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Sac State sets sights on big breakthrough
For Sacramento State football coach Marshall Sperbeck, August means a return to limited sleep and a focus on rapid improvement – plus football jargon around the clock.
That explains why Sperbeck was all grins and back-slapping cheer Monday, when practice officially opened.
Sperbeck, entering his fifth season with the Hornets, greeted 17 returning starters and 35 new players. After a day of meetings and skull sessions, the Hornets hit the field Monday evening eager for a championship run. Pads come into play Friday.
“The grind is here, but I’m excited, and we’re ready to roll,” Sperbeck said.
With skill and depth on both sides of the ball and coming off the program’s first winning season in 10 years, the Hornets expect to challenge for the Big Sky Conference championship and reach the postseason. Both would be firsts for a program in its 19th season of Division I-AA/Football Championship Subdivision play.
“We should be ready (for a playoff push) going into our fifth year together as a staff and program,” Sperbeck said. “We feel like we have our best talent and depth. This could be a very good year.”
Sac State, 6-5 last season, lost four games by a total of 11 points. Three of those losses came in the Big Sky to Montana (28-25), Montana State (64-61 in overtime) and eventual national champion Eastern Washington (28-24).
Jeff Fleming, who passed for 2,044 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, returns as the starting quarterback. Sperbeck said Fleming is fit and motivated after missing spring drills to rest an injured elbow.
Chase Deadder returns at wide receiver after leading the Hornets with 37 receptions for 788 yards and six touchdowns in 2010. Morris Norrise had eight touchdown catches last season and will be joined by 2009 starters John Hendershott and Brandyn Reed, both of whom missed most of last season because of injuries.
Bryan Hilliard, who heads a deep backfield that includes power and speed, rushed for 914 yards and 12 touchdowns a year ago and will work behind a line that includes three returning starters.
But with all that talent and just one ball, can it work? The players are counting on it.
“It’s about winning games more than anything,” Hendershott said. “We feel like we’ve got a great offense, very explosive.”
Leading the defense will be Zack Nash, a senior lineman who made a school-record 13 sacks in 2010 and was named the preseason Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
Nash is quiet by nature, but he dominates on the field.
“He’s relentless,” Sperbeck said. “Always plays hard.”
One prominent newcomer is Sierra College transfer John Bloomfield, who also played at Grant High School. The defensive end/linebacker missed most of last season because of a broken arm, and Sperbeck said his program was fortunate to land him.
“If he played the entire season,” Sperbeck said, “more teams would’ve wanted him. He’s very good.”
Sperbeck said the focus this week, before players put on the pads, is to “get everyone on the same page.”
“We like our team, but you never really know what will happen,” Sperbeck said. “This is the time to establish an identity. We need to have a good camp to get it started.”
Sac State plays five of its first six games on the road, including the season opener vs. Oregon State on Sept. 3.
By Joe Davidson, The Sacramento Bee