Jody Sears does not mince words. Especially not when talking about his team’s young, unproven defense.
In Sears’ second season as a head coach, Sacramento State ranked third in the Big Sky Conference in rushing defense, allowing 167 rushing yards per game thanks to a scheme predicated on freeing up tackling machine Darnell Sankey. The two-time All-Big Sky selection led the league with 153 tackles as Sac State used line games and other schematic formulas up front to provide lanes for Sankey to eat up ball carriers.
But Sankey is now trying to make the active roster for the Denver Broncos.
The Hornets employed an otherwise youthful defense around Sankey, starting linebacker Manoah Pearson, safety Manny Scott-Anderson and nickel back Elijah Wallace as true freshmen. Defensive tackle Wyatt Ming started the first eight games of the season as a redshirt freshman and classmate George Obinna started the final four. Defensive end Ben Sorensen, linebacker Tyler Meteer, cornerback Ernest Jenkins and safety Austin Clark all started at least half of Sac State’s games as sophomores.
While the Hornets stopped the run at a decent rate, the undeveloped secondary gave up nearly 290 passing yards per outing. Opponents threw for 25 touchdowns against Sac, the second-highest total in the league.
The season resulted in a 2-9 record a year after Sacramento State went 7-5 in Sears’ first season. The assumption is that playing so many young players, despite the loss of Sankey, means the future is bright for the Hornets’ defense. Sears is not ready to anoint his team just yet.
“Not really no, I didn’t see much progress in the spring,” said Sears, the defensive coordinator on Paul Wulff’s staff at Eastern Washington and Washington State before taking the head coaching job at Weber State in 2012. “There were flashes. When you lose Darnell Sankey, a guy like him, it’s hard to replace. Manoah Pearson will be a sophomore. You would like to think he will step right into that roll but I don’t see it. He has work to do and so do the guys on the defensive line and the secondary.
“We were last in the conference in pass defense. Those guys all have big plates to handle here when the season starts because I didn’t see it at all in the spring. They are going to have to come in here, hopefully they are in good shape because of right now, we have a long way to go.”
Several Sacramento State defenders showed flashes of their potential while taking their lumps last season. Pearson notched 77 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss, helping spark his selection to the preseason All-Big Sky Conference team announced in July. Scott-Anderson notched 72 tackles and broke up three basses. Clark had 51 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and an interception. Wallace led all cornerbacks in the league with 6.5 tackles for loss. Obinna notched a team-high 5.5 sacks, tied with Montana State specialist Jessie Clark for third in the league. Sorensen led the team with 8.5 tackles for loss.
Anthony Payne, a senior who started 11 games in 2015 and 30 overall in his career, and Nick Crouch, a senior with 17 career starts should provide a veteran presence this season. Despite the displays of budding talent, Sears refuses to let his team rest on its laurels.
“We absolute use our poor performance to challenge those guys,” Sears said. “Not in a belittling way. But we have to be honest and we have to smack them right between the eyes with the truth. If we did a good enough job recruiting, we have the right guys that are going to respond in the right way.”
Two seasons ago, Sacramento State employed one of the most explosive offenses in the league in reaching the brink of the FCS playoffs for the first time. Quarterback Garrett Safron threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns and rushed for 751 yards and four touchdowns as Sacramento State averaged 38.2 points per game en rout to a 7-5 record. If not for a narrow 59-56 loss on the final play of the game to Montana State, the Hornets likely would’ve made the playoffs.
With the graduation of Safron and All-America wide receiver DeAndre Carter (99 catches, 1,321 yards, 17 TDs in 2014), the offense took a major step back in 2015. With star tailback Jordan Robinson struggling with a foot injury for the last month of the season, the run game sputtered, averaging a conference-worst 107.5 yards per game. Sophomore quarterbacks Daniel Kniffin and Kolney Cassel were both lost for the season by the second week of October, forcing Sears to pull Nate Ketteringham’s redshirt.
“When Nate came into the season, he did really well for just getting throw into the fire,” said Robinson, who rushed for 808 yards and four touchdowns despite the injury.
“Spring ball offensively, I feel like we did really well. We made some major changes, some big moves.”
One of the big moves included Sears hiring Wulff, the Big Sky Coach of the Year in 2001, 2004 and 2005 at EWU, to coach his offensive line. Wulff’s new unit includes three players — junior tackle Jonathan Bade (6-5, 270), junior guard Pailake Aiono (6-3, 320), sophomore guard Ruben Meza (6-5, 265) — who started all 11 games last season.
“We got Coach Wulff in there as our offensive line coach,” Sears said. “He came in and made some big changes and really got them going, got them fired up.”
A year after losing Carter, the Hornets must replace Shane Harrison and Nnamdi Agude on the outside. Speedy junior slot receiver Isiah Hennie returns after productive seasons each of the last two but beyond that, Sac’s wide receivers are unproven for the first time in the Sears era.
Cody Demps, an All-Big Sky point guard for the Sac State basketball team, walked on to the football team during spring. Robinson said Demps “made a big jump” during spring drills and could be a red-zone threat at 6-foot-4 with good leaping ability.
“The only way to put yourself on the map is to go out and get Ws,” Robinson said. “I feel like we haven’t done that in recent years but we are ready and willing to get over this hump and get this season going because I think it’s going to be a breakout season for us.”
From Ketteringham to Robinson to Hennie to the offensive line, from Pearson to Wallace to Obinna to Scott-Anderson and everyone in between, the Hornets must grow up quickly to have a chance in the increasingly competitive Big Sky.
“We all know what the prize is,” Sears said. “Everyone wants the championship. Everyone wants the prize. But what about today? What are you going to act like today? Are you going to act like a champion today? Getting that through, building the culture — just like Bill Walsh used to say, your culture is going to precede your successful results — so establishing that and creating that environment to give us a chance is really what we have to hang our hats on.
“Where we finished last year is not acceptable. Period.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.