Gearing up again: Boise State football opens spring practice Monday

ccripe@idahostatesman.comMarch 10, 2014 

  • KEY DATES

    Monday: First spring practice

    March 20: Closed scrimmage

    April 5: Open scrimmage, 5 p.m.

    April 12: Spring Game, 5 p.m.

    April 14: Last spring practice

    Aug. 1: First day of fall camp

    Aug. 28: Opener vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta

The spring plan: Create an identity.

The Boise State football team begins its first spring ball under coach Bryan Harsin and a mostly new staff on Monday.

Fifteen practices later, Harsin hopes the Broncos will have a good idea of what kind of team they will be in 2014. That identity will be based on what Harsin calls "DNA plays" - the staples of the offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.

"I want to have an identity for going into the summer," he said. "… If we have those DNA plays in place and we're good at it, then we can build a whole lot from it."

Harsin also wants to see three qualities in his players - discipline, toughness and conviction.

"I want to see the discipline to do what we need to do, the toughness that we want to create and the conviction for what we're doing - believing in what we're doing, believing in the system."

OFFENSE: TOUGHNESS FIRST

Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's spring priorities: build toughness, develop execution and foster an attacking mindset.

"I want to see guys straining for their teammates, playing with a little nasty, having a chip on their shoulder," he said.

The Broncos will install a no-huddle, shotgun-based offense that is a combination of the playbook Harsin built at Boise State, Texas and Arkansas State, and the one Sanford worked with at Stanford. There will be new concepts, terms and processes for the players to digest.

"The biggest thing is getting to a place throughout this spring ball that we feel really good about where the execution is and the knowledge of the players within the system so that they can apply it when they have their player-led practices (this summer)," Sanford said.

DEFENSE: REBUILD THE BRAND

The Broncos lost their way defensively last season after five straight years of impeccable play on that side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates, who helped build a defense that pushed the Broncos into the top 10 when he was the defensive backs coach from 2006 to 2011, wants to see increased commitment from the crew he inherited.

"There are some guys returning who want to do well," he said. "They want to win. They know the standard. Sometimes I question if they understand how to get to the standard. That's the one thing I want to emphasize. So many people talk about the Boise State standard. These guys are maybe thinking because we're at Boise State we have the standard. They need to understand you get to the standard by how you work, how you prepare, how you train. That's the standard. Not because you have on a uniform that says 'Boise State.' I'm going to make sure they understand that - in order to reach that standard, you've got to work."

Yates' top priority: developing a "physically tough and mentally tough" style. The scheme will borrow from the Justin Wilcox and Pete Kwiatkowski defenses at Boise State and the Mark Snyder defense at Texas A&M, where Yates was the co-coordinator the past two years.

The concepts and terminology won't be drastically different. The strong-side linebacker has become the nickel safety, but it's possible it will be the same guy - senior Corey Bell.

"My mentality is to be physical and run and fly to the ball," Yates said. "As a coach, I want to see our defense play that way. That's the goal this spring."

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Grant Hedrick and Tommy Stuart, QBs: The Broncos' 2014 season rests in large part on a fragile quarterback situation. Hedrick showed some terrific playmaking ability while playing about half of last season (22 total touchdowns), but turnovers and inconsistency plagued him. He's the unquestioned starter at this point, so spring represents an opportunity for him to improve his game and seize control of the offense. Stuart, a Butte College transfer, is the only other scholarship quarterback expected to throw in team situations in the first week of spring ball. He needs to become a viable backup.

2. Shane Williams-Rhodes, WR: New coaches with new ideas should lead to some fun new ways to utilize Williams-Rhodes' unique skills. He dazzled last year (77 catches, 702 yards, six TDs; 14.6-yard punt return average) before an ankle injury against San Diego State. He'll be under the tutelage of Junior Adams, who produced a string of accomplished receivers at Eastern Washington.

3. Tanner Vallejo, LB: Vallejo tied for eighth on the team with 51 tackles as a true freshman. He also recorded 5.5 tackles for loss, the most by anyone who didn't play on the defensive line. He did all that without benefit of winter conditioning or spring practice, so this is a big offseason for him.

4. Dylan Sumner-Gardner, S: The early-arriving, top-100 recruit joins a secondary that returns all three starters at safety - senior Jeremy Ioane (second-team All-Mountain West), junior Darian Thompson (63 tackles, four interceptions) and senior Corey Bell (76 tackles). But it will be a surprise if Sumner-Gardner doesn't factor into the defense in some way. This spring should provide an indication of where he fits.

5. Marcus Henry, OL: Henry, the junior right guard, is the only returning starter on the offensive line who will practice this spring. The other, junior right tackle Rees Odhiambo, is injured. That puts the quiet Henry in a leadership position as new offensive line coach Scott Huff tries to rebuild.

POSITIONS TO WATCH

1. Center/offensive line: The Broncos lost two-year starting center Matt Paradis, an All-Mountain West player, and they don't have a ready-made replacement. Sophomore Travis Averill started three games at right tackle last season and seems like the most likely candidate. Redshirt freshman Andrew Tercek was recruited to play center, but he's out until fall camp. "We've got to figure out who's playing where, because we have a lot of guys who have played a lot of different spots," offensive line coach Scott Huff said. "We've got to figure out who the center is going to be - that's a huge one."

2. Nickel: Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates favors a more athletic version of the nickel - someone who can play man coverage and blitz, in addition to playing the run like a linebacker. Senior Corey Bell, who finished second on the team last year with 76 tackles as the now-defunct strong-side linebacker, will get the first crack at the job. Otherwise, one of the defensive backs will slide into the spot. "We're going to put (Bell) in man-to-man this spring to see if he can get that done," Yates said. "If he can't, we'll see what he can do. He's too smart of a player not to have him on the football field. He's going to be playing for us somewhere. Hopefully he wins that nickel position."

3. Wide receiver: Senior Matt Miller (school-record 88 catches, 1,140 yards, 12 TDs last year) and junior Shane Williams-Rhodes provide a dynamic outside-inside combo. But the Broncos will need three or four more playmakers to emerge. Candidates include senior Dallas Burroughs, sophomore Thomas Sperbeck, redshirt freshman Tanner Shipley and true freshman A.J. Richardson. "That's a group I'm looking forward to seeing," offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. "It's probably the group I know the least about."

4. Tailback: Junior Jay Ajayi returns after a 1,425-yard, 18-touchdown season. Like wide receiver, the question is about the depth - top backups Jack Fields, Devan Demas and Derrick Thomas combined for 359 yards last season. "There might not be a ton of field credibility at that position outside of Jay (Ajayi), but seeing them move around, seeing them in the weight room, seeing their body types, between Derrick Thomas, Jack Fields and Devan Demas and obviously Jay, that's a major Division I-looking running back crew - and coach (Kent) Riddle is the perfect guy to have coaching them," Sanford said.

5. Defensive end: Gabe Perez and Kamalei Correa, who quietly did some good work last season as true freshmen and enter their first spring in the program, and redshirt freshman Mat Boesen, who slides down from strong-side linebacker, need to provide a spark at one of the thinnest positions on the team. The big loss: Demarcus Lawrence (10.5 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss).

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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