Here are 10 key questions as the Boise State football team beings spring practices today:
1. Who will be the quarterback?
This will be the most-asked question of the spring and, possibly, the fall. We should have some idea after the first scrimmage March 23.
That's when coach Chris Petersen and offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin would like to establish a pecking order among the four contenders. They enter spring ball in the same order they exited the fall — senior Taylor Tharp, junior Bush Hamdan, sophomore Nick Lomax and freshman Mike Coughlin.
Las Vegas oddsmakers likely would install Tharp as the favorite because of his experience. He backed up Jared Zabransky the past two seasons and replaced him in three premier games in 2005 — against Georgia, Idaho and Boston College.
However, the last two Boise State quarterback derbys favored the promising youngster. Sophomore Ryan Dinwiddie beat out junior B.J. Rhode in 2001 and sophomore Zabransky beat out senior Mike Sanford in 2004.
If Coughlin or Lomax is going to win this job, he must make a statement in the first two weeks of spring. Otherwise, he likely won't get the practice time necessary to overtake the veterans.
The key factor likely will be decision-making. The Broncos don't need a quarterback who will throw for 4,000 yards.
They need one who can complement a powerful, and often dominant, ground game.
Petersen said he's searching for the guy who doesn't "have those glaring, game-changing mistakes."
2. To whom will that quarterback throw?
BSU likely will return to its most common formula at wide receiver — five or six regular contributors, with each filling a role.
The Broncos relied heavily on three NFL prospects the past two seasons with Legedu Naanee, Jerard Rabb and Drisan James.
This year's crew will start with Vinny Perretta, who still will take some snaps at tailback, and sophomore Jeremy Childs, who caught a clutch touchdown pass against New Mexico State and had 14 catches last year.
The rest of the receivers will battle for playing time. The group includes athletic sophomore Aiona Key, converted tight end Julian Hawkins, converted safety Evan Surratt and promising walk-ons Tanyon Bissell and Nick Harris.
"We've got a lot of young guys we feel are very talented," Harsin said. "They just need an opportunity. That's going to be a good group."
3. If Perretta starts at wide receiver, whois the backup tailback?
Tailback will be one of the most intriguing positions during spring ball. Returning starter Ian Johnson won't practice much, which means ample opportunity for a trio of freshmen whom the coaches like.
Jeremy Avery (5-foot-9, 161 pounds) is a slippery playmaker nicknamed "Peanut." Jarvis Hodge (5-9, 193) adds some power, and Stew Tracy (5-9, 177) — a walk-on from Bishop Kelly — exhibits a playmaking instinct.
"Those guys just need an opportunity — they're going to make plays," Harsin said. "It's just a great variety of running backs. They all have a niche in there."
Senior Jon Helmandollar also will get some carries. A true freshman even could earn some playing time this fall, Petersen said.
The goal is to create some depth behind Johnson, who took a pounding last season and missed one game while setting a school record with 1,713 rushing yards and leading the nation with 25 touchdowns. He averaged 23 carries per game.
Petersen doesn't want to take carries away from Johnson, but he does want some security. Perretta and then-senior Brett Denton were the only significant contributors behind Johnson last year.
"We were playing with fire last year just out of necessity," Petersen said. "For a running back to stay healthy the entire season, that's impossible."
4. Which of the 22 seniors will be the most difficult to replace?
Andrew Browning. The three-year starter at defensive tackle and All-WAC first-teamer was the key to the Broncos' impenetrable run defense. He also led the team with 8› sacks.
"People take for granted Andrew Browning," defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. "And it's not anybody's fault. You're not going to necessarily watch the defensive tackle every snap."
Two returning tackles gained some experience last year filling in for then-senior Dennis Ellis, who missed time with injuries and for disciplinary reasons.
Junior Joe Bozikovich started the last two games of the season. Junior Phillip Edwards started the first two games of the season.
Seniors Ian Smart and Sione Tavake also will compete at tackle. Juniors Sean Bingham and Steven Reveles could play end and tackle.
5. Which position battle will be the most intense?
The race to replace middle linebacker Korey Hall, a four-year starter and the 2006 WAC Defensive Player of the Year, should be fun to watch.
Senior Josh Bean, highly touted freshman Derrell Acrey, junior Dallas Dobbs and possibly even David Shields will compete for the job.
Bean, a special-teams standout, gets one final shot to crack the starting lineup. He has tried all three linebacker positions during his career.
"He's been in watching film," Wilcox said. "He does a great job in the workouts. … He has kept a good attitude."
Then there's Acrey, the energetic newcomer who nearly played last year as a true freshman. Acrey (6-2, 235) was the biggest linebacker on the team when he arrived on campus.
"He's a young guy with a lot of energy," Wilcox said. "He loves playing football. … Experience is going to be the key for him."
6. Who's going tokick the ball?
Freshman walk-on Kyle Brotzman is the front-runner for the kicker job. Freshman David Lowery, a scholarship player, will provide the competition.
The Broncos don't plan to add a kicker in the fall.
"Kyle Brotzman showed us some very good things last season," Petersen said. "We really like his leg, but it's a little bit like being at the driving range — a lot of us look good stroking it at the driving range. It's different when you tee it up."
Lowery will be the only traditional punter in spring drills. Bissell will practice the roll-out punt.
The Broncos hope true freshman Brad Elkin will win the punting job when he arrives in the fall.
7. Will any true freshmen other than Elkinplay this year?
Probably. The Broncos signed arguably their best class ever in February, and they're prepared to use it.
Defensive tackle and running back are two positions where the Broncos could use help now, Petersen said. Receiver also is an area where a newcomer could help.
The Broncos did not play any true freshmen last year and usually only play one or two per year.
"A lot of it depends on how these guys do now through the summer," Petersen said, "and a lot of it depends on what this talent actually looks like when it shows up."
8. Who will bethe breakoutperformer of spring?
That's a tough call with so many holes to fill. There are plenty of obvious candidates, from Acrey to safeties Garcia Day, Jeron Johnson and Jason Robinson to center Paul Lucariello.
The not-so-obvious candidates include Avery, Tavake, cornerback Cade Hulbert and defensive end Ryan Winterswyk.
Tavake generated buzz last fall when he joined the team as a junior-college transfer. He's an explosive talent who must refine his technique and understanding of the defense.
"He's a real massive guy," Wilcox said. "… He's at his best when he's not thinking. He just flashed some things during camp where you're like, ‘Holy smokes!' He had some abilities not everybody had."
Winterswyk is a walk-on who impressed in the fall. He is a converted safety who has bulked up from 210 pounds to 260.
Hulbert is a former Capital High star. He played briefly at BYU in 2005 and transferred to BSU last year.
Hulbert should be a factor on special teams. He's one of the fastest players on the team.
"You'll hear about him," Wilcox said. "He's a tough dude."
9. Who is the playerwho needs to havea breakout spring?
The 6-4, 194-pound wideout could provide the Broncos with the big target they lost with the departures of Rabb and Naanee.
However, he has lacked consistency in practice. He did not have a catch last year.
If Key emerges, he would give the Broncos a diverse group of weapons at wide receiver.
"We definitely need to establish that we can throw the ball," Tharp said. "We established that we can run the ball last year, and we have all those guys returning. The area we need to prove ourselves in is the pass game. It's going to take some young receivers stepping up, and it's going to take a quarterback without much experience stepping up."
10. Will any key players miss spring ball?
At least five players who have started games or starred on special teams will miss time this spring.
Defensive end Nick Schlekeway is out with a broken foot. He had surgery a couple weeks ago.
Linebacker Kyle Gingg, who suffered a broken ankle on the first defensive series of the Fiesta Bowl, won't go full speed until the third week of spring ball.
Offensive lineman Pete Cavender, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles' tendon but has starting experience, probably will be limited to drills only.
Special-teams standout Ia Falo and Johnson also will be limited.
Johnson continues to recover from the beating he took last season. He missed most of spring ball last year with a hernia, which didn't slow him a bit.
"Our goal for him is to get him to top speed by August," Petersen said.