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He was a tackle machine at Boise State. Tanner Vallejo now finds his footing in the NFL

He was a tackle machine at Boise State. Tanner Vallejo now finds his footing in the NFL

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Tanner Vallejo

Boise State linebacker Tanner Vallejo, from Nevada Union High School, displays his defensive MVP trophy after the Broncos beat Arizona 38-30 in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. Vallejo was drafted by Buffalo.

Arizona Cardinals linebacker Tanner Vallejo was one of more than 100 former Boise State players who were back in town for the Broncos’ spring game in April.

It was the first time he returned to Boise since his pro day workouts ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he felt like he was at home as soon as he stepped back onto the blue turf in Albertsons Stadium — the same field where he ingrained himself in the hearts of Boise State fans with a single play during the 2014 Mountain West championship game.

With the Broncos leading Fresno State 7-0 late in the first quarter, Vallejo — then a sophomore — undercut a pass over the middle of the field and settled in behind a convoy of blockers on the way to a 63-yard touchdown. It was the only interception of his college career, and it helped Boise State claim a conference title with a 28-14 win in former head coach Bryan Harsin’s first season at the helm.

That pick-six also earned Vallejo Defensive MVP honors in the title game. He thinks back on that moment often, but what makes it unforgettable for him is that his family was there to see it. Vallejo’s family was in the stands behind the end zone he followed his blockers to, and as he was diving over the pylon, he locked eyes with his parents.

“We kind of had a moment,” Vallejo told the Statesman. “It’s one of those moments that you replay in your mind over and over again, and I just remember being so happy my family was there to see it because they’ve always been there to support me.”

Family is important to Vallejo, which is why he and Boise State head coach Andy Avalos bonded so quickly during his college career and why Avalos is someone he still turns to whenever he’s in need of advice.

Vallejo was a linebacker at Boise State from 2013 to 2016. Avalos was his position coach for the first three years of his career before he was promoted to defensive coordinator for Vallejo’s final season with the Broncos.

“He treated me like a brother and that made me want to play harder for him,” Vallejo said. “He’s high energy and he’s to the point. He’s not going to sugarcoat anything, but he’s also going to love you up when you do something right.”

Brotherhood has been Avalos’ mantra since he left Oregon, where he spent two years as the Ducks’ defensive coordinator, to take over at his alma mater in January. Avalos was a linebacker for the Broncos from 2001 to 2004, and he takes keeping the alumni network strong very seriously.

He has five former Broncos on his coaching staff, including graduate assistant Jabril Frazier, and whether it’s been for an event or just to talk to the team, he has introduced his current team to a host of former Boise State players, including Minnesota Vikings running back Alexander Mattison.

“He wants all of us to keep that brotherhood going and that family going, and that’s beyond just the program when you’re in it,” Vallejo said. The 2014 season, as a whole, was memorable for Vallejo. Statistically, it was the best season of his college career after he led the Broncos with 100 tackles and finished No. 5 in the conference with 16.5 tackles for a loss — both of which earned him second-team All-Mountain West honors.

He earned a second Defensive MVP award later that year with a team-high 14 tackles and 1.5 sacks in Boise State’s win over Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl. Vallejo finished his college career with 226 tackles, 30 tackles for loss, five sacks and two defensive touchdowns — both of which were scored in 2014. He also returned a fumble 31 yards for a score that year against UConn.

Vallejo said he felt like he was in a groove that year — even more so than his during final two seasons, both of which ended with honorable mention all-conference nods, despite him being limited to nine games as a senior because of injuries. He knew what was expected of him, and he knew he could work to achieve it.

The 26-year-old native of Penn Valley, California, said he’s had a familiar feeling since landing in Arizona in 2019.

“I feel like I’ve caught my footing there,” Vallejo said. “I feel like I know the defense pretty well. They’re giving me opportunities to get on field, and when they do, I’ve performed well. I feel like I’m just getting started. I don’t have a lot of miles on my body, and I feel like I have a long way to go.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Vallejo was picked by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he ended up on four different teams in three years. He spent the 2018 season in Cleveland, where he appeared in 13 games, before heading to Washington for the 2019 preseason.

Washington waived him during the final round of roster cuts, though, and he originally joined the Cardinals’ practice squad before getting promoted to the active roster later that year. Last season, he led the team with 15 special teams tackles, and in 96 snaps on defense, he recorded 26 tackles and a sack. In March, he signed a two-year extension with the Cardinals worth $4.1 million.

“I’ve learned so much about myself over the past few years. More so than anything, you have to have confidence in yourself and not rely on coaches so much,” he said. “It’s all on you. You’re your own business. It took me a while to figure that out, but I got it figured out.”

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