Today, I start our annual series of position previews for the Boise State football team. Each day, I’ll post a blog with all the nuts-and-bolts information about that position and many of the quotes I’ve collected. The next morning, we’ll run a feature story on the position in the newspaper.
First up: Linebackers.
(Newspaper story here.)
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45 Travis Saxton, 6-1, 228, R-Sr.
13 Blake Renaud, 6-2, 255, Sr.
20 Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 228, So.
7 Joey Martarano, 6-3, 234, R-Fr.
43 Joe Provenzano, 5-11, 205, Fr.
36 Tyler Gray, 6-4, 229, Jr.
51 Ben Weaver, 6-0, 235, R-So.
25 Chris Santini, 6-0, 221, R-So.
44 Darren Lee, 6-1, 224, So.
95 Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 215, Fr.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Blake Renaud, 6-2, 255, Sr.: Big hitter and terrific special-teamer finished sixth on the team in tackles (46) in a backup role in 2012 but experienced a drop in production in his first year as a starter last year (25 tackles) because of injuries.
OR Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 228, So.: Went from redshirt candidate to starter as a true freshman and tied for eighth on the team with 51 tackles. He made at least 129 tackles in each of his last three seasons of high school football.
Ben Weaver, 6-0, 235, R-So.: He led the Broncos in tackles as a freshman with 89 but should have had a lot more. An ankle injury slowed him over the last five games. He’s a savvy player who will only get smarter.
Tyler Gray, 6-4, 229, Jr.: Big, athletic linebacker has accumulated 70 tackles in two seasons. He started the first three games, before Weaver emerged, and the last four last season.
Overview: The Broncos expect to utilize a four-man rotation at linebacker, so the starters are irrelevant. This might be the deepest position on the team with two future stars in sophomores Weaver (team-high 89 tackles last year) and Vallejo (51), two veterans in Renaud (25) and Gray (43) and several other guys who have been in the rotation at some point. “We’re in a good situation because we’ve got guys who can play and they’re all going to play,” linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. “The thing that I have talked to them about is when they’re on the field, we are playing 100 percent, we are pursuing the ball. If we get tired, we’ve got guys we can put in and play.”
Key to success: The linebackers — particularly Weaver and Vallejo — showed they can make tackles in bunches last year. Now they need to show they can be game-changers, like Avalos and Korey Hall were a decade ago. The linebackers didn’t have an interception, forced one fumble, recovered three fumbles and recorded 2.5 sacks last season. “Last year, we had an impact,” Weaver said. “We could have done better on more big plays, getting more sacks and turnovers.” The linebackers were part of the porous pass defense last year, too. They hope to make more of an impact on short passes over the middle this year. “We’re working on being more physical,” Weaver said. “We want it to be when those receivers come across the middle that they’re scared to catch those.”
Reason for concern: The linebackers took a beating last year. Weaver played the final four games with an ankle injury that required offseason surgery, Renaud was hobbled most of the year and Saxton missed most of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. As much depth as the Broncos have, this defense needs the top four to stay on the field to play to its potential.
Star player: Weaver led the team with 89 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman with just six starts. He made 72 of those tackles before he was injured. He averaged nine tackles per game when healthy and 4.25 per game while injured (he also missed a game). He underwent surgery in February to repair a high ankle sprain with a plate and sat out spring ball. “The one guy to me right now who’s standing out as a leader is Ben Weaver,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “He knows the defense. He has a chip on his shoulder. I like him because he will hit you and he’ll hit you hard, too.”
Breakout performer: Redshirt freshman Joe Martarano of Fruitland should be a major factor on special teams this season. He spent part of his summer playing baseball in the Cubs’ organization but that hasn’t shown in his play on the field during camp, Avalos said. “He didn’t skip a beat,” he said.
Newcomer to watch: Martarano for this year, but Vander Esch is intriguing for the future. The former Salmon River High star will hit the weight room as a redshirt this season and could grow into an impact player down the road. “The sky’s the limit for him,” Avalos said. “He’s going to work hard, so he’s going to develop a lot.”
— Avalos: “Our top four guys are doing really well. They understand what we’re doing right now. They understand not only what we’re doing, but what the offense is trying to do to us. Those are things we’re trying to build on right now, now that we have a pretty good feel for our defense, is understanding offensive schemes so we can recognize stuff and play faster.”
— When Avalos and Hall were the Broncos’ star linebackers in 2004, they rarely left the field. The defense faced 67.1 plays per game that year — usually with huddles in between. Last year, the Broncos defended 78.7 plays per game — usually without a huddle in between. That’s a 17.3 percent increase in plays, not to mention the pace, which forces the four-man rotation. “The game is obviously different now,” Avalos said. “There’s a lot more pace. This is actually probably what you need to have on defense, at least four. Because it’s hard for those guys to play at that high of a level for 90 plays a game. You’re going to get fatigued players out there.”
— Avalos on Saxton, a former walk-on from Eagle High who is returning from a torn ACL: “We know it’s going to be a process for him to get back to where he was before, but he’s made huge strides from day one in camp to where we’re at.”
— Avalos expects his group to make a large impact on special teams: “That’s what we do — we play in space, we get off blocks, we’ve got to tackle people. We preach that a lot in our room to get those guys involved, and they’re all about it. I want to encourage those guys to create roles because nothing is going to be given to them. And even the starters, they better play special teams.”
— Avalos on Weaver and Vallejo: “It’s been seven, eight months since the end of last season. The amount of time they’ve had to study the game and prepare their bodies — they’re gym rats, they love playing ball. I’m excited to see them play.” Then, he added: “I’m excited to see Blake do some things because he was so banged up last year. And then Tyler Gray is a big ol’ athletic guy who can do a lot of different things. For the 6-5, 235 pounds that he is, he moves as good as any of them.”
— Weaver on returning to the field this fall: “It’s been unbelievable, just the amount of impact you can have from being on the sideline to being on the field. Now being on the field, it’s a lot easier to try to give to the team as much as you can and be a leader and try to emerge as that leader.” He said he played through the injury late last season because the season goals were on the line. “I did what I had to do,” he said.
— Weaver says he might have learned the defense better while sitting out in the spring than if he were on the field. “I was kind of in the meetings as if I was a (graduate assistant) for the linebackers at that point because we didn’t have Tommy Smith at that time. I was kind of working hand in hand with coach Avalos and doing cut-ups for him. I was able to learn the defense as a whole more. I think I came back smarter on the field.”
— Weaver on his role this year: “We like to set the standard as a linebacking corps because we are kind of the leaders on the field. We’ve got great depth this year. We’re really trying to be the leaders on the field and I want to try to emerge as that leader.”
— Weaver on depth: “We’re such comrades in the meeting room and on the field. When we come out, we ask each other questions and help each other out. And especially with the pace of the game nowadays, everyone is going to play. Those first two spots (on the depth chart) are going to play. They’re going to rotate non-stop.”
— Weaver on Avalos’ expectations: “He just wants us to really set the standard and hustle around and finish and fly around to the ball and be physical. We did it big time in the spring — the linebackers got the group of spring ball. So I think he wants us to come out again in the fall and really show that we’re going to be that group that is the leaders on the field.”
— Weaver on the defense: “The stats showed it. We were soft at some points, good at some points. We want to be more consistent and we want to bring the pressure. We want to make offenses not know what’s coming. We want to basically show that the old Boise defense, as a lot of people say, is back.”
— Vallejo called his 2013 season — 51 tackles as a true freshman — “average.” “I strive to be the best,” he said. “I don’t want to be average.”
— Vallejo could feel a difference going into camp this year with the expectation that he’s going to play a big role. Last year, he was on a redshirt track until early in the season. “I just have a bigger role and I know that,” he said. “Coming into camp last year, I had to earn it. I still have to earn it, but I know that I’m having a bigger role coming in this year. It takes a lot more work off the field than I really thought, so I need to be in the film room more, the weight room more, everything.”
— Vallejo on special teams: “Linebackers are supposed to be some good special teams players and coach Avalos is always telling us if someone is in your spot on special teams ahead of you, you need to go up and compete against them so you can get that spot.”
— The Broncos are playing a 4-2-5 this year but they do have packages that utilize three linebackers.
— Games played and starts for the linebackers: Weaver (12, 6), Vallejo (11, 5), Renaud (33, 6), Gray (26, 7), Saxton (18, 0), Santini (11, 0), Lee (13, 0).
— Tanner Vallejo tries to improve from ‘average’
Martarano returns from the diamond
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