AUBURN, Ala. — As we will every Thursday evening this season, the War Eagle Extra blog will try to track down a beat writer for Auburn's opponent for the coming weekend. Jimmy Durkin (@Jimmy_Durkin), who covers San Jose State for the San Jose Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, took time to answer five questions about the Spartans before they make the (long) trek down to Alabama for Saturday's meeting with the Tigers.
Ryan Black: Looking back (and at your blog) at last week's 42-10 victory against North Dakota, you said the two biggest surprises were the play of quarterback Blake Jurich as well as that of the defense. The question is, was it more about Jurich and defenders playing well or that their FCS foe was just that bad? In a follow-up, how many positives do you believe Jurich/the defense took from that performance?
Jimmy Durkin: I think it was a little of both. Last year, San Jose State opened its season against a similar opponent in Sacramento State. It won that game 24-0, but to me the performance seemed discouraging. A much better quarterback than Jurich, current Chicago Bears' No. 3 QB David Fales, hit on only 50 percent of his passes and it seemed like the play-calling and the players didn't mesh well. Defensively in that game, the Spartans let Sac State move the ball fairly well and struggled to tackle them. That didn't happen against North Dakota. The offense was efficient, particularly in the red zone, and the defense played well and tackled well, something it never did last year. So I think from that comparison, this game was encouraging.
The biggest positive from Jurich was that he actually went out and played a game and played pretty well. There was a lot of skepticism about him as the starting quarterback. Junior Joe Gray had always been viewed as the quarterback of the future and the favorite to win the job after he dazzled at the spring game and Jurich fizzled. When Jurich suddenly won the job, it came as a surprise to many, although indications had begun leaning that way over the final week of the competition. So I really think the biggest positive was that he went out and won a game and looked good doing so.
Defensively, it's really the same as I wrote above: the tackling. I had some mild concerns about the tackling after the opener last year and those only grew and grew as the season wore on and it reached embarrassing levels when Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds rushed for seven touchdowns in a triple-overtime win in San Jose. Future opponents will be bigger, faster and stronger than North Dakota and tougher to tackle, but it was an encouraging sign. The defense looked overwhelmed last year under first-time defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson and his departure (he's now in the SEC as the outside linebackers coach at Vanderbilt) was welcomed by many to give them a fresh start.
Black: Speaking of the defense, Auburn folks have now gotten to know the name Greg Robinson. (Insert joke about it "not being the former Tiger left tackle.") Sure, it's only his first season on the job, but how different does the unit look compared to last year? Did he come in and drastically change everything? Or is he just making minor tweaks and installing his preferred scheme in smaller, easier-to-compartmentalize doses?
Durkin: The unit looks completely different. He returned them to the 4-3 defense that most of the players were more comfortable with. They ran the 4-3 under former coach Mike MacIntyre and his defensive coordinator Kent Baer and had the No. 24 defense in the country in 2012 when they went 11-2. The were in the top-10 in the country in sacks and really got after teams and the defense won them some games. There was no bigger difference than facing Navy. In 2012, the Spartans shut them out 12-0. Last year, they allowed 58 points to the Midshipmen and were No. 103 in the country defensively in Thompson's 3-4.
So Robinson has them back in the right scheme. He's got standout DT Travis Raciti playing his natural position and did the same with a couple other players, including CB Jimmy Pruitt (he missed the opener with a knee injury but should play Saturday). Plain and simple, they didn't have the right personnel to run the 3-4 last year, but that's what Thompson coached and that's what he was determined to have them play despite not having anybody capable of manning those key outside linebacker spots (a walk-on true freshman was one of their starters there). He repeatedly said throughout the season they had the personnel to run the 3-4, only to have head coach Ron Caragher finally acknowledge this spring that they didn't.
Robinson's defense is much more simplified and doesn't have the complicated personnel packages of Thompson's 3-4 and so players have a much greater understanding of what they're doing, which of course gives them the confidence to play freely on the field without overthinking everything.
Black: Receiver Tyler Winston has caught 10-plus passes and a touchdown in three straight games dating back to last season. What makes him such a dangerous target? Is he a top-level route runner? Are his hands remarkably good? All of the above?
Durkin: His size and his hands are his best attributes. He's 6-foot-2 with long arms and really can catch anything in his vicinity. He's great down near the red zone as a jump ball threat and has good run after the catch skills. He's a long strider when he runs, which makes him deceptively fast. He doesn't look like he's moving that quickly, but defenders end up struggling to take the proper angles and he's turned a few screen passes into big plays.
Black: Entering Year 2 of Caragher's tenure, how do you feel about the direction of the program? Winning back-to-back season openers and holding an above-.500 record (7-6) entering Saturday aren't bad signs. But it seems many believe last year was a disappointment, since the Spartans missed a bowl despite having Fales at the controls of the offense. Further, what are the reasonable expectations for the Spartans' (potential) ceiling under Caragher? Can they develop into consistent conference title contenders? Or is fighting for bowl eligibility every year a fairer standard?
Durkin: It's still a little bit incomplete. Last year, he made one true mistake that cost the team dearly. That was hiring Thompson as the defensive coordinator. He had been a respected coach and recruiter, but never a coordinator. He wasn't Caragher's first choice, but when he hired him it seemed like a decent pick. But it was quickly apparent that his best role is as a position coach and recruiter. That one decision alone likely was the difference between SJSU going 8-4 last year and returning to a bowl game.
The offense was able to set a school record for yards per game in his first season, so that bodes well for his coaching ability on his strong side of the ball. This year is his chance to prove he can develop a quarterback. At both of this stops as a head coach, he walked into a situation with a ready-made quarterback. At the University of San Diego, he inherited Josh Johnson from then-coach Jim Harbaugh. Last year, he inherited Fales. Both are in the NFL. So if he can turn Jurich into a solid quarterback and get them into a bowl game this year, it would bode very well because that would probably exceed many expectations. That, of course, would be a nice change from last year's failure to reach expectations.
I think the conference has enough holes in it without a true dominant team right now that competing for trips to the conference title game is a reasonable expectation. I believe they are probably still a year or two away from that, but the recruiting under Caragher has been better than it's ever been at SJSU and it seems like they've got a shot to finally be a program that can consistently reach bowl games.
Black: Let's close with Saturday's matchup: How does your crystal ball look? No, you don't have to give a score prediction. (But if you do, I'd be fine with that.) Think the Spartans will show oddsmakers — which pegged them as 30-plus point underdogs — aren't as smart as they think?
Durkin: I think they can flirt with covering the spread. I've pegged my prediction as around 45-17, which obviously would cover that. That might be a slightly optimistic view though. There's just not the experience on the offensive line for the Spartans to expect them to be able to create push or keep the rush away from the quarterback and so it could get away from them quickly. If it's anywhere close at halftime, I'd expect Auburn to really turn on the jets and run away with it in the third quarter.