Defensive ends Gabe Perez and Kamalei Correa didn't expect to play for the Boise State football team as true freshmen last season.
"It blew my mind," Perez said.
"I thought I was going to be last string," Correa said.
Both gained valuable experience as a backup Perez flourished in the final third of the season and have captured the attention of their new coaches this spring.
Perez, at stud end, and Correa, at end, have been taking first-team reps this spring and will be counted on for heavy contributions this fall.
"They work really hard. Both want to be good," coach Bryan Harsin said. "They've hit the weight room with a purpose. They're trying to catch up from missing that (training) as they played and really in their minds take advantage of spring practice and go as hard as they can. But they're going to be better off from their experience.
"Physically, both those guys look really good and they're going to get better."
Perez (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) and Correa (6-3, 247) competed for playing time behind senior Kharyee Marshall last season. Correa had the edge early in the season; Perez passed him in November.
"It was kind of a love-hate relationship," Correa said. "When we're both fighting for the same spot, you want that spot. That's your position. But at the same time, that's your teammate. You want the best for him. The whole season was a battle - every week we would compete and compete and compete."
Correa finished with 12 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
Perez made 29 tackles with seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Almost all of that production - 25 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, the sacks and the forced fumbles - came in the last five games.
Perez was held back early in the season by a neck injury. His breakout game was Nov. 2 at Colorado State, the game in which injuries left the defensive line ravaged and presented a big opportunity to Perez.
He made eight tackles and three tackles for loss and collected both of his forced fumbles that night.
"That game I had a lot of reps and I did what the coaches told me and it worked," Perez said. " That really helped. It really got me used to the game flow."
He still plays stud end, which means he'll sometimes stand up at the line of scrimmage or drop into pass coverage like a linebacker. The other studs in spring ball are redshirt freshmen Mat Boesen and Austin Silsby.
That makes Perez the veteran.
"We lost a lot of guys, so we need guys to step up," Perez said. "Because I have the experience, I'm trying to step up and become a leader on the field and off the field. It's been a short time, but you have to move on. You have to keep moving. You can't let other people and other schools have a chance to be better than you."
Correa played stud last season, too, but has moved to the traditional end, at least for now. He competes with senior Beau Martin (21 tackles, seven for loss last season) and sophomore Sam McCaskill (seven tackles).
Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates and defensive line coach Steve Caldwell mentioned Correa on Thursday as a player who has impressed in the first two weeks of spring ball.
"It's a lot easier right now just having that one year of playing experience under me," Correa said.
NOTES: The Broncos held a closed scrimmage Thursday. No stats were provided. They're off for spring break. The first open scrimmage is at 5 p.m. April 5. Among the players coaches mentioned as playing well so far: QB Grant Hedrick, WRs Thomas Sperbeck and Matt Miller, RB Jay Ajayi, RB Derrick Thomas, Correa, LB Tanner Vallejo, LB Tyler Gray, S Corey Bell, S Darian Thompson and CB Donte Deayon.
Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat