At times, Boise State’s defensive line was dominant. But it would not be sustainable, not without reinforcements, which never materialized.
The Broncos were among the most productive fronts early last season, but after relying heavily on their starters, they dropped off in the second half. A handful of newcomers saw action here and there, but most had little effect.
Defensive line coach Steve Caldwell’s challenge is continuing to develop that depth, allowing his starters to stay fresh. But on Wednesday, he said he’s still hoping for more.
“We’re not taking that long stride I hoped we would right off the bat,” Caldwell said. “... I think we’re getting closer to being able to play more guys.
“We’ve still got a ways to go yet. We’re not where I was hoping to be at this time.”
Last season, the Broncos had 20 sacks in the first five games, most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They had just nine in their final eight games, with defensive end Sam McCaskill and nose tackle David Moa at times playing every snap.
Three true freshmen saw action, two not registering a single tackle, while former walk-on Sonatane Lui had 10 stops at nose tackle. Junior college transfer defensive tackle Daniel Auelua had nine tackles.
“Every time we put the second group in there, we gave up some yards or gave up a touchdown,” Caldwell said. “That’s very frustrating, letting a team back into the game. We’ve got to the get to the point where we can close them out.”
Defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said there needs to be eight or 10 linemen that have to be trusted to be consistent, which he said “is a tough job” for Caldwell and company.
Caldwell said Auelua, sophomore defensive end Chase Hatada and redshirt freshman defensive end Kayode Rufai as backups who have taken a step up. He hoped Friday’s scrimmage would show some improvements for the unit, and coach Bryan Harsin said it did well, especially when it was faced with a short field.
“I thought they played pretty well,” Harsin said. “I would echo what Steve is saying, for our entire team right now, as far as details go.”
Moa, unsurprisingly, has been a strong performer. He flew onto the scene last season as a sophomore, racking up a team-high 8.5 sacks. He moves from being an undersized nose tackle to the team’s defensive tackle spot, playing between the offense’s guard and tackle instead of over the center. It should allow him to have more freedom of movement.
“He made a lot of plays for us last year at the nose position, but it’s more natural for him to be a tackle,” Caldwell said. “... He looks good there. He’s doing some of the same things.”
Lui (305 pounds) and sophomore Emmanuel Fesili (302) fit the mold at the nose, which the Broncos hope makes a difference in rush defense. Boise State plays triple option teams New Mexico and Air Force, plus pro-style teams Wyoming, San Diego State and Colorado State. After giving up 3.2 yards per carry in 2015, the Broncos allowed 4.3 ypc last year.
“Our No. 1 goal on defense is to stop the run,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to do a better job with our pad leverage, getting off blocks and making plays.”
Junior Durrant Miles will step into the starting role at defensive end after starting in six games last season, primarily at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker STUD position. He has the size and strength to fill McCaskill’s void after his team-high 14.5 tackles for loss departed.
“I just like to be as versatile as I can be,” Miles said. “... I think defensive is good because of my frame, my length.
“If I can keep my weight up and grow into that spot, I think it’ll be really good for me.”
Miles said during fall camp, which can start at 6 a.m. and run until 10 p.m., “the D-line will stick around even longer.” There is a concerted effort to improve, to get a rotation going, which has been in place when the Broncos’ defense is at its best. Two weeks until the opener against Troy, the unit’s coach thinks once it gets closer, the focus will be get sharper.
So, can they make the strides necessary they didn’t make the first two weeks of camp?
“I think they will,” Caldwell said.
Projected depth chart
91 Durrant Miles, 6-5, 253, Jr.: Also saw time at STUD end last year, had 35 tackles (4.5 for loss); strong, right size for DE
93 Chase Hatada, 6-3, 267, So.: Played seven games as true freshman, didn’t register a tackle; coaches love his burst off snap
98 Sonatane Lui, 6-1, 305, So.: Came out of the blue as a walk-on to play right away, had 10 tackles; sturdy, quickly improving
57 Emmanuel Fesili, 6-2, 302, So.: Played two games last season; learning to rely less on strength and improving his technique
55 David Moa, 6-3, 271, Jr.: Coming off stellar year with 8.5 sacks as undersized nose, move over could free him up more
90 Daniel Auelua, 6-2, 298, Sr.: Had nine tackles in his first year with team, has taken a step up this offseason to help spell Moa