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San Jose State’s veteran all-conference defenders want to reset Spartans’ standards

San Jose Mercury News - 9/1/2022

SAN JOSE — It’s hard not to blame Viliami ‘Junior’ Fehoko for feeling a little bit of unease toward Cade Hall when they first joined San Jose State’s football team back in 2018.

“When I first got here, me and Cade, my first thing I’m thinking is, ‘Wow, he’s a Bellarmine Bell. There’s no way we’re going to be friends,’” said Fehoko, who went to St. Francis.

But even starting from an intense high school rivalry like the Holy War, there’s no better way to build a bond than lining up next to someone on the defensive line over and over again for five years and leading into Thursday’s season opener against Portland State (7:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area).

“Little did I know that he was going to be one of my closest friends here at San Jose State,” Fehoko said.

Hall added, “It hasn’t hit me how unique it is, but I know it’s special.”

Hall, the right-side defensive end, and Fehoko, the left, were part of head coach Brent Brennan’s first full recruiting class in 2018, signing up to join after the Spartans went 1-11 on the field. But for both pass rushers, the vision Brennan sold while recruiting them was crystal clear.

“He really offered me an opportunity to be a part of a program turning around,” Hall said. “I trusted him. He said, ‘We’re going to turn this around. I’m confident in that and I want you to be a part of it.’”

Fehoko added, “Every time I met with him or I would just see him around, he would preach the same values that we valued at St. Francis — brotherhood, tradition and culture. That’s like his roots. For me, I wouldn’t say it was an easy decision, but it wasn’t a hard decision to come to San Jose State.

“I’m glad I picked San Jose.”

Fehoko and Hall are two of three preseason all-Mountain West selections on defense alongside linebacker Kyle Harmon, a Freedom-Oakley grad from that 2018 class. Safety Tre Jenkins (a St. Mary’s-Stockton grad) also joined in 2018.

They’re the heart of a Spartan defense that is perhaps the most experienced in the nation. Ten starters return from last year’s team, with many having started together for three or even four seasons. Heck, linebacker and De Anza-Richmond alum Rico Tolefree has been a Spartan since 2017 and has already played 46 games in the blue and gold.

“It’s really good for our cohesiveness and our confidence in each other,” Hall said of all the time played together. “We have tons of confidence in each other because we’ve been out there and played so many snaps together.”

Every college athlete got an extra year of eligibility because of COVID, but with the prevalence of the transfer portal, it’s rare to have so many players sticking around and together for this long. And it’s something Brennan absolutely appreciates.

“They’re special, man,” Brennan said. “They stayed with us when it was hard. They’ve given so much to the program, to San Jose State University. It’s really special.”

The group has achieved highs that very few in San Jose State’s modern history have, winning the Mountain West with an undefeated regular season in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. 2021 was more of a regression back to San Jose State’s usual standards, dropping the final three games to end up at 5-7.

The Spartan football program has experienced these rapid ascents and descents before. In the past 30 years, there have only been four seasons with a winning record — 7-5 in 2000, 9-4 in 2006, 11-2 in 2012 and 7-1 in 2020. The first three times, it didn’t take long for San Jose State to start losing again.

But these Spartans want to change that. And they know the expectations.

“I think, with the amount of time and effort and work these kids are putting in, they want to play good football. They want to make San Jose State proud. They want to make the city proud and our alumni,” Brennan said. “So that part is so important, because them understanding that it’s bigger than them individually, it’s bigger than just the team that they’re supporting. There’s a lot of people counting on them to play good football.”

Winning a conference title was a great accomplishment, one that they hope they can achieve again. But in what could be their final seasons, the bigger goal is turning San Jose State into a perennial winner.

“Our goal this season is to win a championship, I think that’s been well understood by everyone on this team and the staff. But in terms of long-term, we want to build something lasting,” Hall said. “There’s teams like San Diego State and Boise State and these teams in the conference that consistently go to bowl games, consistently compete for championships. For us, we’ll have a few good years and then we’ll fall off. We want to build something real and lasting.”

Fehoko added, “Just being able to maintain the winning process, teaching the young guys that this is what we do here. We win. When I got here, the winning culture, it wasn’t as solidified as it is now.

“We’ve definitely come a long way and we definitely don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.”

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