SAN JOSE -- Ron Caragher saw enough from San Jose State's defense last year to know major changes were needed.
Well before defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson left to take an assistant job at Vanderbilt -- opening the door to hire Greg Robinson -- Caragher determined the Spartans defense needed to be scaled down in its complexity and returned to a four-man front.
"It was really going to be simplified," Caragher said. "You're only as strong as your players can execute."
Thompson joined Caragher's staff last year from Cal with a good reputation as a position coach and recruiter. But in his first crack as a defensive coordinator, he switched SJSU to his preferred 3-4 defense, and many of the Spartans' strengths were taken away.
Travis Raciti was so good in 2012 as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, but he never had the same success as a 3-4 defensive end. SJSU had nothing but inexperienced players to occupy the key outside linebacker spots, and the complexities of the defense -- with multiple packages and varying personnel -- were too much to handle.
"The 4-3 is more of a simplistic defense," said Raciti, the College Park High-Pleasant Hill product who had 81/2 sacks in 2012 when SJSU ranked sixth in the country in that category. "We went to a 3-4, and there's a bunch of different packages and player personnel. I thought for some people on our team, it could've been a lot to handle."
The drop-off was dramatic. The Spartans were No. 24 in the country in total defense during their 11-2 season in 2012 but fell to No. 103 last year. Injuries and improved competition played a role, but never was the difference more dramatic than against Navy.
A year after SJSU pitched a shutout against the Midshipmen and their triple-option attack, the Spartans watched Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds rush for seven touchdowns in a 58-52 triple-overtime win.
With San Jose State's 6-6 record not being enough to earn a bowl invitation, it was easy to look at that game -- as well as a 34-30 loss to San Diego State in which it blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead -- as the reason the Spartans were left home.
While no one on the team would point the finger at the defense, the numbers speak for themselves. SJSU scored 32.4 points per game but allowed 35.1.
As Caragher said, changes were going to be made. Thompson's departure simplified that.
"He went elsewhere, so I was able to start anew," Caragher said. "We knew there was shoring up and all that. With Greg, it just happened naturally."
Robinson, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coordinator with the Denver Broncos, helped resurrect Texas' defense last year when he stepped into the job after two games. After losing his first game on board, the Longhorns went on a six-game winning streak before losing three of their last four.
The final two games of the year came against Baylor and Oregon -- the top two offenses in the country -- and although Texas lost both, the Longhorns held the high-scoring offenses to only 30 points each, well below their averages.
As he evaluates the Spartans defense, Robinson sees difference makers at each position group. Those could include Raciti, linebackers Christian Tago and Vince Buhagiar, and cornerbacks Jimmy Pruitt and Cleveland Wallace, the latter a transfer from Washington who recently was cleared by the NCAA to play this season.
"If you've got three or four guys that can do some things and the rest of the guys are on board, good things are going to happen," Robinson said.
Wallace is a boon to the defense. The former Oak Grove High-San Jose star has the chance to be an instant impact player.
But re-establishing the pass rush might be the biggest key. The Spartans had just 18 sacks last year -- down from 42 the season before -- and the inability to attack quarterbacks affected a mostly inexperienced defensive backfield. Senior safety Forrest Hightower, a Concord product, said that's changing.
"We're getting more of a pass rush versus when we had the 3-4," he said. "The balls are coming out a lot quicker so the routes aren't developing late down the field."
Getting back Buhagiar, a former Clayton Valley-Concord star, also is a key after he missed last year because of shoulder surgery. The former all-conference player is staying under the radar this camp, preferring not to talk. But his fellow linebacker spoke of the importance of players such as Raciti and Buhagiar.
"They've been through the down seasons, they've been through the up seasons," Tago said. "They know what it takes for us to have an up season this year."
Follow Jimmy Durkin on Twitter at twitter.com/Jimmy_Durkin.