BOISE — Of the seven true freshmen who have played for the Boise State football team this season, one who wasnt supposed to begin his career might make the biggest impact.
Tanner Vallejo has become the first true freshman linebacker to start for the Broncos in the Mountain West/WAC era (since 2001), and he has collected more tackles (34) than any true freshman since safety George Iloka in 2008 (63).
Vallejo joined the linebacker rotation in the third week of the season after a season-ending injury to backup middle linebacker Travis Saxton, and he started at middle linebacker for three straight games while Blake Renaud was injured.
Vallejo made a team-high 11 tackles Nov. 2 at Colorado State but was limited by injury last week against Wyoming. He and the linebackers will be under pressure Saturday night at San Diego State against the Aztecs old-school rushing attack.
(Vallejo) is a quiet guy in the locker room, but on the field he makes a lot of plays, junior cornerback Bryan Douglas said. He plays with a lot of heart. I love the way he plays.
Said coach Chris Petersen: Hes still learning and figuring out everything about the college game, but he brings a lot to the table. We probably just should have played him right from the start.
Vallejo (6-foot-1, 217 pounds) has compensated for his lack of experience or time in a college weight room with an outstanding feel for the game.
He recorded 419 tackles in his final three seasons at Nevada Union High in Grass Valley, Calif., and was the Sierra Foothill League defensive MVP in 2011 and 2012.
He just has an incredible nose for the ball, said Dave Humphers, who coached Nevada Union for 22 years. Great tackler. Really a hard hitter. But he never leads with his helmet. He just has always been a guy who could find the ball, and he ends up on top of it, too.
Vallejos play drew offers from Arizona, Colorado, Washington State, Fresno State and others before he committed to Boise State in June 2012.
He is not available for interviews this season because hes a true freshman. When he committed, he predicted a smooth transition into the Broncos program, a place he called a perfect fit for me.
Offensive coordinator Robert Prince, who recruits the Sacramento area, spotted Vallejo. Linebackers coach Bob Gregory liked his video immediately.
Theres a guy whos a football player, Gregory said on signing day.
Hes very instinctual, which helps as a coach, Gregory said. Hes very athletic, light on his feet. He can set up blockers and go around them as well as he can come downhill and strike blockers.
Vallejo plays in a young linebacker corps that includes several guys who played as true freshmen.
Gregory said he looks for true freshmen who arent overwhelmed by their indoctrination to college football. He has trusted Vallejo with a key spot on the field. The middle linebacker helps make the defensive calls.
Im not sure you want to put a true freshman any place, Gregory said, but if youre forced to do so, you just want to make sure its the right guy.
Renaud, who primarily played special teams as a true freshman, is among those impressed by Vallejo.
Hes smart, Renaud said. Hes physical. And he gets the defense already, just being a true freshman, which is huge.
Vallejo made his first start Oct. 19 against Nevada after playing sparingly in his first five games (five tackles). He caught his teammates attention on the opening drive. He made a tackle for loss on the first play and was in on the tackle on three of the next four plays.
Vallejo finished with seven tackles against Nevada, nine at BYU and 11 at Colorado State for a total of 27 in his three starts.
Some people just have the instincts, junior linebacker Corey Bell said. Hes obviously a real physical player. He wants to hit people.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398; Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat