Boise State position preview: Young but deep linebacking corps taking over

BSU's linebackers have big shoes to fill after losing two key tacklers. © 2013 Idaho StatesmanAugust 19, 2013 

Linebacker Ben Weaver redshirted last season and was named Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year.



    Weak-side linebacker

    Tyler Gray (6-4, 228, So.) OR Ben Weaver (6-0, 233, R-Fr.): Gray was a last-minute addition to the 2012 recruiting class and he made an immediate impact with 27 tackles. Weaver, an all-district player in Texas, was an early commit who had to wait a year as a redshirt for his opportunity.

    Middle linebacker

    Blake Renaud (6-2, 243, Jr.): Renaud split time with Tommy Smith last year and is one of the Broncos' best special teams players. He has collected 56 tackles and six Hammers in his career.

    Travis Saxton (6-1, 214, R-Jr.): The walk-on from Eagle High was a special teams contributor last season. He emerged in the spring and has provided a reliable option behind Renaud.

    Strong-side linebacker

    Jonathan Brown (5-10, 206, R-Sr.) OR Corey Bell (5-11, 210, Jr.): Brown's career has been sidetracked by injuries and illness but he has positioned himself for a breakout senior season. Bell could be one of the emotional leaders of the defense with his energetic style, which earned him four starts late last season.

Boise State assistant coach Bob Gregory has spent the past three years collecting recruits to restock a roster that only has one scholarship linebacker remaining from the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes.

Now it's time for those players to deliver.

Ten of the Broncos' 13 linebackers have joined the team since August 2011. That group includes four of the six players expected to take nearly all of the first-team snaps at the three linebacker positions as the season begins - true juniors Blake Renaud (middle) and Corey Bell (strong side), true sophomore Tyler Gray (weak side) and redshirt freshman Ben Weaver (weak side). True freshman Darren Lee also will contribute, primarily on special teams.

"We've got a lot of young energy and young leaders," Weaver said.

The linebackers have given themselves a nickname - "LBP." It stands for Linebacker Pride. And they have embraced the challenge of replacing J.C. Percy and Tommy Smith, the Nos. 1 and 3 tacklers last year.

"They work very hard, and I think they have a lot of fun, too," Gregory said. "They've been doing a good job of bringing the energy out here and getting guys going. … We have less experience, but we have more depth."

That is clear with the competition for starting jobs.

Renaud, who was sixth on the team with 46 tackles last season, is the front-runner at middle linebacker, but redshirt junior Travis Saxton, a walk-on from Eagle High, has earned playing time, too.

Renaud, a big hitter with a quiet personality, has emerged as one of the group's leaders.

"Part of it is understanding the defense so you can assume that leadership role and tell the guys what to do," Gregory said. "Now he's been in this thing for two years and he gets it and he's been doing a good job in there."

Gray - who grayshirted, joined the team in January 2012 and played behind Percy last year - made 27 tackles last season. He provides a different look than the rest of the linebackers at 6-foot-4, 228 pounds - a frame built for blitzing and pass defense.

He was limited to drills only in spring ball but has played well in fall camp. He ran the second-fastest three-cone drill in Boise State's spring testing, better than any cornerback or receiver.

"He's going to be a good football player," Gregory said.

Weaver took advantage of Gray's absence in the spring and has pushed him through the fall. Weaver, of Klein, Texas, was one of the top recruits in the 2012 class and the Scout Defensive Player of the Year.

Texas A&M made a late run at signing him, but he honored the commitment he gave Boise State before his senior year of high school.

"You could really see how smart he was," Gregory said. "He was very well coached down there. He has a very good feel for playing all the blocks inside, so he's kind of a natural football player."

Weaver is a lifelong defensive player. He played end until his junior year of high school, when he became a middle linebacker. He moved to the weak side in the spring and has needed to adjust to the pass-coverage responsibilities, but he doesn't lack athleticism. He made his high school soccer team as a freshman and played forward.

He got ahead of some of his Boise State classmates at linebacker by making the most of his time on the scout team last fall.

"Having to go against our first team definitely will make someone better," he said. "Every week I was trying to evaluate (my play) and get better and better."

The most experience is at strong-side linebacker, formerly known as nickel.

Senior Jonathan Brown started four games in 2011 and has been part of the linebacker rotation when healthy the past two seasons. Bell, of Capital High, started four of the final five games last season and finished seventh on the team with 45 tackles.

Unlike the two weak-side linebackers, Brown and Bell are the same size with similar attributes.

"It's very hard to tell if there's much difference between those two guys," Gregory said. "Both have played a lot of football, both are very smart, both have great leadership, so we feel really good about both of them."

Gregory likes some of the players who aren't in the two-deep yet, too. In addition to Lee, redshirt freshmen Chris Santini and Andrew Pint have shown signs that they could contribute later in the season.

And the true freshman class is talented, too.

All of that youth should leave Gregory smiling in the coming years, when he expects to have experienced depth.

But he doesn't think it will take that long for the talent to show.

"Hopefully," he said, "I'm smiling this year."

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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