Jody Sears had no choice.
Sacramento State’s head coach did not want to pull Nate Ketteringham’s redshirt. But starter Daniel Kniffin suffered a shoulder injury against Eastern Washington. Then backup Kolney Cassel, an SMU transfer, dislocated his shoulder against Montana State. All of a sudden, Ketteringham, a former 3-star recruit from powerhouse Centennial High in San Diego, California, was thrust into the action.
The 6-foot-4 righty had a modest debut, completing 5-of-9 passes for 40 yards in Sac State’s 35-13 loss at Montana State. The following week, the growing pains continued as Ketteringham completed just 14-of-33 passes for 113 yards and was sacked five times to Southern Utah’s Big Sky Conference-best defense.
With four weeks left in the season, Ketteringham found a groove and, in turn, Sacramento State found their quarterback of the present in the kid most thought would be the quarterback of the future. Against Idaho State, Sac’s previously stagnant offense — the Hornets averaged 11.1 points per game over their first six Division I games — finally found a rhythm. Ketteringham completed 20-of-26 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns in the 38-13 win over ISU.
The victory served as Sac’s only Division I win and its lone Big Sky win in 2015. But Ketteringham continued to show his potential. He threw for 335 yards and a touchdown in a 36-14 loss at Cal Poly; 339 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-35 loss at Northern Arizona; and for 296 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-21 loss to rival UC Davis.
“Playing Nate, I was playing the only hand we had left,” said Sears, who enters his third year as Sac State’s head coach. “It was a good experience. We weren’t going to make any rash decisions. That’s what we had. We felt good about it and we felt good about the job he was doing and the competitive heart he had. He ended up being really good. I thought he did a really nice job, especially as a freshman getting thrown under the bus.”
Sears said his staff has put an emphasis this off-season on competition at every single position. Ketteringham is the front-runner but will have to beat out Kniffin and Cassel, each juniors, during Sacramento State’s fall camp.
Although Ketteringham threw for 274 yards per game in his five starts, the Hornets’ offense was largely one-dimension, both due to opponent game plan and the varying health of star running back Jordan Robinson. Sac averaged just 71.3 yards rushing per game in Ketteringham’s five starts, including just 64 yards on 24 carries against UC Davis and just 35 yards on 22 carries against Cal Poly, Sac’s two in-state rivals. Despite Robinson rushing for 808 yards and averaging 4.7 yards per carry even with a nagging foot injury, the Hornets still ranked dead last in the Big Sky with 107.5 rushing yards per game.
“We have high expectations for Nate and I know he has high expectations for himself but we have to do a better job running the football, pure and simple,” Sears said. “We can’t have our entire offensive success swirl around Nate Ketteringham and his ability to throw the football. We were last in the conference in running the football. We’ve been decent in the past running the ball. That’s unacceptable.”
Robinson was a key cog in Sac State’s explosive offense two seasons ago. In Sears’ first campaign at the helm, an attack centered on quarterback Garrett Safron’s dual-threat skills and wide receiver DeAndre Carter’s ability to get open against any defense helped Sac to a 7-5 record thanks to 38.2 points per game. That fall, Sac averaged nearly 180 rushing yards per game as Robinson gained 863 yards and scored five touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per touch. Safron added 751 yards rushing to go with nearly 3,500 passing and 38 total touchdowns.
With Safron and Carter gone to graduation and Robinson banged up for the second half of the season — he rushed for 108 yards in the first half of the MSU game but did not return; the foot injury nagged him for the rest of the season as he rushed for just 250 yards in Sac’s final five games — Sac’s offense struggled. In an otherwise offensively explosive league, Sac averaged 19.6 points and 360 yards per game, each bottom two in the conference.
“Nobody wants to have a 2-9 season,” Robinson said. “After that season, I feel like everybody was like this isn’t happening again. We felt like we were on that cusp the year before. Everyone is ready to work, hungry to get after it and to get over that hump one more time.”
Robinson averaged nearly 100 yards per game in his first six starts of his junior year. He rushed for 106 yards, including a 69-yard touchdown against Weber State’s league-leading defense. The quick, explosive 5-foot-11, 195-pounder rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown in a narrow 28-20 loss to then-No. 11 Eastern Washington. The senior from Chino Hills, California piled up 149 yards in a 27-20 loss to Northern Colorado. And he surpassed 100 yards in two quarters against the Bobcats before the injury bug hit.
“Jordan didn’t have the year he hoped for last year so hopefully that’s a motivating factor coming into this year to have a better senior year,” Sears said. “I know last year was very disappointing for him. But it will be interesting to see because we have a couple of other young running backs. Demetrius Warren is going to be a senior who missed last year with an elbow. He’ll compete for that starting job there too.”
To aid in revamping the run game, Sears brought in longtime head coach Paul Wulff to coach his offensive line. Wulff earned Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year honors as the head coach at Eastern Washington in 2001, 2004 and 2005, sharing the league title in the latter two seasons. He parlayed the success into the head job at Washington State but struggled in the Pac 12, posting a 9-40 record overall that included just four conference wins in 36 league outings. Sears was EWU’s defensive coordinator from 2003 until 2007 and Washington State’s DC from 2008 until 2010.
Wulff served as an offensive assistant for the San Francisco 49ers for two seasons after his firing at Wazzu in 2011. In 2014, he was the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at South Florida. Wulff was a volunteer assistant at Iowa State last season.
“With the addition of Paul Wulff on the offensive line, that helps us a ton,” Sears said. “However, you can only lead the horse to water. You can’t make him drink. Our kids are going to have to show up this fall and the proof will be in the pudding.
“We have to get kids to grow up fast. We played a bunch of freshmen last year and we will never use that as an excuse but they have to grow up fast. This isn’t high school ball anymore. We were 2-9. That ain’t good enough. For these kids to come in here and think something is going to get handed to him is a fantasy. We will see where we are come September 3 and start measuring it then.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.