James Orth, the last layer of the San Jose State defense, barks a series of checks and alerts to fellow safety Cullen Newsome before each snap.
They also communicate with the Spartans' linebackers, the second layer, as 11 young men prepare to stop 11 young men on the other side of the line. Orth looks like a senior in charge, the heartbeat of college football's most improved team.
"If anyone had told me four years ago we would have a chance to go 11-2, I would have said they were dreaming," he said.
Orth is living that dream.
We know Orth as the former Central Catholic High football star, a wide receiver who eventually migrated to San Jose State along with his older brother Jacob, an offensive lineman.
The conventional wisdom went that James would enjoy a decent career valued more for personal experience than victory. Not many from the Stanislaus District reach college football's highest level; the ex-Raider at least got there.
Orth's payback, to the surprise of many, has multiplied. And then some.
He will make his 29th straight start for San Jose State in Thursday's Military Bowl, the Spartans' first post-season appearance since 2006. A win over Bowling Green would give SJS its 11th win, its most as a major college football program.
How fitting that Orth will finish his collegiate career with his most high-profile game. The Spartans, according to many people, would not be bowling without him.
"He is a phenomenal young man and has been a big key to our success," praised former head coach Mike MacIntyre, the man who rebuilt the Spartans. MacIntyre has accepted the Colorado coaching job and won't be there Thursday, but his remarkable three-year turnaround will be remembered.
And so will Orth and his senior classmates, the South Bay change-agents.
Orth's imprint on the program can't be discounted. He's intercepted eight passes and totaled 180 tackles (103 unassisted) since he became a starter late in 2010. As a sophomore and junior, he became the first Spartan in eight years to lead the team in interceptions in back-to-back seasons. Orth tied a school record last season with interceptions in four straight games.
His single pick and fewer tackles this season reflect the team's dramatic upswing. He was not needed as often this year for the downfield tackle. Opponents wisely directed the ball away from Orth's coverage.
That was evident during San Jose State's stirring 20-17 victory over BYU on Nov. 17. Orth served as a steady anchor and never veered out of position while the Spartan linemen and linebackers logged the game-saving plays.
"Some of these seniors, like James Orth, were here before Coach Mac. They've gone through some tough times," said Kent Baer, the team's veteran defensive coordinator who will serve as head coach in the Military Bowl. "James is so consistent and coachable and covers a lot of ground for us."
Orth's career screams a high-volume lesson: Change is good. Embrace it.
He has caught exactly one (1) pass, good for a gain of 7 yards at Wisconsin, in four seasons. The statistic is instructive because he was signed by San Jose State as a wide receiver. He envisioned running precise patterns and hearing the cheers after his touchdown receptions. It wasn't by accident that he was given No. 81, a classic wide receiver's number (also his number at Central Catholic).
So what happened? Simply, MacIntyre.
Orth spent his freshman season on special teams. That itself came as a change-of-pace after then-coach Dick Tomey asked the Modestan, along with other freshmen, to give up their redshirt year for the good of a flailing team. SJS opened with a 56-3 beatdown by USC and finished 2-10, and MacIntyre eventually replaced Tomey.
One year later, things worsened. The Spartans, en route to 1-12, absorbed a fearful injury-induced loss of talent at safety. So accute was the situation, MacIntyre a former safety at Georgia Tech approached Orth.
"I told him, 'I need you at safety,' " MacIntyre recalled. "I said, 'If one more (safety) gets hurt, you're going in.' "
Orth didn't exactly buy into the switch right away, but another factor kicked in: He wanted to play, and if defense was his vehicle, so be it. He excelled on both sides of the ball at Central Catholic.
Soon thereafter, Orth stepped in front of a pass thrown by Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and registered his first interception. On the sideline, MacIntyre yelled, "That's why we put you back there!"
"This whole thing has been a great adventure," Orth said. "I learned that I had to get on the field any way I can."
Orth became both a witness and a contributor to San Jose State's incredible revival:
From 120th, rock-bottom in major college football, to 24th today.
From 837 in the Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA's team-based metric to gauge progress toward graduation, to 959.
From 1-12 in 2010 to 10-2.
"We all thought he (MacIntyre) was a little crazy with all the extra work he asked us to do," Orth said. "As the years went on, more guys got behind him and bought into it."
For the first time in the school history, San Jose State enjoys the maximum 85 players on scholarship. Everthing has been upgraded academic improvement, better recruiting and hands-on support from the administration.
The Spartans stepped forward, if modestly, to 5-7 in 2011. Then MacIntyre found the final missing ingredient, a first-class quarterback in David Fales out of Monterey Peninsula College.
Their season-opening 20-17 loss to eventual Rose Bowl-bound Stanford, though disheartening, was a harbinger.
"We should have won. We were only one or two plays away," Orth said. "But we knew we were better than before. We vowed not to let that happen again."
Orth surveys his career with equal amounts of pride and surprise. He and his teammates arrived four years ago as stewards of one of the game's loneliest and least successful outposts. They'll leave during bowl season on ESPN.
Better still, Orth, a communications major, completed his final exams last week. He's been invited to the Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game to be contested in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 11. Next will come a tiptoe into the pro football waters.
He'll find out if an efficient 6-foot-2 206-pound former pass-catcher has a future on defense in the NFL. The Military Bowl will mean more, however, than just a pro dress rehearsal.
"Everything is ending at the same time," he said. "It's perfect."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.
James Orth, a senior, has been part of one of the most spectacular turn-arounds in college football history as the San Jose State
Spartans have gone from the bottom of the barrell to a bowl game in two short years. Here's how the Central Catholic grad has helped:
Has started 28 consecutive games at safety; only member of defensive backfield to start every game this year.
Had 103 unassisted tackles this season and 77 assisted tackles for 180 total.
Tied school and Western Athletic Conference records with interceptions in 4 consecutive games in 2011.
First-team pre-season All-WAC choice.
WAC All-Academic team 2009; San Jose State Scholar/Athlete in 2010.
Attended Central Catholic High. Majoring in communications. Played first three seasons at San Jose State with older brother Jacob.