The foundation is in place for the Boise State football team to have another potent offense, but it is no secret the holes that must be filled are some big ones.
As spring practices begin Monday, the Broncos must replace the top two pass catchers from last season’s 11-3 squad, plus two stalwart offensive linemen. The good news is the team has some depth at those spots, is healthier than last spring, and returns the entire offensive staff.
“That’s going to pay huge dividends,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
The Broncos’ 32.5 points per game last season were the second-fewest since 1998, and will no doubt be a point of emphasis this year. Here’s an overview of what the Broncos have back this spring, and what they will be focusing on through April 14’s spring game.
After a slow start last season as a junior, senior quarterback Brett Rypien finished strong, throwing for 2,356 yards and 16 touchdowns to four interceptions in his last 10 games. He will work on avoiding crushing turnovers, such as the two end zone interceptions in the Las Vegas Bowl, and finding consistency.
“That’s going to be a big part of this offseason, pushing him to the point where he can excel in certain areas we may not have touched on in the past,” Hill said.
Graduate transfer Montell Cozart departs, but the Broncos will add junior college transfer Jaylon Henderson to mix, along with redshirt freshman Chase Cord, competing for the backup role.
“Each guy brings something different to the table,” Hill said. “Chase has done a phenomenal job of changing his body … he’s got a strong arm, he’s accurate, he’s athletic. Jaylon’s very athletic, and he can throw it from the pocket, too.”
A lower leg injury forced junior Alexander Mattison out of the Mountain West championship and slowed him down considerably in the bowl game. Following offseason surgery, he may not be a full-go, which is just fine with running backs coach Lee Marks.
Though he expects Mattison to be the workhorse in the fall, the spring will be a major opportunity for sophomore Robert Mahone and redshirt freshman Drake Beasley. Mahone rushed for 115 yards last season, while Beasley was close to playing as a true freshman.
“Just looking for Drake and Robert Mahone to take the next step forward, to be all-around (players) and play consistently and be out there for a number of snaps,” Marks said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how these guys play when they’re tired, when they’re asked to do everything.”
Losing a record-breaking target like Cedrick Wilson and his school-record 1,511 receiving yards will hurt. But wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau is confident — very confident — the unit will step up.
“I promise you, I put my career on the line — it will happen,” Kiesau said. “I’ve done it. I promise you. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
There is not an obvious candidate to replace the Broncos’ No. 1 target, but there are plenty of options. Senior AJ Richardson is the top returner with 33 catches and 494 yards in 2017, while senior Sean Modster had 32 catches for 335 yards.
Sophomores Octavius Evans and CT Thomas showed flashes of potential as true freshmen, and in their first spring, can hone on the details after learning on the fly last fall. This summer, the Broncos will add five new scholarship receivers (four true freshmen and junior college transfer John Hightower), so getting a leg up on all the newcomers will be important.
“Most guys would panic, but I don’t care,” Kiesau said. “I’m going to coach these guys up, teach them technique, and somebody will rise to the occasion. Whether it’s a true freshman, whether it’s John Hightower, whether it’s AJ Richardson, at some point somebody is going to want that challenge to step up and continue that legacy.”
A year ago, the question was “will they throw to the tight ends more?”
The answer was most definitely “yes.” But now, the question for the Broncos is “who will they throw to?”
Jake Roh (39 catches, 410 yards, four TDs) and Alec Dhaenens (13-175-2) are gone, and the returners have a total of six combined career receptions.
“Those guys are tough to replace,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said. “Their on-the-field performance is tough enough to replace, but their leadership, their character, their commitment, the work ethic, that’s the stuff you’re really scared to lose.”
It is unclear if senior Chase Blakley, who played in just two games before a season-ending injury, will be fully clear this spring, but Riddle has high hopes for him this fall. Junior Matt Pistone has almost exclusively been used as a blocker, while sophomore John Bates is a big target that began to scratch his massive potential late in the year.
“Those guys have big-play ability, and I think we’ll see them do that in the future,” Riddle said.
The unit had a brutal first month, but coach Brad Bedell said there came a point when the line said “enough is enough,” and saw some solid improvement in both the run game and the pass game. The Broncos averaged 117 yards rushing per game the first month of the season and 154.1 ypg afterward. They allowed 13 sacks those first four games, and 16 the next 10.
Right tackle Archie Lewis and first-team All-Mountain West center Mason Hampton depart, but five players who made starts last season are back. Junior Garrett Larson started at guard and center in 2017, and will compete with sophomore Donte Harrington to fill Hampton’s spot.
Left tackle Ezra Cleveland was the only lineman to start all 14 games, doing so as a redshirt freshman. Junior John Molchon started 11 games at left guard and one apiece at right guard and right tackle. Expect junior guard/tackle Isiah Moore and freshman tackle John Ojukwu, who both redshirted last season, to be in the competition mix.
Bedell joined the staff a week into spring practices last year and had most of his eventual starters recovering from surgery, so this will be a far different experience.
“We’re going to return a lot,” Bedell said. “The future is unbelievable. We just have to continue to grow and get better. Ezra and John, they have to take the next step and I have to get them there. I’m excited to do it.”