NFL Draft analyst John Vogel previews the San Jose State Spartans ahead of the 2021 season. Predictions, pre-season grades, and more:

2020 could have been a defining season for the San Jose State Spartans, who won the Mountain West Conference for the first time in school history. They’ve spent a total of eight weeks in the AP Top-25 poll. Half of that time came in 2020. However, an Arizona Bowl loss to the Ball State Cardinals, their first bowl loss since 1987, put a damper on the program. The Spartan’s single loss finished out a 7-1 season, their best since 2012. Six players transferred out while wide receivers Tre Walker and Bailey Gaither left for the NFL and were signed as undrafted free agents.

Head coach Brett Brennan has facelifted this program over the last four years. Entering his fifth season as the headman, Brennan saw his first winning season in 2020. He’s smartly recruited out of some of the smaller areas of California, focusing on landing three-star prospects with big body types and developmental upside.

San Jose State has a very early season test with their second game on the road at USC (Sept. 4th). Their biggest in-conference threats are home games against San Diego State (Oct. 16th) and Fresno State (Nov. 27th). Their largest challenge on the road will be in Nevada (Nov. 6th).

San Jose State Spartans offense led by QB Nick Starkel (R-Sr)

#17 | HT: 6’2″ | WT: 210 | High School: Liberty Christian (Argyle, TX)

Nick Starkel, the transfer to San Jose State by way of Texas A&M and Arkansas, was one of the turning points to this team’s 2020 success. Starkel struggled at the SEC level, mostly with recognizing defenses and decision-making. While his arm strength is suitable, it’s about average for the NFL level.

Nick Starkel throws a pass for the San Jose State Spartans in 2020 action.

The things that Starkel flashes are very exciting. He displays the ability to throw with timing well and makes some pinpoint throws into tight windows with touch. However, his accuracy is inconsistent, and he doesn’t always come outright. It looks like he’s still learning to let the mechanics he’s learned become a habit. He’ll garner some attention from the NFL next season. If he doesn’t show a lot of improvement, he won’t be drafted.

Pre-Season Grade: PDFA.

TE Derrick Deese Jr (R-Sr)

#87 | HT: 6’3″ | WT: 230 | High School: Kennedy (Westlake Village, CA)

Derrick Deese, to me, is the most solid prospect on this team. He’s a JUCO transfer from Golden West Community College. His father, Derrick Sr, spent 14 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman for the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has the bloodlines for the league and shined every time he took the field for San Jose State.

Deese lacks the body size to be a traditional tight end in the NFL. Despite that, he’s still a hardnosed player who oftentimes utilized out of the slot. He’s not going to be a Chase Claypool from there, not nearly that athletic, but he does offer some vertical ability to stretch the field and understands how to win positioning battles. He’s raw as a blocker instead of relying on brute strength to win assignments in the Mountain West. If he can overcome his size, he could be an effective second tight end for a team in the NFL with some schematic versatility.

Pre-Season Grade: 5th-7th Round.

OT Jackson Snyder (R-Sr)

#55 | HT: 6’4″ | WT: 300 | High School: Marin Catholic (Mill Valley, CA)

Jack Snyder is incredibly experienced as a left tackle entering the 2021 season. He’s started 40 games, 32 of them on the left side. In 2020, he was first-team All-Mountain West and was a William V. Campbell Trophy semifinalist for his off-field work. He’s also the first offensive lineman since 1992 to score a touchdown for the Spartans when he caught a lateral and ran it in from four yards out.

Jack Snyder is the most talented and experienced offensive tackle for the San Jose State Spartans.
San Jose State football player Jack Snyder, right, during a game against Army in West Point, NY on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. (Terrell Lloyd/San Jose State University Athletics)

He stands out on tape as a solid run blocker with good form. As a pass blocker, he’s handled pretty much anyone in the Mountain West successfully. He’s been the key blocker that the team has turned to in momentous situations. I think the level of competition might hurt him a little bit, but even in a deep class, I’d be surprised if his name didn’t come off the board, given all of his experience. Potentially, by the 2022 NFL Draft, Snyder could have 53 career starts.

Pre-Season Grade: 5th/7th Round.

San Jose State Spartans defense led by DT Cade Hall (Sr)

#92 | HT: 6’1″ | WT: 255 | High School: Bellarmine Prep (Morgan Hill, CA)

Cade Hall is a 3-4 defensive end prospect who played a good bit of three and five-tech with San Jose State last year. Hall is one of those guys who makes a play or two a game and reminds you that he’s on the field. He flashes some real speed off the snap and is aggressive with his tackling technique. He offers some range for a team looking for 3-4 defensive end depth.

The biggest problem with Hall is his size. You’re not going to see a lot of defensive linemen playing in the NFL at his size at all – especially in a 3-4 set where he projects. I like the flashes and the plays that he makes, and maybe if he came out in 2020, he gets drafted. Unless he becomes a key playmaker on this defense, I think he’ll have to fight for a camp spot.

Pre-Season Grade: PDFA

NT Jay Kakiva (Jr)

#96 | HT: 6’4″ | WT: 315 | High School: Green Valley (Las Vegas, NV)

Jay Kakiva has the best NFL body on the team. Playing as the zero and one-tech in the Spartan defense, Kkiva stands out as a man among boys on tape. He’s explosive off the snap, too, and offers some range for a player his size to the perimeter.

Nick Kakiva is young, but is growing into his role with the San Jose State Spartans.
Hawaii quarterback Chevan Cordeiro (12) runs past San Jose State defensive lineman Jay Kakiva (96) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

Even for all of his positives, last season was his first season outside of JUCO. He was a monster at Fresno City and was slow to start impacting San Jose State. He showed tremendous improvement throughout the season, so the NFL will want to see that continue. He’s not a guy right now who can beat double teams, but his size and explosive ability should draw them. We would like to see all of that change in 2021 and see those positives continue to grow. Otherwise, I think a return to school in 2022 would be in his best interests.

Pre-Season Grade: PDFA.

OFF-LB Alii Matau (R-Sr)

#8 | HT: 6’0″ | WT: 220 | High School: Milpitas (Milpitas, CA)

Alii Matau is an intriguing off-ball linebacker who was used as a RUSH Edge in the Spartans scheme. He has speed as a pass rusher and offers some ability as a run defender. The biggest point is that Matau had his biggest game against Boise State in the Mountain West Championship. That has to count for something, stepping up for the biggest games.

As is with several of the prospects on this team, his size will hurt him moving forward. He’s not as instinctive in zone coverage as you’d like to see either. On top of that, he missed the 2019 season with an injury – damning for a prospect in such a deep class. Matau is most likely an undrafted free agent who will have to earn a practice squad spot and build his body and develop.

Pre-Season Grade: PDFA

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By John Vogel

NFL Draft Analyst. Dad.

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