Some of the most productive players on the Boise State football team this season are newcomers to major college football.
The group includes the Broncos top two sack artists, interceptions leader, second-leading rusher, fourth-leading receiver and top receiving tight end.
So while Boise States 23-man senior class shined two weeks ago, its clear there are some budding future stars in the program, too.
You can tell from the film that theyre evolving into better players, junior quarterback Joe Southwick said. Thats what you want to see. You want to see them improve and get better. Theres no doubt they all are.
Added senior cornerback Jamar Taylor: Im definitely looking forward to watching these guys play (in the future).
The Broncos conclude the regular season Saturday at Nevada (1:35 p.m. MST, ABC). Heres a look at their top newcomers in 2012:
DE Demarcus Lawrence, sophomore: He ranks 13th in the nation and first in the Mountain West with 9.5 sacks, including at least one in five straight games. He also leads the Mountain West with 12.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. Hes fourth on the team with 44 tackles. Plus, hes got an interception, a blocked kick and a touchdown.
Lawrence is the only sophomore on this list. He transferred from Butler Community College in Kansas.
Hes got a good feel for the game and I think you start with that, coach Chris Petersen said. Hes taken well to the coaching. Slowly but surely, hes getting better even as we speak.
DE Sam Ukwuachu, redshirt freshman: The 6-foot-4, 222-pounder ranks second on the team with 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. He also has a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
If Sam can continue to make progress over the next couple years in terms of his strength, putting some size on him, understanding the position, getting a little bit faster, he could do some very good things, Petersen said. But now what I think he is, hes a football player. Hes tough and hes really kind of undersized at this point, but he makes plays.
S Darian Thompson, redshirt freshman: He has started the past four games at free safety after the suspension to Lee Hightower and the defense hasnt changed a bit. Thompson is tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has climbed into a tie for 10th in tackles with 31.
RB Jay Ajayi, redshirt freshman: He ranks second on the team with 490 rushing yards and is tied for second with four touchdowns. He averages a team-best 7.1 yards per carry.
The biggest thing thats impressed me with Jay is him being able to come in there and be a smart guy in pass protection, running backs coach Keith Bhonapha said. Thats one of the hard things when youre dealing with a young running back. Jay is really a smart guy and has figured it out. When you talk about him running the ball, being able to use his vision and be physical and make guys miss has been very impressive. The guy has a bright future ahead of him.
WR Shane Williams-Rhodes, true freshman: The 5-foot-6 playmaker ranks fourth on the team with 93 rushing yards and tied for fourth with 19 catches. He has scored three touchdowns.
TE Holden Huff, redshirt freshman: The 6-foot-5, 213-pounder could become a menace as he gets bigger and stronger through the Broncos weight-training program. In the past two games, he has seven catches for 106 yards and two touchdowns. The rest of the teams tight ends and fullbacks have combined for seven catches all season.
Huff has 15 catches for 215 yards total, with about half of his production has coming in the past two games.
Hes starting to get a little momentum, Petersen said. Quite frankly, Im a little surprised it took this long to get him going. He does a nice job in the run game but I think his true strength is going to be in the pass game, and youre starting to see it now.
S Dillon Lukehart, redshirt freshman: He doesnt get noticed as much as the others but he has been one of the Broncos most active special-teamers. He also has played more on defense late in the season. The Eagle High grad has 15 tackles and two pass breakups.
We knew he was going to be an excellent special teams player, Petersen said. Hes getting better every week as a safety.
LB Tyler Gray, true freshman: He has rotated into the lineup at linebacker and played extensively on special teams, racking up 26 tackles. He also grabbed an interception playing with the first-team defense at Southern Miss.
Other newcomers who have played quite a bit this year: TE Connor Peters, so. (two-point catch), CB Donte Deayon, fr. (interception), LS Kevin Keane, so. (three games as long snapper), DT Armand Nance, fr. (nine tackles, one sack), RB Jack Fields, fr. (135 rushing yards), TE Hayden Plinke, fr. (two catches).
Junior punter Trevor Harman laughs at the fan reaction he gets to his rugby-style punts when the Broncos are on the road. They heckle him during warm-ups and start cheering when his punts come out low and tumbling, not realizing how far the ball is going to roll.
Its more important to get the ball on the ground than to kick it a long way in the air.
Its an ugly kick, Harman said. Its understandable.
Harman has averaged 41.5 yards per punt this season with seven of his 37 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. He has a powerful leg his long is 60 yards but hasnt been as consistent as coaches would like.
The Broncos rank 106th in net punting, down from 35th last year. This is Harmans first year as the starting punter.
Hes got such a strong leg, Petersen said. When hes consistent, its just like, Wow. Thats kind of what we expect out of him. When its not, youre like, What happened? He could be quite a weapon.
Harman also is the kickoff specialist. He has 10 touchbacks on 56 kicks and averages 60.6 yards per kick, down nearly 5 yards from last year.
I know I have the leg to get it down there, he said. Im just working on some technical issues at the moment.
A few key notes from Petersens contract, as the coaching carousel begins:
He has earned a one-year extension because the Broncos won eight games. That puts him under contract through 2017.
He will receive an $80,000 bonus if the Broncos win this week (conference title) or a $35,000 bonus if they lose (bowl berth).
His buyout is $750,000. He is obligated to coach the Broncos through the bowl game even if he accepts another job.
As schools line up to fight over the latest hot head coaches in college football, they might do better to chase assistants. Of the 25 coaches in the latest Bowl Championship Series standings, 15 have not been head coaches at another college or in the NFL. And only five were sitting head coaches at another school when they were hired. The other five include an NFL head coach, an NFL assistant, a college assistant who was a former head coach and two guys who were out of work.
Petersen doesnt have a plan for his team when fans rush the field, like they did at the end of the 2010 game in Reno.
Not really. Run for your life, he said. I dont think Nevada was ready for that. Every now and then it happens. Ive been in situations worse than that.
Petersen said he was involved in an Oregon-Oregon State game when the Beavers fans rushed the field before the game was over. They were directed off the field and onto the Ducks sideline.
They were on our sideline, standing with the coaches and players, he said. That was scary.
Chadd Cripe is in his 11th season covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He also is a voter in The Associated Press Top 25. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 377-6398. His Twitter account is @IDS_BroncoBeat.