By DARREN WILCOX
San Jose State is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Western Athletic Conference — they get no respect.
The Spartans, who haven’t had a winning season since 1992 and haven’t been to a bowl game since 1990, will look to improve on last year’s 4-7 record with a greater focus on unity.
This summer, 54 players stayed around campus to lift weights, bringing the team together while improving its strength and conditioning.
Senior Lyle West, a safety from Fremont, Calif., said the fact that so many players stayed around will make a difference in this season’s team.
“(It’s) definitely a big deal,” West said. “If you’re working hard and you see someone next to you working hard also, you know you can trust them.”
West anchors an experienced secondary that returns all four starters from last season. Senior cornerback Omarr Smith is in his third season as a starter and was second in the nation in interceptions last year with seven. Smith also does double-duty as punt returner for San Jose.
Head coach Dave Baldwin said the secondary is the strength of the Spartan defense but is not necessarily the key to its success.
“The defensive line is the key for us,” Baldwin said. “We felt last year we weren’t big enough to stop the run.”
In 1997, San Jose gave up 2,037 yards rushing, an average of 4.1 yards per play and 185.2 yards per game. In comparison, the Spartans rushed for merely 1,488 yards.
The Spartans will get a lift offensively with the addition of sophomore tailback Deonce Whitaker from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. Whitaker, who missed his freshman season because of academics, is 6-feet 1-inch tall, 180 pounds, and Baldwin said he is the best pure athlete on the team.
In addition to running the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, Whitaker can squat 600 pounds and bench press 370 pounds. He will challenge starter James Hodgins, who is the No. 1 tailback despite an injury-shortened 1997 season.
The big question mark for San Jose is at quarterback, where the job is up for grabs among returning players Brian Vye and Chris Kasteler and newcomer Bobby Sabelhaus.
Baldwin said a starter will not be named until the Spartans’ first game, after which he will have three games to prove he deserves the job.
“If he performs well, he’ll keep the job,” Baldwin said. “It’s not just two quarters, but he will get a decent shot to make it.”
The WAC media picked San Jose to finish dead last in the Pacific Division, but according to West, the lack of respect is a positive thing.
“It gives me motivation to go out and make a difference,” West said.
The Spartans are hoping the difference will show up in the win column.