Sacramento State coach Jody Sears knows he was spoiled last year.
He inherited a senior-led team that understood what it took to compete in the Big Sky Conference.
The Hornets finished 7-5, which tied for their most wins of the Division I era and marked their best overall record since 2000.
But quarterback Garrett Safron, wide receiver DeAndre Carter, defensive lineman Jaycee Totty and linebacker Henry Fernandez (now an assistant coach), the team’s leaders, graduated.
Although some veterans remain, including star senior linebacker Darnell Sankey, the Hornets will be heavily dependent on underclass players this season.
Entering Saturday night’s home opener against Eastern Oregon, the usually upbeat Sears admitted some concerns on the heels of several disappointing fall practices.
“We’ve been trying to develop some consistency and unity on the offensive side of the football,” Sears said. “We’re trying to develop some consistency in the passing game, and we are not really near where we were a year ago.”
So it may help that for the first time in eight seasons, Sac State is opening its season at home. It also may help that the game is against an NAIA school, rather than a Football Bowl Subdivision school. Sac State plays Sept. 12 at Washington.
Hornets fans will see plenty of new faces among the starters.
Sophomore quarterback Daniel Kniffin (Rocklin High School) will make his first career start, as will offensive linemen Anthony Viveiros, Lake Aiono and Ruben Meza, a redshirt freshman. Left tackle Lars Hanson and wide receiver Shane Harrison, who sat out last season, are the only seniors who have starting experience. Versatile junior offensive lineman Casey Dakin, another returning starter, is out with an injury.
Three of the four Hornets’ top safeties – Malcolm Thomas (Woodcreek), Manny Scott-Anderson (Elk Grove) and Dre Terrell (Pleasant Grove) – are freshmen. So are the top two rovers, Joey Banks (Franklin) and Elijah Wallace. Wyatt Ming is starting at right defensive tackle.
Sankey and defensive linemen Nick Mazza and Antonio Hayes are the only senior defensive starters, though senior tackle Peter Nonu and senior cornerback JoshuaArmstrong, who combined for 18 starts last season, are out of Saturday’s game for violating team rules.
Eastern Oregon, which finished 8-3 last season, was ranked No. 13 nationally in the NAIA preseason poll, though the Mountaineers lost their opener 40-28 to College of Idaho last weekend.
“Hopefully, we can get started off on the right foot,” Sears said. “Eastern Oregon is a very good team, and they’ve got an extremely explosive offense with a really good quarterback (Zach Bartlow). … We’ve got to play really good football.”
Notes – Mazza will wear No. 43 this season in memory of former Hornets defensive end John Bloomfield. Bloomfield was a senior in 2012 when he died from complications of a collapsed lung. Since then, no Sac State player had worn No. 43. “After speaking with his family, our leadership council, and our coaches, we thought that bringing John’s number back was a great way to remember what he brought to this team,” Sears said. Mazza is one of the Hornets four captains this season.
▪ Sac State will honor former Hornets safety and Contra Costa Sheriff Carlos “Diamond” Francies before the game. Francies died in August while attempting to rescue a swimmer in Lake Tahoe.
▪ The team will wear helmet decals that feature the initials “JL” in memory of strength and conditioning coach Jeff Law. The 25-year-old Law died Aug. 10.