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2021 SJSU Spartan football season preview

The continuation, real expectations & Brennan chimes in

Mountain West Football Championship - Boise State v San Jose State Photo by Ethan Miller

The predictions from our SJSU season preview last year:

“Year four of the Brent Brennan era is going to be different as different can be.”

“The next level of progression is expected for the Spartans.”

“Basically, it’s a breakout year.”

“The reasons for the best-case scenario: Starkel shines, the run game goal is met, and Brennan’s program is fully matured. Program evolution as it should be.”

Now, that’s all taken with a grain of salt, because the worst-case scenario and most-likely-to-happen scenario last year was hedging this writer’s bets.

Well, the football world knows what happened, of course. It was the most unimaginable season, as the Spartans earned the Mountain West championship.

2020 was only marginally diminished when the COVID dam finally broke on the Spartans after they returned home from the conference championship game.

Basically, they were COVID-stripped of a number of key players at the Arizona Bowl two-weeks later where they suffered their only loss of the 2020 season.

Nonetheless, a very historic 2020 season it was

In year five, the main 2021 prediction is a continuation of the overall trajectory of the program.

“The unique thing about this year in college football is that you have an extra year of eligibility,” said Brennan on the familiarity and conditions of many teams. “A lot of our seniors are returning, which I think is excellent for us. Our class a year ago was really special and for the most part we get them back again and that’s so exciting because of their leadership and how hard they work.”

During 2020 where most programs with regular ol’ normal discipline couldn’t handle the hyper-discipline to function week-in-week-out, the Spartans had long-been conditioned by fighting out from a corner for years.

“That part of how much they went through to get it right sometimes gets lost in our story,” Brennan conveyed. “The struggle of those first three years was real. There were really hard, challenging moments for a team to stick together and keep working and keep moving forward. I think it all really galvanized us as a team. Our brotherhood just became stronger and stronger as we worked through it last year.”

The Spartans most definitely have confidence knowing they have the weaponry and mental wherewithal to take it and now, dish it out. The continued spatter of doubters and naysayers adds a bit of additive to their tank.

The Spartan offense

Creativity is the subjective and operative word for the Spartan offense with third year offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven.

“The danger with coach McGiven is he’s had six months to draw up a bunch more stuff,” said Brennan with a sly smile. “He is a tireless worker and tinkerer.”

It’s easy to talk about losing 40% of your offensive production without the receiving contributions from now-departed Bailey Gaither and Tre Walker (Gaither unexpectedly ended his start and stint with the Green Bay Packers last week and Walker was released from the Buffalo Bills this past spring).

If you look at their bigger picture, the Spartans, in most part, are continuing their climb led by running back Tyler Nevens (5 rushing TDs, 515 yards on 7.8 yards carry in 2020), all five returning offensive linemen and someone named Nick Starkel at quarterback.

A 2020 Starkel-led offense averaged nearly 300 yards passing yards and almost 30 points per game. Starkel’s 17 touchdown passes (seven INTs), 64.2% completion rate and 152.6 passer rating are formidable, but as Starkel would likely say, there’s definitely much room for improvement.

McGiven has his best color palette to work with and Starkel is his base layer and then to stage-right is who may most likely be the top Spartan QB in 2022 with Nick Nash.

Dual-threat QB Nash isn’t quite the sleeper, but he’s someone to watch for in 2021. His physical and technical progression since his freshman year will continue to surprise folks in his third season.

As teams will certainly prepare for the two QB approach from the Spartans, curiosity is with a new 2021 McGiven inspired offense.

Also, there’s a stable of running backs with speed, power and attitude who join Nevens. In his second season, Shamar Garrett’s speed and shiftiness and Kairee Robinson’s serious running attitude compliments a run game that expects to be a strength.

“With Tyler, Kairee, Shamar, Kenyon (Sims) and Brandon (Mandigo), that group is a lot of fun,” said Brennan as he describes their thunder and lightning punch. “They work incredibly hard and they’re really supportive of each other.”

The Spartan run game averaged 132.5 yards per game in 2020. This season, the gut-feel expectation is the tide will continue to turn in what we may start to describe as a power running team by later this season.

Offensive concerns?

In previous years, it was the inability to run. This year we’ll slant that concern to the receiving game given the departures of Gaither and Walker and because that’s the elephant in the room so many have latched onto.

The 2021 Spartan receiving lineup is big in general.

6’4 receivers Malikhi Miller, Steven Houston, Chance Le Chapelle, Dominick Mazotti and Donald McKinney (6’3) compliment 6’4 tight-ends Derrick Deese Jr., Billy Bob Humphreys and a slew of other 6’4 underclassmen TEs.

The 6-foot and under receiving group had some good moments last year, but they’ll need to take full advantage of every rep and attempt going their way to stand out and be consistent. Of wide receivers Isaiah Hamilton, Isaiah Holiness, Jermaine Braddock, Andre Crump and freshman speedster Terance Loville, just one or two need to show up...consistently.

If all else, Starkel will help minimize any sway effect given the way he could spread the ball around.

Offensive keys:

The Spartans have a new toy in their arsenal, and it only just reared its head in 2020.

Last year, we said the run game had to average well-over 100 yards – it did and we saw what happened. This year, it has to be the same. The run will be key to repeat as conference champions.

Behind the scenes, you have to guess people are giddy for a lot more of the run, especially behind an experienced offensive line managed by second-year coach Josh Ogelsby.

“Coach Oglesby is doing a great job. The O-line has that bond, consistency and comfort and they’re a fun group of guys too,” expressed Brennan. “I’m excited about the run game and I think we’re going to run the ball well this season.”

Offensive wildcard:

Going for the easy pick this year – Nick Nash. As a dual-threat quarterback, he’s a shifty, unabashed runner. He’ll continue to show maturity and experience even in the limited snaps he may get.

The Spartan defense

Defensive coordinator Derrick Odom has a luxury this year but don’t tell him that.

The Spartans have the best pair of MWC defensive line bookends in All-American Cade Hall and All-MWC-first teamer Junior Fehoko along with 325 lb. nose tackle Jay Kakiva and a veteran linebacking crew led by Kyle Harmon.

Hall was of a handful of FBS players in the nation with double digit sacks (10) and Fehoko tallied 12 ½ tackles for loss.

Altogether, what was a big issue in past seasons with the Spartan defense has since been shored up. An above-average job stopping the run (3.24 yards per rush and 120.2 opposing rush yards per game) will give Odum a lot more breathing room to show off his creativity.

Definitely, expect new twists and wrinkles from Odum and his third-ranked MWC defense last season (20th in the nation in 2020). Relatively speaking, they’re now a veteran defense that literally grew up together. They basically communicate and read offenses well as an entire interactive unit.

Reasons for optimism on defense:

“With all these guys coming back, there’s other guys that you know will show up,” proclaimed Brennan. “Obviously, Cade and Kyle are incredible players, but Tre Jenkins and Jay Leonard, ya know, I mean - Jay Leonard, holy smokes – man, is he a good player!”

In the Spartan realm, there’s no doubt in their minds the defense will show up and continue to show the doubters that 2020 was not a fluke.

Causes for concern on defense:

The one concern that many observers and analysts latched onto was the lack of interceptions last season. That sounds nit-picky of critics trying to find weaknesses, as they should. If it is a weakness, it’s one the Spartans will take, if everything else continues as planned.

A real potential weakness is if they can stop the short passing game if the front line does what is expected. That is where corners like Nehemiah Shelton and Kenyon Reed come in, along with some good nickel play and better linebacking anticipation.

Some teams opened up a short passing game for long gains last season, where the Spartan defense seemed exposed at times against faster opposition. We saw glimpses of it against Nevada, Boise and UNLV.

Key defensive notes:

Last year and the year before and the year before that, opponents knew they would run first, but with a vastly improved defense in 2020, the Spartans finally thwarted those notions.

In their three prior years, the defense was giving up far north of 400 yards per game which put them near the bottom among the 130 FBS teams.

With all things changing in 2020, the Spartan defense was the 26th ranked defense in the nation giving up 346.1 yards per game.

And with the upcoming season there are no glaring or foreseeable holes. If they continue to be a complete defense over four quarters, there’s only more upside in 2021.

Defensive wildcard:

We’ll go with another easy one – fourth-year Spartan cornerback Nehemiah Shelton.

Shelton has had a solid career at SJS. He’s quick, acrobatic and reads and adjusts well. His coaches won’t be surprised if there’s something of a breakout for Shelton this year.

The 2021 SJSU football schedule

Date: Opponent: TV Time (PST)
Date: Opponent: TV Time (PST)
Aug. 28 Southern Utah CBS Sports Network 7:00 PM
Sept. 4 @ USC Pac 12 Networks 2:00 PM
Sept. 18 @ Hawaii Fox Sports 9:30 PM
Sept. 25 @ Western Michigan TBA
Oct. 2 New Mexico State TBA
Oct. 9 @ Colorado State Fox Sports TBA
Oct. 15 San Diego State CBS Sports Network 7:30 PM
Oct. 21 @ UNLV CBS Sports Network 8:00 PM
Oct. 30 Wyoming Fox Sports TBA
Nov. 6 @ Nevada Fox Sports TBA
Nov. 13 Utah State Fox Sports TBA
Nov. 25 Fresno State Fox Sports TBA

Best case scenario for 2021:

2021 is a continuation of 2020 and the Spartans are conference champions again and go on to win their redemption bowl game.

In game two against USC, if they play well all-around and lose by a not-so-big-margin, we’ll see all the markers for their season in that one game. It’s USC’s first game of the season and the Spartans second game (though Brennan won’t let his team think ahead like that).

The Spartans go 10-2, win the trophy and go up significantly higher in the AP polls by year’s end than the 38th FBS ranking in the pre-season USA Today coaches’ poll. Suspected losses at this point will be against USC and Nevada.

Worst case scenario in 2021:

If the Spartans experience one or two key injuries on offense or defense, they still might be OK, but if that does happen, we could see some continuity and consistency loss.

Even in a worst case scenario, they end up 7-5 with losses to USC, Western Michigan, Wyoming, San Diego and Nevada and a bowl berth.

It would look bad coming off the magical run of 2020 considering a huge majority of the team was left intact for 2021.

What likely happens:

The bandwagon is easy to jump onto right now and even if trying to be a devil’s advocate, there’s still a “revenge and redemption” tour going on.

For anyone who might still be asking, “how’d the Spartans do all that?”

For one, the basic thing that comes to mind is the mental and physical maturity of the players, coaches and the belief in the system and program over these Brennan years.

Second, all that flows in between is the bond of dogged brotherhood. It’s a huge intangible you can’t fake.

With all of it going into 2021, it’s also the selfish and selfless need to prove to each other and the world they aren’t a flash-in-the-pan.