see Thursday’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net.

Robert Herron

Robert Herron

Herron is projected by many of the NFL Draft “experts” to be UW’s best prospect. He is the 111th overall prospect by CBSSports.com and 116th by Walterfootball.com. That would put him in the third to fourth rounds.

Here are some quotes from Herron that didn’t make Thursday’s story:

On some of his more eye-opening experiences leading up to the draft: “Meeting with the teams. The (NFL Scouting) Combine was interesting. Not just the physical stuff, but the mental stuff from meeting with the teams, team doctors and answering a lot of questions. They asked me things like if I smoke, drink and if I have a girlfriend. With all the stuff that happened with (former Notre Dame linebacker Manti, Te’o last year, teams are asking about that stuff (with the fake girlfriend).”

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UW-San Jose State postgame thoughts

Larry Nance Jr. said Wyoming’s 67-56 home win over San Jose State Saturday at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie was the Cowboys best team win so far this season.

I think he is right.

Nance led the way with 18 points, 13 rebounds, five blocked shots (all in the second half). He also had two assists and two steals. Nance was good — very good in fact — but so were others. Coach Larry Shyatt described Nance as an “octopus” with the way he played — especially in the second half.

Here are some highlights from the game:

Sophomore guard Josh Adams had 16 points and a career-high seven assists. Better yet, Adams had just one turnover after he had seven turnovers at Boise State last Saturday. That was his best assist-to-turnover ration this season. The Cowboys improved to 5-2 this season when Adams leads the team in assists.

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Thoughts on QB Thompson leaving UW for Utah

First it was Brett Smith, now it’s Jason Thompson.

Wyoming has lost its top two quarterbacks heading into the 2014 season. Smith declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft on the final Friday of 2013. On the first Tuesday of 2014, Thompson transferred to Utah.

Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson

Thompson, who would have been a redshirt sophomore this season, wasn’t guaranteed the job for first-year coach Craig Bohl. But he was the most experienced player on the roster having played six games and starting one in 2012. He redshirted in 2013 to hone his quarterbacking skills.

Is it ironic that Thompson is going to Utah where his former coach — Dave Christensen — if the offensive coordinator? Probably not. To think that didn’t play a factor would be naive.

In fact, Christensen was officially introduced as Utah’s offensive coordinator Tuesday. Here are some links to what he said, and some stories by the fine folks at The Salt Lake Tribune.

http://utahutes.cstv.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/010714aaa.html

http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/utes/57363571-89/whittingham-christensen-erickson-offensive.html.csp

http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/utes/57363264-89/whittingham-offensive-christensen-coach.html.csp
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UW’s Smith declares for NFL Draft

Talk about a bombshell of news.

Wyoming junior quarterback Brett Smith announced Friday night that he will forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft.

Smith is the third UW player in the “modern era” to do this. Cornerback Derrick Martin did it after his junior season in 2005. Martin, at the time, said he was projected to be a third or fourth-round draft pick. He went in the sixth round to the Baltimore Ravens. Since then he has played for eight years for five different teams and is currently with the Chicago Bears. Martin has had the most success playing on special teams.

Running back Alvester Alexander did so after his junior season of 2011. He has been on practice squads of a couple of NFL teams, most recently with the Pittsburgh Steelers this season. He has yet to have a carry in a NFL regular-season game.

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Yarbrough, Huff named All-MW

It was a little ironic that the two Wyoming football players that made the first and second All-Mountain West teams were on defense.

Eddie Yarbrough

Eddie Yarbrough

But despite having one of the worst defenses in the nation in nearly every statistical category, sophomore defensive end Eddie Yarbrough made the first team and senior safety Marqueston Huff made the second team.

Hard to argue both players’ production. Yarbrough led all MW defensive linemen with 89 tackles. He also had a team-best 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 quarterback sacks. His two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries also tied for first on the team.

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VIDEO: Brett Smith

Wyoming junior quarterback Brett Smith talks about his record-setting performance in last week’s 59-56 overtime win over Hawaii, facing the Mountain West’s best defense this week in Utah State and his thoughts on Thanksgiving during this interview on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 in Laramie, Wyo.

For more on the game, see Saturday’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang and log on to wyosports.net. Also, join WyoSports senior editor Robert Gagliardi’s live chat for the UW-Utah State game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Links are on this blog and at wyosports.net.