Frank Martin and his surprising South Carolina men’s basketball team would approve of what the Boise State football team is hoping to accomplish on defense this spring.
On Friday, after the Gamecocks beat Baylor to advance to the Elite Eight, a 13-year-old reporter asked Martin if technique or attitude is more important to his team, which forced the fifth-most turnovers in the nation. Martin was wowed by the question, saying it was the first time he’s been asked it.
“Attitude comes first,” Martin said. “We gotta have guys that are gonna believe in our mission, that are going to believe in what we do. Once they believe, then we can teach them the technique.”
Across the country, Boise State is seeking that same defensive dominance. A dearth of turnovers and a dropoff in pressure last season has led to a few new twists the Broncos are testing out this spring.
“If we could be more aggressive in all phases, be more aggressive on the outside in the way we play man-to-man coverage ... bring pressure from different places and just constantly put strain on the offense,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “Last year, we felt like we had to play more coverage and do those things. This year we want to be more on the attack.”
The scheme doesn’t need to be changed — the Broncos were No. 2 in the Mountain West in scoring defense (23.3 points per game) — but more turnovers and more sacks would have helped in a three-loss season. The offense, which was 21st nationally in total yardage, but 38th in scoring, often had long fields.
In the past 20 seasons, 14 Football Bowl Subdivision teams had as many or fewer than the nine turnovers the Broncos created in 2016. None had a winning record. Boise State had 20 sacks in the first five games, and nine in the eight games after that, as the line’s starters rarely, if ever, got a breather on the sideline.
“Sometimes you lose that mentality when you get fatigued, sometimes that toughness goes,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said.
Avalos hopes to use a wider array of blitzes — from linebackers, defensive backs or atypical looks — to aid what the Broncos hope is a deeper defensive line. He said in the offseason the staff took a look at where turnovers tend to be created, and wants to put the team in the right positions.
“We feel like we’ve got the guys that can cover and handle those one-on-ones in the perimeter,” Avalos said.
During the offseason, the defensive staff visited with LSU’s coaches to learn from the Tigers’ system. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defenses at LSU and Wisconsin the past four seasons have finished in the top 17 nationally in scoring defense, was 14th in sacks last year and No. 8 in turnovers in 2015.
“They’ve been stressing a lot, the mentality we have to be pursuing, and I think the defense is flying around, having a lot of fun,” junior defensive end Durrant Miles said. “Every great defense starts with a mentality.
“We’ve really bought in.”
It should come as little surprise, then, that the aggressive focus this spring has been well-received.
“I’m definitely enjoying it,” junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said.
Added senior linebacker Blake Whitlock: “All this new stuff we’re doing, it’s fun, I enjoy it.”
Every defense aims to be proactive, but sometimes the bend-but-don’t-break mentality works. It did for the most part last season for Boise State. But with growing confidence in the defensive backs, that could allow the front seven to be more disruptive, and open up for more interceptions and fumbles. Whitlock said, “we’re going to try to double, triple that this year.
“Just being able to turn up that intensity a couple extra notches, that’s going to help us get after a lot more teams, create more turnovers,” Whitlock said. “... You want those dudes scared of us, not the other way around.”