As the season grows near for Spartans football, it seems fitting to take a look at the 10 best returning players to the gridiron for the upcoming season. Without spring practices, or at least delayed activities, it may be difficult for the coaching staff to truly identify the talent on their roster, but that does not matter for these athletes. These 10 players have almost all solidified their positions on the depth chart after last season and look to be ready to reload for next year.
For this list, positional value was not taken into account, rather the athletes prior play and individual talent at their position will be ranked. So even though certain positions may provide more value than others, we are simply looking at the dominance of each athlete.
Without further ado, the top-10 returning players to SJSU for the 2020 season:
10. Kyle Hoppe, C
Hoppe started at 12 games for the Spartans last season and proved to be a consistent pass protector for star quarterback Josh Love. He did not allow a single sack all season long and only allowed his QB to hit on a few occasions. The only reason why Hoppe is not further on the list is due to his play in the run game. He is great in pass sets and holding down the middle of the offensive line, but he struggles to make key blocks in the open field and create lanes for his running backs.
Even with his less than stellar play in that aspect of the game, Kyle will have to continue his dominance in pass protection to make life easier for his new QB in his final season at SJSU.
9. Tre Webb, S
Similar to Hoppe before him, Webb is entering his final season repping the blue and gold. In 2019, Tre recorded 58 total tackles, one for loss, one interception and one forced fumble. He was stout in coverage, not giving up much into the areas he was defending and was similarly strong against the run, not allowing backs room to break free. One piece of his game Webb should improve next season is his tackling, as he missed more than you would like to see a year ago.
If he can clean that up, he and fellow safety Jay Lenard should create one of the best safety duos in the entire conference in 2020.
8. Rico Tolefree, LB
After participating on special teams as a true freshman, Tolefree redshirted his 2018 season in order to retain a year of eligibility before becoming a starting linebacker for the Spartans in 2019. In his first year as starter, Rico totaled 50 tackles, 2.5 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and even one fumble recovery. Given it was just his first season receiving significant playing time, Tolefree’s numbers are highly impressive. His strength is in coverage and as a blitzer, but he needs refinement as a run-stopper and a bit as a tackler.
Tolefree flashed his immense potential in 2019 and should play even closer to it in his second year leading the Spartans linebacker room.
7. Nehemiah Shelton, CB
The best returning cornerback on the roster, Shelton proved to be a playmaker in the defensive backfield. Last season, he nabbed 42 tackles, three interceptions, seven pass deflections, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Not only was he one of the best at making play, Nehemiah was excellent at wrapping up, missing just a hand full of tackles in 2019. He gave up quite a few touchdowns into his coverage, however, and has to bring that number down next year.
Shelton still has two years of eligibility left and looks to have his best season yet in 2020.
6. Jay Lenard, S
The other piece to the dynamic safety duo, Lenard has started 30 straight games for San Jose State since midway through the 2017 season. Last year, he finished second on the team in tackles (95) with 4.5 going for a loss. He also racked up two interceptions and three pass deflections while defending downfield. He was far and away the best coverage defender the Spartans had, allowing almost nothing into his coverage and tackling opponents right after the catch. He was not beat deep once and showed his immense technique as a tackler.
Lenard burst onto the scene in 2019 but there is no doubt he will only improve entering next season.
5. Isaiah Hamilton, WR
Hamilton is the only other receiver, outside of Tre Walker, to have received significant playing time a year ago. He built a rapport with QB Josh Love as season grew on, reeling in 43 receptions for 718 yards and four touchdowns. Isaiah proved to be a legitimate deep threat for the Spartans, as he did not produce much after the catch but averaged a whopping 16.7 yards per reception. in 7 of his 11 starts, he was able to haul in at least one catch that went for over 30 yards, showing off his speed and route running.
Although Love has moved on to the NFL, Hamilton is primed to explode in his redshirt sophomore year in 2020.
4. Jack Snyder, OT
A 6’5” and 290-pound fifth-year offensive tackle with great agility, what is there not to like? Snyder was by far the Spartans best offensive lineman a year ago and one of the best in the entire conference. He finished 2019 as a All-Mountain West Honorable Mention after allowing just three sacks in 12 starts at left tackle. His pass protection has been exceptional over the past three years, but he took an enormous step up as a run-blocker last season.
Like Hoppe mentioned earlier, Snyder will need to keep up his play in order to aid whoever their quarterback will be.
3. Nick Starkel/Nick Nash, QB
Which Nick will be starting under center in 2020? I will be taking a look at that in the near future, but for the purpose of this list I will be smashing them together. Nick Starkel is onto his third team after spending his first two seasons at Texas A&M before transferring to Arkansas prior to 2019. With the Razorbacks, he completed just 96 of 179 attempts for 1,152 yards and seven touchdowns against 10 interceptions. He flashed potential in spurts and while he was with the Aggies, but has never pieced it together for a full season.
On the other hand, Nash is entering his true sophomore season in 2020, after seeing action in six games last year. He showed his dual-threat ability, carrying the rock 40 times for 255 yards and three scores. Nick also completed 12 of 17 passes for 133 yards and another two touchdowns. Whoever starts for the Spartans next season should be able to step into the shoes of the now departed Josh Love and put up points.
2. Cade Hall, DE
The last and best defender on the list, Hall is a top-10 returning defensive lineman across the Mountain West. After starting the last eight games for SJSU as a true freshman in 2018, he started all 12 last year. He rattled off 39 total tackles, a team leading eight for loss, one sack, two forced fumbles and one pass deflection. Hall struggles some at wrapping up but more than makes up for it in plugging holes as a run defender and bullying offensive tackles when rushing the passer.
Hall has the technique, raw athleticism and size to disrupt opposing quarterbacks often, all he needs a bit of luck on his side in order to finish those pressures with sacks.
1. Tre Walker, WR
No surprise here, Walker is the best Spartans returner and has received national attention as he was added to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List and most recently the Maxwell Award Watch List. San Jose State has not only one of the greatest receivers in the Mountain West or the Group of Five, but in the entire nation as Walker finished the year third in the FBS in receiving yards per game (116.1) and fourth in receptions per game (7.9), while leading the Mountain West in both categories. He was a key piece in the receiver rotation in 2017 and 2018, but truly burst onto the scene in 2019. Tre hauled in 79 receptions for 1,161 yards but was only able to reach paydirt two times.
Entering what will likely be is final season in San Jose, barring injury, Walker will seek to once again prove he is one of the country’s finest receivers in the game. Even with a new QB under center, expect him to put up video game like numbers yet again in 2020.
Honorable mentions: Bobby Brown II, CB, Kairee Robinson, RB and Matt Mercurio, K
Which returning San Jose State player, does not have to be listed above, are you most excited about seeing on the football field next season? Drop your answer below!