Brian Murphy: Boise State's all-out blitz for Idaho

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comApril 27, 2014 

In the middle of last week's "Bronco Blitz," Boise State's ambitious four-day recruiting effort to visit every football-playing high school in Idaho, veteran assistant coach Steve Caldwell called his wife and fellow assistant Julius Brown from somewhere in eastern Idaho.

He had a request.

"I can see 20 miles in all four directions and I don't see a house. If I don't show up again, the last trace of my cellphone is here. Make sure somebody comes and looks for me," said Caldwell, who has spent more than 30 seasons as a college football coach.

In all those years of recruiting - most of them in the South, where Caldwell coached at Tennessee, Arkansas, Arkansas State and Northwest Mississippi Community College - Caldwell has seen a lot.

But not everything.

Until last week, the Broncos' first-year defensive line coach had never been to a school that played eight-man football. During the "blitz," Caldwell visited several in eastern Idaho, including Shoshone, Richfield, Dietrich, Challis and Castleford high schools.

"I've been to some rural areas in Mississippi and Arkansas, but I've never been anywhere quite like these. The small schools in the South like that play basketball-only. They don't even play football," Caldwell said. "For these kids to want to play the game and the schools in that area to put a program in place that they can play football, I think that's great. Regardless of the size of the school, they're going to play the game."

The schools, too, experienced something for the first time when Caldwell showed up.

"I went in some schools that a college football coach had never been, in and no one from Boise State," he said.

In his first few months as Boise State's head coach, Bryan Harsin has assembled a young (and in Caldwell's case, young at heart) coaching staff with boundless energy and an enthusiasm for recruiting and social media.

The "Bronco Blitz" was a natural extension, a way for Boise State to expand its brand across the state, capitalize on free publicity, allow fans a sneak peek into the often-secret world of recruiting and, perhaps most importantly, stake an early claim on some of the state's top football players.

"The most important thing, being a new staff, is getting out and establishing those relationships with our high school coaches. It's extremely important," Harsin said. "Is there a guy at every single school? Probably not. I know for sure there's not. Will there be in the future? That's what the heart of blitz is about."

KEY TO RECRUITING

Idaho is not known as a football recruiting hotbed. Its small population and relative remoteness make it an infrequent stop for college football recruiters.

But the Gem State has always produced solid players. With the state's intense interest in football, a growing population and some standout stars, competition for players is increasing.

"In terms of producing players, it's gotten better. I'm sure that has to do with better coaching at the high school level. I think social media is another particular reason for that. Players are able to get film out there that maybe they wouldn't have gotten circulated in the past," said Justin Hopkins, a national recruiting insider for 247Sports.com.

Since 2002, according to Scout.com's recruiting databases, 82 Idaho high school players have signed with Football Bowl Subdivision colleges. Boise State signed 32 of them, including key program contributors such as Corey Bell, Tyler Horn, Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe, Spencer Gerke, Nate Potter and NFL first-round selection Shea McClellin from Marsing High.

As a Boise State assistant coach, Harsin said, he often visited Marsing. Most years there weren't any Boise State-caliber players.

"All of a sudden there was one," Harsin said.

Fruitland High, a 3A football power, produced two current Broncos (linebacker Joey Martarano and tight end Alec Dhaenens) and one future player, 2015 commitment Garrett Larson, an offensive lineman.

Building relationships with high school coaches, especially for a first-year staff, was extremely important, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. Sanford served as Stanford's recruiting coordinator for the past two seasons at the Pac-12 school.

The blitz is unlikely to be an every-year event, but the Broncos are likely to keep a presence in in-state schools.

"Some of these high schools I went to might not have a prospect in the next four years. But they will have a prospect in the next 10 years. I don't want it to be the first time I've been there is when they have a 6-foot-7, 285-pound offensive lineman. Oh, I'm Mike Sanford," he said. "You're in-state, you're 90 minutes away and you've never been to see him. You're not here because you want to take care of the state and the relationships."

In 2014, Boise State signed two of the state's eight FBS signees. The Broncos landed Chase Blakely from Coeur d'Alene and Kekoa Nawahine from Rocky Mountain, but lost in-state players to Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and USC.

"We want the best and brightest players to stay at Boise. We can't let people get out of the state. If there are five to 10 Division I players a year, we need five to 10 to come to Boise State," tight ends coach Eli Drinkwitz said. "... Nobody plays harder for an institution than the local kids. They bleed that. It's been ingrained in their memory and into their mind."

ORGANIZING A BLITZ

The NCAA allows 168 evaluation days for assistant coaches this spring. Head coaches are not allowed to be on the road.

When Harsin pitched the idea of using some of those precious days to hit every Idaho high school, there was total buy-in. Some had heard about Arkansas State's 2012 "A-State Ambush" under former head coach Gus Malzahn, a similar concept.

"It was the coolest idea ever. I thought it's such a great concept. High school coaches in the state know you're prioritizing them and their programs," Sanford said.

Said defensive coordinator Marcel Yates: "Let's do it. ... The in-state kids, they need to be Broncos. That's why we need to get back out and make sure they understand, 'We love you. We want you to stay close to home.'"

Turning the "blitz" from a concept into reality took plenty of planning, much of it from Drinkwitz with an assist from support staffers like Taylor Tharp, Antwon Murray and Brad Larrondo.

Drinkwitz is the staff's primary Idaho recruiter. He mapped out which coach went where. "He's a thinker," Harsin said.

The coordinators, Sanford and Yates, drew the easiest travel assignment. Sanford hit Boise and up Hwy 55 to McCall, visiting schools such as Cascade, Garden Valley, Horseshoe Bend, Salmon River and Idaho City and restaurants like My Father's Place in McCall. Sanford said he often camped along Hwy 55 when he was a player at Boise State.

Yates, a former Boise State player and assistant coach, went to Fruitland, Wilder, Marsing, Caldwell, Vallivue, Melba, Skyview, Columbia, Middleton, Parma and New Plymouth among others. He had never been to many of those places.

"I left Marsing - and I hate I didn't take a picture of it - with the Snake River right there. I drove through the wine country. It wasn't bad at all. I had one of the easier routes," Yates said.

Drinkwitz headed north through mining country and beyond, eventually reaching Coeur d'Alene.

"Being from Arkansas, I had no idea (about some of these places). Seeing the Sandpoint area, seeing Lake Coeur d'Alene, seeing how beautiful it is, I've got to come up here and spend a weekend," he said.

Wide receivers coach Junior Adams, who was previously at Eastern Washington, needed plenty of help to get from place to place on his trek north.

"I've got to hope Siri works. There were times I went three hours without cell phone service," Adams said. "You better know where all the gas stations are, too. I've got that Yelp app to look up gas stations, look up places. I don't think too many of these places are registered on Yelp."

Adams visited schools such as Payette, Grangeville, Clearwater, Kendrick, Troy, Deary, Potlatch, Lapwai, Orofino and Moscow.

Or, in other words, parts of Idaho Vandals country.

"I didn't realize how deep into Vandal country I was. At times I walked into schools and someone was like, 'This is hard for me. I'm a Vandal. I played at Idaho in such and such.' No hard feelings. It's not about us. It's about the kids," Adams said.

Adams, like the other coaches, found an enthusiasm for the concept. Coaches and principals were aware of his visit before he arrived.

"You guys must be the Bronco Blitz," they said to Adams.

"It hit social media and it hit the news. They were really excited," he said.

CREATING A BUZZ

Coaches are not allowed to talk with prospective recruits during their "evaluation period" visits, so most of their time was spent with coaches and principals. Assistant coaches spent anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes at each school.

They were allowed to watch the players practice track or baseball or work out in the weight room and collect academic information.

They were also allowed - in frequent consultation with the Broncos' compliance department - to tweet photos from their travels, connecting with fans.

Boise State announced the start of the "blitz" with photos of all the assistant coaches on horses. Offensive line coach Scott Huff tweeted photos from Preston, home of the fictional "Napoleon Dynamite." Coaches tweeted out scenic views from across the state - a plus for out-of-state recruits who don't know about Idaho's natural beauty. The Broncos produced "All-Access" videos at the beginning and end of the "blitz."

"That's part of our jobs in the football program. How we brand ourselves, how we get that message out there is extremely important," Harsin said. "We know the players we recruit utilize that, so we're going to be able to utilize it as well. Everybody knows how important it is. The bottom line is that it's a great way for us to get the message out about Boise State and our brand."

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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