If all of Zak Hill’s plans work out like his decision to join the Boise State football coaching staff, this could be a bounce-back year for the Broncos offense.
Hill accepted a job as quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator for the Broncos last year, knowing he would be part of a committee effort and coach Bryan Harsin would serve as the primary playcaller.
A year later, Hill was named offensive coordinator and playcaller — stepping into by far the most high-profile role of his career.
“That was my vision,” Hill said this week as he prepared for his coordinator debut Saturday against Troy. “I don’t know if it was Coach Harsin’s vision, but it’s what I hoped to accomplish.”
Hill was hired with a stellar reputation as a quarterback developer and offensive mind after seven seasons on the staff at Eastern Washington, which boasted one of the nation’s most prolific passing attacks. He originally left Eastern for Hawaii, but Harsin lured him to Boise when coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz exited for North Carolina State.
Hill, who helped quarterback Brett Rypien improve 24 spots last season in the national pass efficiency rankings, becomes the sixth primary playcaller for the Broncos in seven years — a tumultuous run since Harsin’s five-year stay in that job ended.
Rypien was recruited by 2014 coordinator Mike Sanford, stepped in as the starter as a true freshman under Drinkwitz in 2015 and worked with 2016 co-coordinators Harsin, Hill and Scott Huff, the former offensive line coach now at Washington.
“It’s been kind of a whirlwind the past couple years,” Rypien said. “... When coach Hill was hired, that was probably one of the greatest things that happened to me. He’s helped me so much. He’s a great guy for me to look up to and be around.”
Rypien likes having the close connection to the playcaller that comes with a dedicated quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator. He and Hill have formed a strong bond — and they enter this season trying to return the Boise State offense to its powerhouse ways, knowing there’s little patience in the fan base for foibles.
“Brett’s expectations of himself, my expectations of Brett, are extremely high,” Hill said. “He knows that and he wants that.”
The Broncos finished in the top five in the nation in scoring eight out of 10 seasons beginning in 2002, with a worst finish of 12th in 2008.
They have finished in the top 10 (ninth) just once in the past five years — slipping to 38th last year.
The reduced production has led to frequent criticism of the playcalling and quarterback play from outside the program — criticism that clearly has bothered the coaches at times. Even Sanford, who directed an offense that scored 39.7 points per game, finished ninth in the nation and contributed to a Fiesta Bowl championship, took some heat.
“It’s part of the job, having criticisms,” Hill said. “It’s part of the fun of football, though, too — everyone’s got an opinion.”
That level-headed approach should serve him well on game days. While some coaches are balls of stress on Saturday, Hill says he’s going to enjoy it.
“There’s a lot of stress and adversity that goes along with it,” he said. “You’ve got to take it in stride. It’s a fun place for me. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. Getting that opportunity is awesome.”
He tries to keep his emotions in check during games, he said. He’ll be in the Stueckle Sky Center, calling plays from above.
“If you’re too stressed out, it’s going to be tough and you’re going to get stuck not calling what you want to call,” he said.
Hill was the third-down playcaller last season and gave suggestions at other times, so he’s already shown he can perform under pressure. The Broncos converted 47.6 percent of their third downs last season — 13th-best in the nation.
“He’s very poised,” Rypien, a junior, said. “That’s something that definitely stands out to me. When things are getting crazy out there, he’s always the one on the headsets calming me down.”
In Hill’s one year as the playcaller at Eastern Washington, the Eagles finished 18th in the Football Championship Subdivision in scoring (34.6 points per game) and first in passing (353 yards per game).
He’ll run the Boise State offensive scheme this year, but Hill gets a chance to put his “spin” on it as his predecessors have, Harsin said. Part of Hill’s transition in 2016 included learning the language of the Broncos’ offense.
Senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson enjoys Hill’s approach.
“I like that he likes to throw the ball,” Wilson said. “So we get along at that. He’s a really cool guy.”
Whether the Broncos become a passing team, a running team or a balanced team under his watch, Hill says he doesn’t care.
“We are what we need to be to win,” he said. “... I’d like to be known as a detailed guy and we go out there and execute what wins.”
And the winner is ...
It’s tempting to pick Troy to upset Boise State. The Trojans have experience and momentum — two things lacking on the Broncos’ sideline. But Boise State hasn’t lost a home opener since 2001 and hasn’t lost on the Blue to a non-conference opponent since 2005, a couple streaks that have survived the recent lackluster play at home. The Broncos have two losses and three wins by less than a touchdown in their past eight home games. Rypien, in his third year as a starter, and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos, in his second year, should show enough improvement to hold off the Trojans. If you like the Las Vegas angle, keep in mind that the Broncos were 0-6 against the spread at home last year. They’re favored by 9 1/2 . Boise State 35, Troy 28
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 1 Alabama (-7) vs. No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta, 6 p.m. Saturday, ABC: This is being touted as the best season-opening matchup ever, which almost guarantees a dud. It certainly shouldn’t be a shootout. Alabama 20, Florida State 10
Pac-12 game of the week — Texas A&M at UCLA (-3 1/2 ), 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox: Two high-profile programs that have failed to live up to expectations in recent seasons clash at the Rose Bowl. UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen returns from a season-ending injury with a chance to play his way into the high first round of the NFL Draft. UCLA 31, Texas A&M 21
Mountain West game of the week — Wyoming at Iowa (11 1/2 ), 10 a.m. Saturday, Big Ten Network: NFL scouts will take a long look at Wyoming QB Josh Allen as he faces a Big Ten defense. Allen is a projected first-round draft pick; Iowa finished 19th last year in pass-efficiency defense. Iowa 20, Wyoming 17
NFL teams must make their final cuts to 53 players by 2 p.m. Saturday. The Dallas Cowboys are expected to keep three quarterbacks, including former Boise State QB Kellen Moore. The Green Bay Packers might keep three, too — likely opening a spot for former Highland High and BYU quarterback Taysom Hill. At least three former Boise State players were cut Friday: defensive lineman Sam McCaskill (Vikings), offensive lineman Travis Averill (Falcons) and cornerback Jonathan Moxey (Buccaneers), according to media reports. McCaskill and Moxey are candidates for the practice squad. Also, safety Jeron Johnson (Jaguars) was placed on season-ending injured reserve.
One of the most intriguing decisions Saturday will concern former Boise State tailback Jeremy McNichols. He left school a year early and was taken in the fifth round by the Bucs but has disappointed in the preseason.
The NFL season begins Thursday with the Chiefs at the Patriots (6:30 p.m., NBC). Don’t forget to set your fantasy lineups.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at email@example.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.
The offensive juggernaut slows
Here’s how Boise State’s offense has fared under various coordinators since 2001, and where those coaches are now:
Points per game
Boise State HC
Lions WRs coach
W. Kentucky HC
N.C. State OC
Harsin/Zak Hill/Scott Huff
Huff, OL coach, Washington
Note: The offense was run by head coach Dirk Koetter from 1998 to 2000. He’s now the head coach of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.