Nick Nash is San Jose State’s backup quarterback on paper, but he’s far from a bench warmer who leisurely patrols the sidelines with a clipboard in hand.
In a team that has made the best start in 65 years on the way to one Saturday’s matchup in Hawaiithe dynamic sophomore added complexity to the Spartans ‘offense with his unique role, one similar to that of the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill.
“He’s one of the better playmakers we have on our soccer team,” said SJSU quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson.
When Nick Starkel was injured early last month in a pivotal game against San Diego state, Nash proved it triumphantly that he’s more than a Wildcat quarterback. He threw for 169 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 53 yards and a TD while the Spartans won 28-17.
Starkel returned the following week, against UNLV, but Nash didn’t have to wait for coach Brent Brennan to call his number.
During the first part the coach dived into his bag of tricks.
Starkel, out of the shotgun, received the snap and pretended to have given a transfer to Isaiah Holiness. But Starkel didn’t back down to pass. Instead, the Arkansas graduate transfer threw the ball to Nash, who shot over the right side after the snap.
With most of the defense going in the opposite direction, Nash rushed 6 feet long – a modest gain, yes, but hardly a modest page in the playbook.
“It forces your opponent to prepare for both,” said Brennan after SJSU’s victory 34-17. “They can’t just prepare for the drop-back guy, and they can’t just prepare for the double threat guy. They must prepare for both players. ”
The formula is not exactly groundbreaking. In fact, San Jose State did something similar with Nash and Josh Love last season.
This season, the state of San Jose averaged about 25 more rush yards per game than last year. Much of that has to do with the six-foot Nash, of which six-foot is the third most in the Mountain West per attempt.
“If he goes in there, he can do things that you can’t necessarily call a play,” Gunderson said.
There is no way to summarize how San Jose State uses Nash as it is not limited to specific scenarios. Maybe he starts a ride. Maybe he’ll enter a driveway halfway up. Maybe he won’t come in at all.
When Nash enters, the guessing game continues. He could throw. He could run. He could run. He could fall back, inspect his receivers, decline all options, and scramble.
That lingering question of what “could” happen is a source of pain for opponents of defensive coordinators.
“The term we’re using is those defensive coordinators who have to burn a lot of chalk on the Nick Nash package,” Gunderson said.
A good example of this unpredictability came against UNLV in the first quarter. In San Jose State’s second drive, Nash ran the first three plays before being eliminated for Starkel.
Nash scrambled for 12 yards, completed a seven-yard pass to Billy Bob Humphreys on the run and passed the ball to Kairee Robinson for a four-yard win.
With Nash below center, the Spartans moved the ball 23 yards with three different moves – a designed quarterback run, a throw, and a handoff. Before UNLV could adjust, Nash was again on the sidelines, the question of his eventual return stuck in the psyche of the defense.
“You have to respect all aspects of the attack, throw-game-wise – cover up, go this route and down that route,” said SJSU defense coordinator Derrick Odum. “Then, if he doesn’t like it, he can take off.”
Nash’s effectiveness is the product of his particular style. In general, quarterbacks avoid contact. Nash invites it. Rather than sliding, it’s common for Nash to drop his shoulder and walk through a defender and fight for yardage.
In the second quarter against UNLV, San Jose State had three consecutive quarterbacks for Nash. He won a total of 38 yards, fought defenders and didn’t slip once.
Nash’s physical running style has been a topic of discussion with coaches. It’s a delicate balancing act. The coaches don’t want Nash to get hurt, but they understand that through bravado he is a threat.
“You don’t want to change him,” Brennan said. ‘He’s just so competitive. You never want to withdraw that. You really want to pour gasoline on that fire and let it go. ”
Talent is only half the reason this game plan works. A two-quarterback system could lend itself to dissatisfaction from one or both sides, but Nash and Starkel bought both.
Their close relationship certainly helps the product in the field as well. Through Zoom and FaceTime calls during the pandemic, Nash and Starkel got together, and Gunderson noted that the two are always on each other’s side.
“We are best friends off the field and then on the field we are each other’s biggest supporters,” said Starkel.
Interestingly, the state of San Jose did not lure Nash from Woodbridge High School in Irvine to play quarterback. At the time of Nash’s hiring, the Spartans had an abundance of quarterbacks and didn’t want to bring another into the fold. The state of San Jose wanted Nash, but since the program couldn’t attract another gunfighter, Nash was recruited as a security position he played in high school.
Once spring 2019 kicked in, the Spartans found themselves short of quarterbacks. After several players left the program, Love and Chance La Chapelle were the only two quarterbacks on the roster. To keep overuse to a minimum, Nash, a gray shirt, was supposed to become a quarterback in the spring and then return to defense.
That plan fell through. Nash played well enough in the spring to necessitate a full-time transition to the position. Gunderson recalled Nash throwing “a nice deep ball high in the lights of the stadium at first,” one of the many plays that landed him in the quarterback room.
Nash is still in its development phase, according to Brennan. Looking back on his breakout performance against San Diego state, Nash admitted that while he threw the ball well in flight, his pocket presence is an area for growth. But given what he’s shown so far, Nash may be tormenting opposing defenses for years to come.
“It’s nice to see how he has developed as a player,” said Brennan. “I think he has an incredibly high ceiling and his future is extremely bright.”