Stretching from his wrist to his elbow on his left forearm, a tattoo featuring a few mighty trees was a new addition this offseason for Boise State senior linebacker Tanner Vallejo.
He says it reminds him of home (Grass Valley, Calif.), smack dab between two national forests. Soon, it will wind up part of a full arm of art.
“It’s just a start,” Vallejo said.
Even in this, his final season with the Broncos, there is the feeling of a fresh new beginning for Vallejo.
Hampered by a lingering ankle injury he said he suffered Sept. 25 at Virginia, Vallejo played through it. Moving around between middle linebacker and nickel, his production dropped from 100 tackles as a sophomore to 57. Then came a suspension for the Poinsettia Bowl for a violation of team rules.
Watching the game at home on the couch, it wasn’t easy to watch as he had no part in the defense’s dominance of Northern Illinois.
“Grew up a lot over the past half a year,” Vallejo said. “... I’m kind of glad I went through it, grew up a lot, going through some issues.
“It’s a privilege to be here. You just can’t take it for granted to be in such a great environment and play for such a prestigious program. I took this offseason more serious than I ever have. Hopefully it pays off for me this season.”
Vallejo said his biggest goal this season was “to be a better teammate.” In some subtle way, perhaps the tattoo is a reminder, to crib from the old cliche, to see the forest from the trees.
The early returns have been glowing. Fellow Broncos have praised his work ethic and the example he’s set for the rest of the defense, and coaches have been eager to employ his versatility.
“If anything, that suspension propelled him. He has done everything the coaches have asked for, and more,” senior defensive end Sam McCaskill said. “He’s been an incredible teammate and just worked his tail off this summer. I’m really excited for him.”
When Boise State released its pre-fall camp depth chart, Vallejo was perched atop the SAM linebacker spot. The nickel designation is gone, but the position has not changed much. Playing there as a sophomore, Vallejo was a terror, racking up 100 tackles (16.5 for loss), three sacks, three fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns.
Coach Bryan Harsin said though the name changed, the position is still meant to let Vallejo do what he does best: find the ball.
“They put the same position, just named it SAM to make myself feel a little better, that I’m not considered a (defensive back),” Vallejo said with a smile. “I like playing out in space. I like playing inside. I feel like I can play multiple positions on this defense.”
Depth at the linebacker spots, from senior Ben Weaver and sophomore Leighton Vander Esch on the other side, to junior Joe Martarano and senior Darren Lee in the middle, helped the coaches feel more comfortable about keeping Vallejo outside.
“We use a lot of his clips when we’re teaching other players a certain technique,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “... It’s fun to see him kind of come into his own.”
In January, Vallejo had surgery to clean up his ankle issue, and he has been full-go for fall camp after a limited spring. He worked this summer on some speed drills with the safeties and covered receivers one-on-one in player-run practices.
This fall, Vallejo said his role “makes the game a lot of more fun.” Comfortable, healthy and happy, he’s primed to be one of the defense’s top playmakers once again.
“My goal is to go out with a bang,” Vallejo said.
Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @IDS_BroncoBeat