Boise State had enough bodies on the defensive line last season, but not enough who were ready to contribute.
A youth movement was delayed as the Broncos relied heavily on their veterans — almost to a fault.
Nose tackle David Moa, defensive tackle Elliot Hoyte and defensive end Sam McCaskill often logged 70 plays or more in a game. Production dropped as the year went on.
“It was a grind. At the end of the season we didn’t finish how we wanted to, and that was definitely a factor,” said junior defensive end Durrant Miles, a starter.
But reinforcements were about to arrive, even though midway through fall camp, defensive line coach Steve Caldwell was not sure when. On Aug. 16, he said, “We’re not where I was hoping we would be at this time.”
Caldwell said the group was making short strides but not the leap he wanted. Now, the defensive line has made a big jump. It shut down San Diego State’s rushing game Oct. 14 and created great pressure on Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen last Saturday.
Being able to establish a rotation has made a major difference.
“It’s not just the depth, it’s that our depth is better,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... It’s not about, ‘Hey, we’re rotating so-and-so in,’ and everybody’s holding their breath. You’re getting guys in there and they’re making plays.”
Guys such as sophomore nose tackle Emmanuel Fesili (a sack against BYU) and sophomore defensive end Chase Hatada, who had his first career sack against Wyoming, calling it “probably the best feeling I’ve had in a while.” Fesili and Hatada played last season as true freshmen but did not register any tackles.
“It’s paying off, it’s starting to show,” Hatada said. “... This year, we’ve done a good job creating that depth and (we) really help the guys that are starting get their break, and everyone’s fresh.”
Injuries were difficult for the team to weather a year ago, but defensive tackle Matt Locher has been perhaps most representative of the improved depth.
Locher, who has all of his seven tackles in the past four games, moved into a No. 2 role after senior Daniel Auelua was hurt Oct. 6 at BYU. Locher had three tackles the following week in San Diego, one for a loss. Like Fesili and Hatada, the redshirt sophomore didn’t have a stop in 2016.
“Matt’s been doing a really good job. He’s accepted his role and starred in it,” Miles said. “With some of the packages we have, the coaches are getting those guys into position for success. And the morale is up because of how we’re feeling physically.”
Last season, when the development of the depth and a good rotation was lacking, the Broncos had 20 sacks in the first five games and then just nine in their last eight.
In the San Diego State and Wyoming games, the team’s sixth and seventh of this season, Boise State combined for seven sacks and 16 tackles for loss. The team’s STUD ends, who once were lumped with the line, are more like linebackers these days, but they have been productive thanks in part to the line creating problems for offenses.
“We’ve got to continue on with that,” Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “... Every snap up front is a fight. To be able to have guys as fresh as possible, rotate different guys in, is a huge deal in the course of not only a game, but over a season.”
On Saturday at Utah State, Hatada said the depth “is going to be huge,” because the Aggies run an up-tempo style that BSU opponents have rarely used this season. On the other side, Utah State center Quin Ficklin said “it will be our best test all year.”
Caldwell and Avalos have helped develop the group, but so have the veteran players such as Moa and Miles. That, Harsin says, has been just as vital to having a unit that will operate well over the long haul.
“It’s not a room that has a lot of egos in it,” Harsin said.
Boise State at Utah State
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Maverik Stadium (25,100; AstroTurf synthetic grass)
TV: CBS Sports Network (Carter Blackburn, Aaron Taylor, Jenny Dell)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: BSU 5-2, 3-0 (beat Wyoming 24-14 last week); Utah State 4-4, 2-2 (beat UNLV 52-28)
Series: Boise State leads 16-5 (Boise State won 21-10 on Oct. 1, 2016, in last meeting)
Vegas line: Boise State by 8
Kickoff weather: Upper 40s, clear