A year ago, as San Jose State practiced during a spring session, head coach Brent Brennan couldn’t help but notice something. It wasn’t one thing. It was everything. Offensive coordinator Kevin McGiven could sense it, too. He tapped Brennan on the shoulder, and the head coach turned around.
McGiven said what they both were thinking: “We’re going to be f—-ing good.”
The Spartans were coming off a 5-7 season in 2019 and had an 8-29 record in their first three years under Brennan. But the slow and steady development looked like it would finally pay off. Everyone could feel it. Everything was just clicking.
But the pandemic canceled the rest of spring practice, and local restrictions meant SJSU couldn’t work out on campus in the summer. The Spartans spent a few weeks 300 miles away at Humboldt State for preseason camp until they could finally start an abbreviated season. The joy of getting on the field was palpable. While playing a season certainly had financial motivation behind it from the school’s perspective, the team itself felt 2021 would be a breakthrough year.
That feeling was right. More right than anyone imagined.
SJSU went 7-0 in the regular season, winning the Mountain West championship against Boise State in a game played in Las Vegas as the Spartans’ “home field” due to restrictions in the Bay Area. The Spartans lost the Arizona Bowl but still finished ranked in the AP Top 25 for the second time ever. The 7-0 start was the program’s best since 1939.
“I thought we had a lot of pieces of the puzzle that were really coming together,” said Brennan, who was named the Mountain West’s coach of the year.
Now comes the encore. Nearly every piece of that puzzle is back to defend a championship. The Spartans return nine offensive starters and all 11 defensive starters. Every quarterback, running back and tight end who recorded an offensive stat is back, as is every offensive line starter. Every defensive player who recorded a tackle is back. Only eight letter-winners did not return.
“Everybody knows each other on a deeper level because of what we went through last year, with being locked down at Humboldt or Vegas, where everybody had to really lean on each other,” Brennan said. “It forced guys to talk and get to know each other on a deeper level, spend more time together. That’s showing up in (2021), the energy and enthusiasm.”
Three years removed from a 1-11 season, the Spartans likely will be favored to win the Mountain West again. It’s easy to think that a top-25 team bringing everyone back should be just as good or better, but SJSU needs to find a new group of starting receivers, and everyone knows that finding consistency in college players is a tall task no matter the situation.
“For many people on the outside, it’s like, ‘You should be good because you’re returning everybody from a championship team.’ We all know it’s not that easy,” Brennan said. “It doesn’t work that way. It’s how you come to work every day and how you strive to improve and how can we get better?”
Quarterbacks: SJSU entered 2020 needing to replace quarterback Josh Love, the 2019 Mountain West offensive player of the year. In came Nick Starkel by way of Arkansas and Texas A&M. Starkel, who started five games at each of his previous two schools, wanted to prove to himself that he still had something in the tank. In eight games with the Spartans, he completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,174 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions, earning second-team All-Mountain West honors. With the extra year of eligibility from the NCAA, Starkel opted to return for his sixth season of college football.
Brennan raved about Starkel’s ability to fit into the team immediately upon his arrival last season. Now he’ll have a second year in the offensive system.
“His career has been so interesting, massive highs and lows,” Brennan said. “Can he get to a place where he’s playing consistently good football week in and week out and set himself up to be an NFL player? That’s the thing, (one reason) why he’s coming back.”
Starkel didn’t carry the full load last year, as backup Nick Nash led the Spartans to a win over San Diego State, throwing for 169 yards and leading the team in rushing while scoring three touchdowns. Nash is back as a junior and is more than capable of filling in.