The Star-Tribune is taking an early look at each of Wyoming’s opponents in the order they appear on the Cowboys’ 2021 schedule. Next up are the San Jose State Spartans.
—LARAMIE — By capturing its first conference championship in nearly three decades, San Jose State went from the outhouse to the penthouse in the Mountain West and became the feel-good story in college football last season.
—And with plenty of key contributors back from their breakout season, the Spartans don’t look like they’ll be a one-hit wonder.
—Long a doormat in the Mountain West — the Spartans had six straight losing seasons, with just eight combined wins the previous three years before last fall — SJSU enters the 2021 season as one of the league favorites fresh off its first league title since winning the Big West in 1991. Back on Wyoming’s schedule for the first time since 2018, the Spartans will be one of the Cowboys’ stiffer challenges when the teams meet in San Jose, California, on Oct. 30.
—Other than a couple of its top receivers, SJSU is returning nearly every starter from its championship squad thanks to the extended eligibility the NCAA granted to fall-sport athletes in response to the coronavirus pandemic. That includes its top running back, all five offensive linemen, all but one defensive starter and a sixth-year quarterback.
—Nick Starkel began his collegiate career at Arkansas (and then Texas A&M) before arriving in San Jose last year. All the Texas native did in his first season as the Spartans’ signal caller was operate an offense that scored nearly 30 points a game and averaged 298.4 passing yards, good for 19th nationally. Starkel completed 64.2% of his passes with 17 touchdown tosses against just seven interceptions.
—Starkel will have a reliable back to hand off to in Tyler Nevens, who averaged a whopping 7.8 yards a carry a season ago. But with SJSU preferring to move the ball through the air in coordinator Kevin McGiven’s offense, the Spartans will need some new big-play threats to emerge out wide to replace all-conference receiver Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither, who are now trying their hand at the NFL after combining for more than 1,300 receiving yards last season.
—The Spartans aren’t short on options, though. Junior college transfer Donald McKinney will likely compete with Jermaine Braddock, Andre Crump Jr. and others for playing time on the outside. Isaiah Hamilton returns to the slot, and don’t forget about tight end Derrick Deese Jr., who caught a team-high five touchdowns last season.
—Defensively, the Spartans are anchored by a pair of all-league defensive ends — Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko — in their 4-3 scheme. Hall, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and an All-America candidate, was one of just four players in the Football Bowl Subdivision to record double-digit sacks last season (10 in seven games). Fehoko finished the season with 12.5 tackles for loss.
—Linebacker Kyle Harmon is the headliner at the second level of the defense after leading the Spartans with 78 tackles a season ago. The only starter SJSU is losing on defense is safety Tre Webb, but there’s still plenty of experience on the back end. Nehemiah Shelton and Kenyon Reed are back as SJSU’s starting corners. Tre Jenkins returns at safety after earning second-team all-conference honors last season, and Jay Lenard and Tre White are veterans who are capable of providing seasoned depth at the position.
—With Matt Mercurio having already spent two seasons as SJSU’s primary placekicker and scatback Shamar Garrett (eighth nationally in kickoff return average last season) back to handle return duties, there aren’t many spots on the field where the Spartans are starting over. It’s hard not to envision SJSU as the favorite in the West Division as the Spartans prepare to start their title defense, a level of expectations the program hasn’t found itself dealing with in quite some time.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.