Try as it might to block out the trite “outside noise,” the Boise State football team enters the summer knowing that plenty of hype will follow.
The Broncos, who wrapped up spring practices last Saturday, very likely could be a preseason top 25 team and the prohibitive Group of Five favorite for a New Year’s Six bowl. There’s no reason to play dumb, so coach Bryan Harsin brought it up in one of the spring’s final team meetings.
“We can’t control that. I think the message to our team was don’t worry about that,” Harsin said. “Whatever comes along with our success from last year’s team, there’s nothing we can do about it now. All we can focus on is 2018.
“If we start getting too far out of it and start thinking about this and that or what somebody is telling us that we haven’t even accomplished ... we all know at the end of the year that’s when it really matters — we have a long way to go.”
Coming out of the spring, the Broncos avoided any major injuries, and most likely starters were able to get in plenty of work. Harsin said the difference between the first and second team is less than what showed in the spring game, in which the starters dominated.
The Broncos will add two dozen newcomers this summer, and with a lot of returning talent on both sides of the ball, they know a lot will be expected. But that’s hardly unusual around here.
“I mean, there’s always eyes on us,” junior safety DeAndre Pierce said. “It’s nothing new. Same thing I kind of have been preaching, and that’s what the coaches preach to us: We can’t really change who we are. We are who we are. Last year was last season. This is a totally different team. ... New year, new challenges, new opportunity.”
Here’s an overview of each position coming out of spring and going into the summer months:
Quarterbacks: Senior Brett Rypien spent the spring confident and speaking like the veteran point guard he is, to borrow the cross-sport analogy. He wrapped the spring with an outstanding spring game, completing 15-of-19 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns in two quarters.
“He’s taken the leadership role to a new level,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “In our room, in the quarterback room, with some of the new guys, he’s helping those guys out and watching film with them and helping them on the sidelines. He’s come a long ways in that aspect, being able to drop a bad play and just move forward and have a little bit more energy on the sidelines and bring those guys up with him.”
Redshirt freshman Chase Cord appears to have a good lead on junior college transfer Jaylon Henderson as the backup. Cord had a tough time in the spring game against the No. 1 defense but was very good with the No. 1 offense, throwing a long touchdown pass to Octavius Evans, and delivering a crowd-energizing 67-yard TD run. Hill said after the spring game that “it’s exciting to think about what he brings to the table, and we feel real good with the backup role right now.”
Running backs: With junior Alexander Mattison sidelined following offseason surgery, the Broncos’ three other scholarship backs got a lot of work. Mattison will be the No. 1 in the fall after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season. Running backs coach Lee Marks said of Mattison, “He’s taken the role like ‘this is my show, and I’m not giving it up.’ “ Still, the Broncos’ 143.5 rushing yards per game were the fewest since 1996, their first year in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“We want to run the ball more effectively, be a better downhill run team, be a better overall run team,” Harsin said. “... Whatever it is, we want to be able to run the ball.”
Sophomore Robert Mahone showed growth, earning some high praise from Marks, who said “it’s encouraging to know where he’s going.” Senior Skyler Seibold, who moved from safety, had a nice catch in the spring game and could be in a similar role as Ryan Wolpin in the past as a gritty runner and special teams ace. Redshirt freshman Drake Beasley hasn’t played in a game since 2015. Once he shakes off the rust, he should be a factor. Marks said he will have a role this fall.
Two big, strong backs in Andrew VanBuren and Danny Smith join the fold this summer, adding depth and a little competition.
Wide receivers: One of the team’s biggest question marks, the group created some optimism the pass game could still be quite potent, even with Cedrick Wilson gone. His school-record 1,515 yards from 2017, along with 83 receptions, will be tough to replace. But boy, there will be no lack of options. Six scholarship receivers were on the roster in the spring, and five more come in this summer.
“All the receivers are kind of hungry,” senior A.J. Richardson said. “We see Ced and he had 80 catches and stuff like that … so we all see that and we want that.”
Richardson is the top returning receiver (33 catches, 494 yards) and had a big spring game, plus fellow senior Sean Modster returns after a strong finish to last season. Sophomore Octavius Evans looks primed to be a major factor with his solid frame and excellent spring game, in which he had 124 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore CT Thomas also had a 69-yard touchdown.
“Our receivers have come a long ways through spring ball and some of the young guys are getting good reps and you can see their progression through spring,” Hill said.
Tight ends: The Broncos don’t lack numbers, but just how they will fill the void left by Jake Roh and Alec Dhaenens is still unclear. Sophomore John Bates has a ton of potential at 6-foot-6 and saw some solid time late last season. Senior Chase Blakley had three catches in the spring game and could be a starter if healthy, while junior Matt Pistone was an early standout but didn’t make much of an impression in the spring game.
True freshmen Cole Ramseyer and Tyneil Hopper join this summer. Walk-ons Daniel Cantrell and Garrett Collingham have made plays and could be factors, too.
“We’re not there yet — we have some guys coming in this summer that are going to be able to help us,” Harsin said. “We’re doing some things differently than we did with Roh. ... We also need some more guys to come in here, so more depth so we can use multiple tight ends.”
Offensive line: Though it is not set in stone, the Broncos seem to have found a top group. Sophomore Ezra Cleveland, junior John Molchon, junior Garrett Larson, junior Eric Quevedo and senior Andres Preciado, from left to right, saw a lot of work together on the first unit. After a brutal first month in 2017, the line made some good improvements, and having those likely starters healthy this spring (unlike last year) can only help the momentum. Hill said “there are some guys that bring that nastiness.”
“Familiarity is a good thing. They know how it’s going to go,” said offensive line coach Brad Bedell, who joined the staff during spring ball last year. “Having those guys back is great, it’s helping the overall production and improvement of this offensive line.”
Coaches have praised sophomore center Donte Harrington, and he saw some work in the spring game with the No. 1s. Redshirt freshman John Ojukwu (6-6, 300) has progressed well in his second spring, and at worst could provide some depth before he vies to start.
“We’ve got guys that I think can step up and play,” Bedell said. “Depth to me is important, because we know how the game is with injury. I don’t like complacency … those guys push and push them. We’re getting there. That’s something, coming out of spring, I’m excited about.”
Defensive line: It was a group lacking numbers this spring, but expected starters in senior David Moa and junior Sonatane Lui were mostly healthy, getting some work in on the interior. At defensive end, senior Durrant Miles and junior Chase Hatada were out, so the likes of sophomore end Kayode Rufai saw more reps.
Massive tackle Scale Igiehon and athletic end Kukea Emmsley will join this summer. The unit was not terribly productive in the pass rush last season, but was a key part in a very good run defense. Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said the group was solid all spring against the run, and new line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a has implemented some new concepts to get after the quarterback.
“We were a little light at the D-line this spring,” Avalos said. “One thing to note right up front is the mental toughness had to improve because of the amount of reps and obviously being able to play at that position when you’re tired and be effective is a big deal and those guys got a lot of work at that.”
STUD ends: This looked like a special group before the spring even started, and the STUDs did nothing to dissuade that line of thinking. Senior Jabril Frazier was an absolute terror and sophomore Curtis Weaver again was a force after notching six and 11 sacks, respectively, last season. Consider this, too: junior Sam Whitney, who started five of the first six games last season missed the spring with an injury and will be healthy this summer.
“Obviously having those edge rushers is a serious advantage,” Avalos said. Pierce called it “a scary sight” when Frazier and Weaver get on the field together, which the Broncos hope to do in key situations this fall.
“(Frazier) is out there dominating,” Rypien said.
Linebackers/nickels: The biggest loss on this team is no doubt Leighton Vander Esch, possibly a first-round pick come Thursday. His production won’t be replaced by just one person, but surely will take a whole-team effort. There is some good competition at his weakside linebacker spot, with sophomore Riley Whimpey the most likely starter. That race also includes senior Blake Whitlock, sophomore Bruno DeRose and redshirt freshman Ezekiel Noa.
Junior Tyson Maeva has the middle locked down, and he has sophomore Benton Wickersham behind him after he saw some solid time as a freshman. At the strongside spot, junior Will Heffner and sophomore Desmond Williams saw a lot of work. Both made starts last season. Sophomore nickel Kekaula Kaniho was very productive last season (two defensive touchdowns) and can add versatility to the front seven.
“I think we have some guys at linebacker that have stepped up and grown a lot this spring and some guys that have been limited in what they can do this spring but have taken steps forward in what they can do,” said Avalos, who has 12 linebackers on scholarship. “... It’s going to be an opportunity for a few guys to step up.”
Cornerbacks: Boise State is set with its starters in senior Tyler Horton and sophomore Avery Williams. Horton, a first-team All-Mountain West selection, broke up 11 passes, made two interceptions and grabbed two fumble recoveries. Williams, who moved into the starting lineup for 10 games, broke up eight passes and had two interceptions. He said he focused this spring on press coverage, not allowing easy completions.
With new assistant Jeff Popovich leading the group, he has some unproven depth. Sophomore Jalen Walker started the bowl game with Horton injured and fared well. Redshirt freshman Jermani Brown made some plays in the spring and at times stepped in with the No. 1s.
“(Horton and Williams) are awesome coaching and teaching the younger guys,” Popovich said.
Safeties: Perhaps the deepest unit on the team if you include Kaniho, the Broncos can almost go three-deep, led by juniors Pierce and Kekoa Nawahine. Nawahine (108 tackles, three INTs in 2017) was very productive in the spring, and Pierce was routinely among the first mentioned by Harsin as standouts. Nawahine said he’s been working on his man coverage and open-field tackling, and that he wants to “be able to run the defense from the safety position.”
“We have a lot of guys that can play, so there’s a lot of energy in the room and out on the field of people pushing each other,” Nawahine said.
Behind them, sophomore Jordan Happle and junior Evan Tyler have made contributions, while freshman Tyreque Jones was the defensive scout team player of the year while redshirting.
“We’ve got different lengths, size, speed, agility and all that, but that’s the one thing we want to make sure is we close the gap between the guys that have played and the younger guys that are going to build their own roles,” Avalos said.
The Broncos’ special teams took an incredible leap forward last season after a rough 2016. Their punt returner (Avery Williams) and his two touchdowns are back, so is the team’s two punters and kicker Haden Hoggarth. There’s confidence the group can be just as good, though it loses some key performers like Wolpin and long snapper Brock Barr. Expect Williams to have a shot at returning kickoffs too, along with a gaggle of others. Special teams work was again a point of emphasis in the spring, which is part of the improvement — making it stick in their minds.
“They get it. If we’re not doing well on special teams then we’re probably not doing well in the game,” Harsin said. “That’s just who we are and that’s what showed up last year and we believe in it now.”