You know how the old football cliché goes. When you get off the bus, you want your team to look like they could beat anybody.
“Last year, I think people were smiling at us,” San Jose State coach Mike MacIntyre joked.
The reason: the Spartans were racked by one injury after another. As a result, MacIntyre had 43 scholarship players available for the regular-season finale at Idaho. San Jose State finished 1-12, and ended up playing 18 true freshmen after all the injuries. MacIntyre lost nine senior starters by Week 6.
“I was looking at our third scrimmage from last spring and I was looking at the linebackers,” MacIntyre said in a phone interview this week. “There was not one linebacker that played for us last year in the last nine games of the year. They were all freshmen or guys we moved around.”
Two of those players ended up being among the best of what he had left. Keith Smith had 116 tackles, tops among freshmen in the nation. Vince Buhagiar moved from fullback to linebacker eight days before the season opener against Alabama because of injuries, and finished second on the team in tackles with 89. Depth was so bad, Smith and Buhagiar took every rep in practice and every snap in games for the majority of the season.
The good news is every starter on defense returns for 2011. So does Pompey Festejo, who was granted his sixth year of eligibility after breaking his foot last year, along with Kyler O’Neal. So does All-WAC safety Duke Ihenacho, who was granted a fifth season after hurting his foot.
MacIntyre is hopeful that center Robbie Reed and safety Manu Ngatikaura will be granted sixth seasons after getting hurt last year as well. All the adversity was a tremendous test not only for MacIntyre but his players as well.
“I hope that never happens again,” he said. “I don’t think I could handle another year like that. It was disheartening at times.”
When the season ended, MacIntyre hired former Stanford strength and conditioning assistant coach Dave Forman, giving the football players a strength coach dedicated only to them. MacIntyre has noticed an immediate difference in the way his players look and are playing. Smith and Buhagiar have put on nearly 20 pounds each, for example.
MacIntyre has also noticed an added spark to his players as they head into their spring game Saturday.
“We look better in our pads so to speak,” MacIntyre said. “The players feel stronger and bigger because they are, so it makes you feel better about yourself. Now you can knock somebody back and not absorb the blow, and that will help us injury wise too. We won’t get knocked around as much and hopefully that will prevent as many injuries.”
The Spartans still have a tough nonconference schedule, with games at Stanford and UCLA before the home opener against Nevada. They also have no starting quarterback yet, as Matt Faulkner, Dasmen Stewart and Blake Jurich compete to replace Jordan La Secla.
This is also a program that was hit by scholarship reductions because of poor APR. The Spartans will be back up to 85 scholarships in the fall, a giant step in the rebuilding process awaiting MacIntyre.
“We can beat anybody we play,” MacIntyre said. “Will we? Last year I knew we would play hard every game and give it all we had. This year, we have a chance to compete in every game. As far as the depth of having a team that can win the WAC week in and week out, we have to be another two recruiting classes away from being consistently that.”