San Jose State was the surprise champion of the Mountain West last season, and even with a few key players leaving, coach Brent Brennan’s team should be in the mix for the conference crown again. Quarterback Nick Starkel leads one of the Mountain West’s top offenses, while the defense returns 10 starters, including standout ends Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko. The Nov. 6 matchup at Nevada could decide which team wins the West Division.
Previewing San Jose State's Offense for 2021
The San Jose State offense welcomes back nine starters and a sixth-year quarterback. Coordinator Kevin McGiven is back for his fourth season and should be able to lean on veteran leadership as the team rebuilds its receiving corps. Quarterback Nick Starkel, who had stints at Texas A&M and Arkansas before taking over for the Spartans last year, completed 64.2 percent of his passes and had 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in the regular season prior to a three-pick performance in SJSU's bowl loss. His top two wideouts are gone, but tight end Derrick Deese Jr. is an all-conference candidate who snared a team-high five TDs last season. Isaiah Hamilton is back in the slot, and the outside receivers will be some combination of Andre Crump Jr., Jermaine Braddock, Malikhi Miller and juco transfer Donald McKinney.
All five offensive linemen return, led by four-year starter and All-MWC left tackle Jack Snyder, who may have an NFL future. At running back, senior Tyler Nevens returns after a bounce-back season that saw his yards per carry jump from 3.5 to 7.8. SJSU must improve on its TD conversion in the red zone, where the Spartans ranked 111th (50 percent). That is a big reason why SJSU ranked 23rd nationally in yards per play but 62nd in scoring.
Previewing San Jose State's Defense for 2021
All 11 starters are back for coordinator Derrick Odum, who has led the Spartans' improvement in yards per play from 106th nationally in 2018 to 16th last season (4.95 ypp).
Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year Cade Hall returns after finishing second nationally in sacks per game as one of only four players in the country with double-digit sacks (10.0 in only seven games). He is bookended in the Spartans' 3-4 alignment by Viliami Fehoko, another first-team All-MWC selection who is more athletic than Hall and almost as productive (12.5 TFLs in 2020).
A third first-team All-MWC performer is back at inside linebacker, where Kyle Harmon led the team in tackles by a wide margin. Tysyn Parker and Rahyme Johnson will also see significant time inside, and Hadari Darden and Alii Matau are back outside.
In the secondary, corners Nehemiah Shelton and Kenyon Reed are back along with safety Tre Jenkins, who was second-team All-MWC. Jay Lenard and Tre White, two former starters who were beaten out last year, return and will see time.
Previewing San Jose State's Specialists for 2021
Placekicker Matt Mercurio has been decent his first two seasons, converting 24-of-25 kicks inside 40 yards and 5-of-10 beyond 40. Punter Elijah Fischer is back, but he will likely have to hold off competition in the fall. Shamar Garrett, who sparked SJSU's comeback win over Nevada with a kickoff return for a touchdown, should handle those duties once again. He was eighth in the nation with a 31-yard average.
It is hard not to pick San Jose State to win the West division with so much experience returning from a championship team. The schedule has non-conference challenges, but the Spartans miss Boise State in the regular season and could find themselves right back in the MWC championship game. If that happens, head coach Brent Brennan, whose team won as many games last year in a shortened season as SJSU did from 2016-18, will be in high demand when the coaching carousel begins to spin.
National Ranking: 52
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(Nick Starkel photo courtesy of sjsuspartans.com)