Editor’s note: This is the first in a series previewing the Boise State football team by position. Coming Saturday: Tailbacks.
To fully appreciate Boise State’s linebacker situation going into the season, you’ve got to see it through the eyes of junior Darren Lee.
Lee spent time in the linebacker rotation as a true freshman in 2013. He embraced his role as one of the program’s best special-teamers in 2014 and helped set the tone with his physical style.
That’s usually the path toward a significant role on defense.
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But Lee is the third-string middle linebacker. And the two guys in front of him — junior star Tanner Vallejo and sophomore Joe Martarano — will be here in 2016, too.
“What I love about football is the theory of competition,” Lee said. “There’s nothing better than having multiple guys going for the same position. It brings the best out of everyone. So I’m going to do what I can to keep them on their best — because I’m still trying. I understand that Tanner Vallejo and Joey Martarano, they’re amazing. I get that. I’m totally OK with that.”
The situation isn’t much different at weak-side linebacker. Junior Ben Weaver, the leading tackler as a freshman in 2013, and senior Tyler Gray, who is one of the team’s top turnover producers, drag their battle for playing time into a third season. Redshirt freshman Leighton Vander Esch, the Riggins walk-on who already has earned a scholarship, is in the Darren Lee situation.
“I think that’s going to be my main role this year, is special teams,” Vander Esch said. “I’m going to push myself and keep studying film and just keep developing myself — and if they need me (on defense), I’ll be there.”
Lee, Vander Esch and the rest of the reserve linebackers — including promising newcomers Drew Berger and Marquis Hendrix — have benefited from the leadership of the players in front of them.
It’s important, Vander Esch said, to “tuck under and stay under their wings so they can teach you.”
Linebackers coach Andy Avalos also makes sure he spends equal time with the players lower on the depth chart, Lee said.
“We’re deep because the seconds know just as much as the first-stringers and the thirds know just as much as the seconds,” Lee said. “We do the film. We break it down together. Coach Avalos is an amazing coach. He focuses on every single one of us.”
Avalos, a former Boise State linebacker, has capitalized on the group’s experience to emphasize details like movement and teach the scheme at a more advanced level.
He challenged the linebackers to become better athletes during the offseason. He likes the results he sees.
“We’ve got to be able to get into position to execute our jobs,” he said.
The group will have a narrower charge this season than last. Vallejo moved from middle linebacker to nickel early last season because of health issues in the secondary, leading to a three-linebacker alignment.
The nickel will be a defensive back this season, pushing Vallejo back to the middle and leaving just two linebackers in the lineup.
Vallejo will be difficult to remove from the field given his historic production last year — 16.5 tackles for loss and two game MVP trophies. The same goes for Weaver, who finished the season with 24 tackles in the last two games.
That puts Martarano and Gray in a difficult spot.
“We’re deep, and so there’s no question that we should be going 110 percent,” Avalos said. “There should be guys out there moving at a different speed than anyone else because we’ve got plenty of guys who can get on the field. At the same time, if someone is hot and they’re in the zone and they’re making plays left and right, everyone knows the deal — that guy is probably going to roll a little more than the other guy.”
Said Weaver: “You know you have to push yourself every single day.”