Following a week off from football, away from school and for many, some time back home, the Boise State football team will be back on the practice field Monday.
And there won’t be any time to ease back into things. The Broncos usually had padless practices the first day back but will don shoulder pads and helmets this time.
“We’re not doing that this year. We’re coming back; we’ll be in shells right away,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “To me, that’s going to tell me a lot about this team.”
Through seven practices in the first two weeks, Harsin has been impressed by the level of competition, and with a handful of key players out or limited, the backups are getting plenty of snaps to earn time in the fall.
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Some units, like offensive line and receiver — both with new coaches — are full of unproven commodities and won’t be solidified until August. But there are some who are proving to be the deepest here in March.
The Broncos had five of them last year, but they combined for 21 catches in the regular season. They probably would have helped in red-zone situations, but they had eight catches combined in the Cactus Bowl, when the Broncos had six points in the first 58 minutes.
Coaches said with only one ball, it was not easy to get the tight ends involved with Thomas Sperbeck, Cedrick Wilson and Jeremy McNichols on the field, too. There also was inexperience — outside of Jake Roh, only Alec Dhaenens (Fruitland High) had played before — and Roh battled a knee injury all year.
“In Jake’s mind, he was 100 percent, but he wasn’t 100 percent until maybe the bowl game and probably still not even then,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said.
This spring, the Broncos have seven in the group eligible to play in the fall, with 6-foot-7 Nick Crabtree and 6-6 John Bates coming off redshirts. Certainties are rare in football, but it’s hard to imagine the group won’t be quite a bit more productive in the pass game in 2017.
“Going back and looking at it, that’s one thing we’re going to emphasize this spring, trying to get those guys the ball more because we have a lot of good tight ends that can make some plays,” quarterback Brett Rypien said.
Dhaenens led the group with 15 catches last season, while Roh, who had 68 catches his first two seasons, had 10 last year. Both are seniors anchoring the group that also includes juniors Chase Blakley and Jake Knight (Rocky Mountain), and sophomore Matt Pistone.
“Everyone’s driving everyone to be better everyday. You can’t have a bad day, be lackadaisical,” Roh said. “It helps our team, having a deep room.”
As a whole, the line was plenty productive, accounting for 22 sacks, led by defensive tackle David Moa’s 8.5 and defensive end Sam McCaskill’s 6.5. However, 9.5 of their combined 15 sacks came in the first four games.
Defensive line coach Steve Caldwell often had the duo play nearly every snap. With a young second unit, the trust was in the veterans.
“We played them more than I’ve ever played a group of guys in my life, but we felt like we had to,” Caldwell said. “I think the biggest mistake I made was not getting guys into the game early enough, so when it did come down to the fourth quarter, those other guys would’ve been fresher.”
Now, the Broncos hope the huge crop of linemen brought in last year — four first-year players saw time, and four redshirted — can make strides to create a rotation desperately needed at that position. Add in injuries to STUDs Jabril Frazier and Gabe Perez during the season, and the pass-rushing prowess dropped off.
“It kind of helped our opponents, kind of stopped our progression a little bit, because we had to play a lot more plays,” Moa said. “Maybe that had a factor.”
This spring, Moa moved from nose tackle to defensive tackle, a more natural fit for the 260-pounder, while 300-pound sophomores Sonatane Lui and Emmanuel Fesili are competing at the nose. Junior Durrant Miles and sophomore Chase Hatada are vying to replace McCaskill. Hatada played both interior spots and end as a true freshman, and he hopes the experience he and other youngsters had pays off this fall.
“I think the few plays I got springboarded into spring ball,” Hatada said. “... I think coach Caldwell was getting stressed out, playing the starters 80 snaps a game. That takes a toll. That’s the focus, creating depth, and I think we’re doing a good job.”
Boise State lost a productive senior in Chanceller James (80 tackles, team-high three interceptions), and Dylan Sumner-Gardner was kicked off the team, yet it should be among the team’s best units. Four who are currently working at safety made starts last year: sophomores Kekoa Nawahine (Rocky Mountain), DeAndre Pierce and Evan Tyler, plus senior Cameron Hartsfield.
“They’re all even right now. ... A couple guys have played a few games for us, right now, trying to get better, sharpen our tools,” safeties coach Gabe Franklin said.
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said “our young safeties are ball hawks now. ... We haven’t seen a lot of that,” which is a focus this spring after the defense had nine takeaways last season, the fewest in team history.
Perhaps the highest praise came from Harsin after the first week of spring practices. The defense has worked on bringing blitzes from different angles and being more aggressive across the board.
“I think we have some guys now in the back end that can handle it,” Harsin said.