Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
SACRAMENTO STATE HORNETS
RECORD LAST SEASON: 7-4 OVERALL, 6-2 IN BIG SKY PLAY
2018 non-conference record: 2-1
Big question: Will the offensive line gel?
Sac State lost two all-conference linemen from 2017 in guard Pailake Aiono and tackle Jon Blade. Head coach Jody Sears will be trying to replace them with a mixture of veterans and young guys, which might be difficult for a unit that relies so much on continuity. Center Ivan Espiritu, guard Wyatt Ming, left tackle Taylor Tappin and right tackle Ruben Meza are returning seniors. Sophomore Thomas Parker and freshman Troy Stiefel are among the youngsters competing for playing time.
The offensive line was the heart of a team that led the Big Sky in scoring offense and was fourth in total offense last year, and will have to be the same this year if the Hornets hope to repeat those numbers. The improvement along the offensive front is in stark contrast to a group that was consistently inconsistent for most of Sac State’s 20-plus years in the league. The influx of talent, priority on the position group in recruiting and the teaching of offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Paul Wulff have all played factors in Sac State’s improvement up front.
“We lost two pretty good offensive linemen, and so that’s a big concern for us, a big concern for me,” Sears said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “Who’s going to fill that role, and if we’re still going to be able to run the ball as well as we did a year ago?”
During the Hornets’ 2-1 start, Sac State is rushing for 157 yards per game. Elijah Dotson is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has scored three touchdowns. He rushed for 81 yards and a score as Sac rushed for 191 yards in a 28-25 win over Northern Colorado last week.
Offensive Player to Watch: Andre Lindsey, WR
This is not so much a “he’ll have to have a big season” pick as much as it is a “no, literally, just watch Andre Lindsey” pick. The Big Sky 110-meter high hurdles outdoor champion two springs ago and a NCAA West Region championship meet qualifier last spring caught just 25 passes in 11 games last year. But he gained 756 yards with those catches, good for an average of 30.2 yards per reception. He was a second-team All-Big Sky selection because of his explosive ability.
When there’s a player on the field who can gobble up a third of the field every time he touches the ball, you watch. The question for Lindsey now is, with leading receiver (by receptions) Isiah Hennie gone, can he also be the guy who’s an every-down threat? Sears is confident.
“Andre, he has really developed himself into an all-conference type of receiver,” Sears said. “I think he gets a little bit, maybe of a bad rap, if you will, because of the track thing, but what has impressed me most about Andre is he’s a football guy first, and oh by the way, he’s pretty good at track. It’s not the other way around.”
Thus far, Lindsey has seven catches for 143 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown. He is averaging 20 yards per catch, second on the Hornets to fellow returning All-Big Sky senior Jaelin Ratliff, who has caught nine passes for 217 yards (24.1 yards per catch).
Defensive Player to Watch: George Obinna, DE
Obinna had eight sacks in 11 games last year, third in the conference, but finished with just 23 total tackles. That’s the profile of a pass-rushing specialist, which is a valuable player to have, but not one who can carry a defense. Obinna has the potential to be much more. Sac State’s run defense wasn’t bad last year, finishing fourth in the league at 154.6 yards surrendered per game, but Sears would like to see it get even better.
“I’m looking at the defensive line to kind of step up a little bit and be a little better against the run,” Sears said. “Yeah, they had a bunch of sacks last year and we were pretty good on third down, but the run game is still a little bit of a thorn in our side.”
Obinna, who’s developed from a skinny recruit to one of the best pass rushers in the conference, will have to make more gains to be the focus of that effort.
“He’s going to be a huge factor against the run game. There’s no doubt about it. You can’t just be a pass-rush guy,” Sears said. “He’s really developed himself into a guy that can stop the run, and a guy that can strong-arm pulling linemen and be gap-sound. He’s going to play a huge role in that.”
Unfortunately, the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder has not been healthy this season. He’s appeared in two games but made just two tackles.
In the place of the first-team All-Big Sky selection, Elijah Chambers has risen up. The 6-foot-2, 270-pounder has 4.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. Mister Harriel, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, has anchored the back end, piling up 16 tackles and snaring Sac State’s only two interceptions this season.
Senior defensive back Immanuel Anderson: “We’ve been focusing on changing the culture of the program,” Anderson said. “We are focusing on building ourselves and not getting too much outside ourselves. We know that we have the talent. Now we have to continue translating it to success.”