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OAYP Sun Belt Preview: Texas State

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Johnson breaks down the 2019 Texas State Bobcats using his OAYP advanced metric.

It’s August and college football is just around the corner. To get ready for the Sun Belt season, I’ll be previewing each of the league’s teams through the prism of my OAYP advanced metric. In short, the formula takes each program’s opponent adjusted performance from 2018 and combines that score with the individual player scores that we have released throughout the offseason, in order to make it predictive.

As there are just two teams left to preview, Texas State is up today, and we’ll round things out tomorrow with Troy.

Below you’ll find the team’s projected starting lineup, plus some key contributors, with each qualifying returnee’s marginal OAYP score and Sun Belt position ranking. The players with OAYP scores and rankings listed are full qualifiers. Players with OAYP scores but not rankings listed were second tier qualifiers, but did not meet the full qualifying threshold. Players with neither listed did not meet any qualifying threshold.

However, whereas the prior marginal OAYP rankings reflected each player’s number only relative to the Sun Belt, these scores are relative to Southern Pigskin’s entire coverage area -- so the ACC and SEC, as well. This should more accurately reflect a given player’s efficiency and value since the sample size now includes over 600 players, so especially strong or weak groups in any particular league won’t skew the rankings anymore.

They say that defense wins championships, but if that were the case, Texas State wouldn’t have gone 1-7 in conference play last year. The Bobcats bring back just about everything on that side of the ball, though, so if the offense can get its act together, this is not a team to be overlooked.

OFFENSE

2018 Offensive OAYP (Rank): -2.34 (10)
2019 Projected Offensive OAYP (Rank): -1.45 (10)
QB Ranking: 7
RB Ranking: 10
WR/TE Ranking: 5
OL Ranking: 7

If we’re doing the silver linings thing, Texas State’s offense can’t possibly be any worse in 2019. Even after losing one of the few offensive bright spots from 2018, tight end Keenen Brown who was one of the best weapons in all of college football last year, there is reason for optimism about this group of pass catchers.

First of all, Texas State made a great hire by bringing in Jake Spavital, who as an offensive coordinator has had his team in the national top 15 in passing every year since he first got the job in 2013 at Texas A&M, except for once. Then, Spavital made a great hire of his own when he named Bob Stitt as his offensive coordinator.

As far as the on-field personnel, OAYP did not love Hutch White, but, as noted by his position in the Top 100 player rankings, he feels significantly underrated by the formula. Frankly, his lack of production was due in large part to the quarterback play, as on catchable balls he has the fourth highest passer rating on his targets among returning Sun Belt receivers. Now, White was the only qualifying returnee, per OAYP’s minimum threshold, but on a secondary qualifying sample size, Jeremiah Haydel had the highest score in the league. Haydel went for six on 25% of his receptions and averaged over 20 yards per catch. Now in a Spavital offense, Haydel’s potential should be more fully unlocked. Same goes for Javen Banks, who didn’t hit either qualifying minimum, targeted only 14 times, but did find the end zone on three of his ten grabs.

Of course, this is all contingent on more consistent play from behind center, but Spavital has been an OC and QB coach for programs that oversaw the development of the likes of Johnny Manziel and Will Grier, among others. Gresch Jensen should be ahead of the curve thanks to a prior relationship with Bob Stitt from their shared time at Montana. Tyler Vitt, too, showed real flashes a season ago, despite posting the lowest OAYP score in the conference.

It’s hard to blame everything on the quarterbacks though, given how poorly the offensive line performed last year. After ranking in the 90’s and 100’s in just about every meaningful O-Line metric in 2018, there’s plenty of room to improve. It certainly helps matters that Aaron Brewer is back for his senior year. This guy can play any position along the line of scrimmage at all-conference caliber level and was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded run blocker in the entire league.

Similarly for the running backs, I have a hard time pinning their last place SBC ranking entirely on them. Now, Anthony D. Taylor’s numbers are mildly alarming, but Anthony Smith was more efficient than his YPC average would lead one to believe, in 2017, and he offers more playmaking upside at the second level. If he’s healthy, he should earn more opportunities than Taylor barring some serious offseason improvement.

Realistically, it’s difficult to make any meaningful projections about this offense given the new staff and quarterback situation. There are some fun pieces in the receiving corps that should ease the transition, but so much has to get a lot better right away for this team to truly contend. That’s a lot to ask, but even incremental improvement would go a long way in the immediacy. If nothing else, this group should be a heckuva lot more exciting to watch than it has been.

DEFENSE

2018 Defensive OAYP: 0.01 (5)
2019 Projected Defensive OAYP: 0.21 (4)
EDGE Ranking: 5
DL Ranking: 5
LB Ranking: 1
CB Ranking: 1
S Ranking: 2

Oh man. Eleven qualified returnees, nine of whom graded positively, per OAYP, seven at least in the second tier threshold, two over that 1.0 ‘superstar’ threshold, all five position groups in the top half of the league, three in the top two, and two at number one… this defense could be awesome.

A personal favorite of mine, I think OAYP is somewhat underrating edge defender Frankie Griffin. A versatile athlete with an innate playmaking ability, he posted eight tackles for loss, a pair of sacks, and forced three fumbles. Only time will tell how new defensive coordinator Zac Spavital will impact this group’s progression -- his defenses were pretty stylistically different at Texas Tech than the previous Texas State regimes were -- but the talent and depth exists for the Bobcats to make another leap.

On the defensive line, Ishmael Davis was one of the most underrated players in the Sun Belt last year, but OAYP is giving him his fair due. An impact defensive lineman for what was quietly one of the better defenses in all of college football, he doesn’t offer a ton in the way of pass rushing, but proved to be quite stout against the run, posting double digit stuffs, and the second highest havoc play per tackle rate in the Bobcats’ front seven. Davis should thrive in Spavital’s more aggressive defense this season, which could unlock some otherwise untapped pass rush potential.

Behind him, Bryan London is the prototype, returning a league best 13.5% run stop percentage, among linebackers, not to mention PFF’s highest coverage grade. Nikolas Daniels, meanwhile, offers high end pass rush potential, tallying the most pressures in the Sun Belt last year at the position. These two also ended up first and second in the Sun Belt in tackles last year, with 109 and 108, respectively. Troy obviously has a top notch duo and Georgia Southern has a couple of guys ready to make the leap, but until proven otherwise this is clearly the top inside linebacker duo in the conference.

Yet, for all the experience in the linebacking corps, and the underrated play of the defensive line, the secondary is the biggest reason why no one should look forward to lining up across from this unit. Anthony Taylor returns a top four passer rating allowed among returning Sun Belt cornerbacks, and was among the national leaders last season with 7.8 yards per reception allowed, while Jarron Morris allowed the lowest marginal efficiency of any of their secondary starters, and tallied the most passes defensed of any freshman in the conference. Plus, even though this duo isn’t as good as Georgia Southern’s, Texas State has three bonafide studs at cornerback to work with. Factor in Kordell Rodgers, and there’s a case to be made that Texas State is even stronger than Georgia Southern at the position, overall. I’m not saying I would make that case, but someone else could if they were compelled to do so. His 57.8 passer rating allowed last year is third among returning cornerbacks, and even better than Anthony Taylor’s, and he actually led the team in interceptions. Again, the success of this unit is contingent upon their comfortability under Zac Spavital, but man is this group gifted. Plus, for what it’s worth, OAYP would agree with the person making said case that I’m too scared to make.

Then, at safety, Jashon Waddy is an absolute playmaker. He had an interception, seven pass breakups, and two forced fumbles last year in his first season playing safety, and his 36.2% havoc play per tackle rate was the highest on the team, among Texas State’s starters and key contributors, while Josh Newman posted PFF’s second highest grade in coverage among returning SBC safeties. He doesn’t have the raw production of some of the other guys, but he thrived in Texas State’s more bend-don’t-break defense.

In short, while the offense hopes to look way different under Jake Spavital and Stitt, the defense is hoping that Zac Spavital’s more aggressive approach just won’t screw up a good thing. I don’t think that it will. In some ways, it could actually manufacture some more big play opportunities for a defense that is too talented to be anything but good. If I’m right, and that’s the case, this defense will be more than just good, though.

POSITION GROUP RANKINGS

1. Linebackers
2. Cornerbacks
3. Safeties
4. Edge Defenders
5. Defensive Line
6. Pass Catchers
7. Offensive Line
8. Quarterback
9. Running Backs

TOP 100 PLAYERS

These are the athletes listed in my annual preseason ranking of the 100 best players in the Sun Belt, which combines my personal opinion and the eye test with the OAYP metric.

8. LB Bryan London
26. CB Anthony Taylor
31. OL Aaron Brewer
32. LB Nikolas Daniels
37. S Jashon Waddy
43. CB Jarron Morris
44. S Josh Newman
46. EDGE Frankie Griffin
57. CB Kordell Rodgers
77. DL Ishmael Davis
84. WR Hutch White
86. WR Jeremiah Haydel

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Texas State should be the most improved team in the league this season, not just on the field, but in the win-loss column, as well. That’s in part due to a friendly draw, missing Georgia Southern from the East, although the Bobcats did give the Eagles all they wanted last year, and getting ULM at home, but .500 in conference play is totally feasible.

In 2018, the Sun Belt was split into five good teams, four bad teams, and Louisiana-Monroe as a sort of bridge between the two. Texas State was one of those bad teams. While they’re not yet ready to compete with the SBC ruling class -- double digit dogs to A-State, Louisiana, Troy, and App -- they could join the Warhawks on the bridge and maybe even beat them head-to-head. Granted, they would be about a field goal underdog on a neutral site, and the line would be closer to a touchdown in Monroe, but in San Marcos that’s almost a pick ‘em. Take care of business against the teams they’re supposed to beat, pull of the upset against ULM, and a 4-4 record with a shot at bowl eligibility could be in the cards for Jake Spavital and company in year one.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP