SAN JOSE -- San Jose State's fall from a top 25 defense nationally in 2012 to the bottom 25 last season played the largest role in denying the Spartans a second straight bowl appearance.

Injuries, inexperience and a questionable change in the defensive scheme shredded a unit that was a strength a season before. Now with a third defensive coordinator in three years -- and a more familiar look -- SJSU is looking to make significant improvements.

"That wasn't quite who we are," Spartans coach Ron Caragher said of a defense that allowed 459.2 yards per game, which ranked 103rd nationally. "I think guys are excited to return to the arena and to play our level of football."

Greg Robinson, a former Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos, has taken over for Kenwick Thompson, now the outside linebackers coach at Vanderbilt.

"Already in the first couple of days, he's opened my eyes to a couple things that have been there, I just hadn't seen them yet," senior linebacker Vince Buhagiar said of Robinson.

"He has an aura about him," senior defensive tackle Travis Raciti said. "When he speaks, we all listen. We know that what he's telling us is the right thing."

The Spartans were No. 24 in the country in total defense in 2012 and thrived under the 4-3 scheme run by former coach Mike MacIntyre and defensive coordinator Kent Baer. When they left for Colorado, and Caragher was hired, he brought in Thompson, who made the switch to the 3-4.


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In theory, it was done with solid reasoning. Thompson is most familiar coaching the 3-4, and the thinking was that it would allow for better flexibility to match up against spread offenses.

The problem became a lack of personnel to properly execute it. SJSU didn't have anybody with significant experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker.

Buhagiar, a three-year starter at middle linebacker, was moved to the outside but injured his shoulder and was lost for the season. Raciti, who like Buhagiar was a first-team All-Western Athletic Conference player in 2012, moved from defensive tackle to defensive end.

The Spartans tried all sorts of combinations on the line and at outside linebacker but were routinely gashed by effective running teams. That weakness flared up big time in season-defining losses to San Diego State and Navy.

"A lot of it was very hard to swallow," Buhagiar said of watching last season from the sideline.

"It eats at me every day," sophomore linebacker Christian Tago added.

Robinson has returned SJSU to the 4-3 alignment. Buhagiar is back at middle linebacker, Raciti is back at tackle. Junior Jimmy Pruitt, who played safety for the first time in his career last season, has returned to cornerback. All of a sudden, everything feels much more familiar.

Robinson said it's too early for him to have a feel for the strengths of SJSU's defense. For now, he's preaching the importance of delivering maximum effort.

"We have to be a group of 11 players on the field with one thing in common, that they're all flying around getting to the football," Robinson said. "There's going to be plays where there's a mistake made or a missed tackle. Things happen. But the trick is to minimize, and effort can really make that happen."

The defense is motivated to prove last year wasn't an indication of who it is, and that's an attitude it always wants to carry with it.

"Regardless if we're No. 1 on the nation or 100th in the nation, we're always going to have that chip on our shoulder," Pruitt said.

But for as much as they'll talk about wanting to get better, the players are more interested in proving it.

"What we do drowns out what we say," Buhagiar said.

For more on San Jose State athletics, visit the SpartanCentral blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sjsu.