Four safeties battle to fill empty spot in backfield

Idaho StatesmanMarch 23, 2007 

Boise State freshman safeties Jason Robinson and Jeron Johnson, who are dorm roommates, get a little feisty when they compete.

"That gets pretty intense," Johnson said. "… A lot of different things are said."

But he's not talking about their competition for a starting job on the Bronco football team.

He's talking about video games.

On the field, they don't worry about competing with each other.

"We know the best man will play," Johnson said.

The two freshmen are part of a four-way battle during spring ball to replace NFL prospect Gerald Alexander at safety. Senior Marty Tadman returns at the other safety spot for his third year as a starter.The other contenders for the starting job are senior Austin Smith, who started at safety as a sophomore but was a backup cornerback last year, and junior-college transfer Garcia Day.

The position battle is a sign of the Broncos' depth in the secondary, where junior Orlando Scandrick and sophomore Kyle Wilson return as the starting cornerbacks.

"I like our depth probably better than any of the past years I've been here," said defensive backs coach Marcel Yates, who joined the staff in 2003. "But depth means nothing if guys can't perform. I want to feel comfortable being two deep."

Yates moved Smith (5-9, 173), who was a special-teams demon last year, back to safety this year because of his experience. Smith's size, however, makes him a better fit at cornerback, where he also is practicing.

Robinson (6-0, 185), Johnson (5-11, 190) and Day (6-2, 190) fit the safety profile better. They still must learn the defense and prove themselves in game situations, beginning with today's scrimmage.

"As a coach, I think of safeties as the guys who can put fear in running backs and receivers," Yates said, "who can have those guys wondering, ‘Where's that safety that at any point can take my head off?' "

Robinson already has shown the ability to make the big hit. He registered the hit of spring ball Tuesday on running back Jeremy Avery.

Johnson, Day and Smith also can deliver a hit.

"Our safeties run to the ball better than I've ever seen," said Robinson, a coach's son from Los Angeles known for his football smarts. "None of us is scared. We all want to play. We all have that drive. That keeps me at my best."

Johnson and Day are making transitions this spring.

Johnson was a high school linebacker in Compton, Calif., who never had played safety until he showed up last fall.

"I'm used to just flying up and hitting the first dude I see," Johnson said. "Now I have to read keys, backpedal, turn and burst … ."

Day makes the always-delicate move from junior college to Division I-A. He was the only JC recruit signed by the Broncos this year.

Day started strong this spring but struggled as the Broncos installed more of the defensive schemes, Yates said.

"Going against Boise State's offense, all the shifting they do, it doesn't make it easy," Day said. "But it's a good thing because it will prepare me."

Tadman spends much of practice watching the young guys play. What's basic for him is an entirely new concept for the trio of newcomers.

"You can see them improving a lot," Tadman said. "Jason Robinson I think is going to be an incredible football player. … He shows some spots where you think, ‘Wow, this guy's incredible.' And sometimes I'm like, ‘Yep, he's a freshman.' "

The Broncos get about 35 more practices to remove those freshman and junior-college mistakes before the season opener Aug. 30 against Weber State.

It might take that long to choose a starter.

"We don't want to take a step back by losing (Alexander)," Day said. "We want to take a step forward and be even better."

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