Nick Nash is San Jose State’s backup quarterback on paper, but he’s far from a benchwarmer who leisurely patrols the sidelines with a clipboard in hand.
On a team that’s off to its best start in 65 years heading into a matchup Saturday at Hawaii, the dynamic sophomore has added complexity to the Spartans’ offense with his unique role, one similar to the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill.
“He’s one of the better playmakers we have on our football team,” SJSU quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson said.
When Nick Starkel was injured early in a crucial game against San Diego State last month, Nash triumphantly proved that he’s more than a Wildcat quarterback. He threw for 169 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 53 yards and a TD as 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.
On the first play, the coach dug into his bag of tricks.
Starkel, out of the shotgun, received the snap and faked a handoff to Isaiah Holiness. But Starkel didn’t drop back to pass. Instead, the graduate transfer from Arkansas pitched the ball to Nash, who streaked over from the right side after the snap.
With most of the defense going in the opposite direction, Nash scampered for 6 yards — a modest gain, yes, but hardly a modest page in the playbook.
“It forces your opponent to prepare for both,” Brennan said after SJSU’s 34-17 victory. “They don’t just get to prepare for the drop back guy, and they don’t get to just prepare for the dual-threat guy. They gotta prepare for both players.”
The formula isn’t exactly breaking new ground. In fact, San Jose State did something similar last season with Nash and Josh Love.
This season, San Jose State is averaging about 25 more rushing yards per game than last year. Much of that has to do with the 6-foot-1, 184-pound Nash, whose 6.8 yards per attempt are the third-most in the Mountain West.
“When he goes in there, he is able to do stuff that you can’t necessarily call a play for,” Gunderson said.
There’s no way to summarize how San Jose State uses Nash because he’s not constrained to specific scenarios. He might start a drive. He might enter midway through a drive. He might not come in at all.
When Nash enters, the guessing game continues. He might throw. He might run. He might throw on the run. He might drop back, survey his receivers, decline all options and scramble.
That lingering question of what “might” happen is a source of agony among opposing defensive coordinators.
“The term we use is those defensive coordinators have to burn a lot of chalk on the Nick Nash package,” Gunderson said.
A good example of this unpredictability came in the first quarter against UNLV. In San Jose State’s second drive, Nash ran the first three plays before being subbed out for Starkel.
Nash scrambled for 12 yards, completed a seven-yard pass to Billy Bob Humphreys on the run and handed the ball off to Kairee Robinson for a four-yard gain.
With Nash under center, the Spartans moved the ball 23 yards with three different actions — a designed quarterback run, a throw and a handoff. Before UNLV could adjust, Nash was back on the sideline, the question of his eventual return lingering in the defense’s psyche.
“You gotta honor all of the aspects of the offense, throw-game wise — cover down, cover this route and that route,” SJSU defensive coordinator Derrick Odum said. “Then, if he doesn’t like it, he can take off.”
Nash’s effectiveness is the product of his particular style. Generally speaking, quarterbacks avoid contact. Nash invites it. Instead of sliding, it’s common for Nash to lower his shoulder and barrel through a defender and fight for yardage.
In the second quarter against UNLV, San Jose State ran three consecutive quarterback keeps for Nash. He gained 38 total yards, fought off defenders and didn’t slide once.
Nash’s physical brand of running 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 bravado makes him a threat.
“You don’t want to change him,” Brennan said. “He’s just so competitive. You don’t ever wanna pull that back. You really want to pour gasoline on that fire and let him go.”
Talent is only half the reason that this game plan works. A two-quarterback system could lend itself to discontent from one or both parties, but Nash and Starkel have both bought in.
Their tight-knit relationship certainly helps the on-field product as well. Through Zoom and FaceTime calls throughout the pandemic, Nash and Starkel meshed, and Gunderson commented that the two are always by each other’s side.
“We’re best friends off the field, and then on the field, we’re each other’s biggest supporters,” Starkel said.
Interestingly enough, San Jose State didn’t lure Nash out of Woodbridge High School in Irvine to play quarterback. At the time of Nash’s recruitment, the Spartans had an abundance of quarterbacks and didn’t want to bring another into the fold. San Jose State wanted Nash, but since the program couldn’t sign on another gunslinger, Nash was recruited as a safety, a position he played in high school.
Once the Spring of 2019 rolled around, however, the Spartans found themselves with too few quarterbacks. After several players left the program, Love and Chance La Chapelle were the only two quarterbacks on the roster. To minimize overuse, the plan was for Nash, a gray shirt, to quarterback during the Spring, 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 beautiful deep ball high into the lights of the stadium” early on, one of many plays that landed him in the quarterback room.
Nash is still in his developmental phase, according to Brennan. Looking back on his breakout performance against San Diego State, Nash admitted that while he threw the ball well on run, pocket presence is an area of growth. But given what he’s showcased thus far, Nash may be tormenting opposing defenses for years to come.
“It’s fun to see his development as a player,” Brennan said. “I think he’s got an incredibly high ceiling and his future is extremely bright.”