Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is banking on his four proven playmakers to carry the Broncos early this season.
Junior tailback Jay Ajayi rushed for 1,425 yards last season — the fourth-highest total among returning players in college football. Senior wide receiver Matt Miller ranks third among returning players in career catches (216). Junior wide receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes contributed 702 receiving yards last season. And senior quarterback Grant Hedrick ranked fifth in the nation in completion percentage (69.0) last season.
“We have some established playmakers that we’re going to rely on, there’s no question,” Sanford said. “Those guys are going to be Jay, for sure, Matt Miller, Shane Williams-Rhodes, Grant Hedrick — guys who have made plays in games. Because at the end of the day, guys who have field credibility at this time — when you’re going in with that anxiety about who is going to show up and who the moment might be big for — you can rely on those guys early on.
“On the offensive line, we’re relying on a guy like (junior center Marcus Henry). He’s the bus driver. He’s taking us to the promised land. The offensive line is going to follow him.”
Other notes from Sanford:
— On fall camp: “We simulate a very intense, game-like atmosphere — as much as I’ve ever been around. Those guys have been with their feet to the fire. The way we practice, it really lends itself to guys being ready to play.”
— On wide receivers Chaz Anderson, Dallas Burroughs and Troy Ware: “Those guys have given us something that we want to give them in the game. I think it’s going to be somewhat play-specific. We’ll utilize their strengths and utilize those guys to hopefully create mismatches.”
— On tailback Devan Demas: “Devan Demas has had just a great camp. He had a really good cap to spring ball and really his arrows have just been pointing up. He’s a guy who can run in between the tackles but he also has some legitimate speed.”
— On Hedrick: “Grant’s been so efficient. He’s been stingy with the football, which was a huge emphasis going into this year for our whole offense but particularly with him. I’ve been really impressed with his ability to go through his reads. He’s done a great job going about his business in a way that a starting quarterback at a major program would do. I’ve been very impressed with him. That position group, I’ve really enjoyed working with them. They’re all about ball. They love football. They love the meeting room atmosphere. They love understanding the whys of what we do and Grant really spearheads that group.”
— On Hedrick: “The biggest growth that he will have is just his overall understanding of what we’re doing. Grant has the ability to get through his reads, through his entire progression. We had as many reps at practice as I’ve ever been around. It was a tough camp, a good camp. The biggest byproduct that you get out of that is the quarterbacks just get tons of work and different looks. I feel confident in Grant not trying to force (option) No. 1.”
— On using Hedrick’s running ability: “When you look at the Russell Wilsons, even the Johnny Manziels, you look at a lot of those guys and a lot of that stuff isn’t necessarily designed. You’re excited as a coordinator and obviously as his position coach, on game day you actually get to see that come to fruition because now you get to take off and run. He’s been practicing that, but you don’t see that in a practice environment. It seems like the defense got you. You might still have 15 to 20 yards on the end of that play.”
— On his first game as a coordinator: “There’s a little anxiety that’s going to set in, of course, leading up to it, but once you get into the flow of the game you feel good.”
— Sanford will be in the box with tight ends coach Eli Drinkwitz.
— On Ole Miss All-American safety Cody Prewitt: “For whatever reason, the ball just consistently finds Prewitt. He’s a ballhawk. He’s a great football player — ton of respect for him. It’s a great challenge to play against players like that. It’s also good for your football team to point out this is a guy you want to play the game like.”
— On backup quarterback Ryan Finley: “He’s absolutely ready. He’s been in a lot of situations. He’s been facing our first-string defense pretty consistently in all our scrimmages that the public has seen and he’s done a nice job. He’s a very intellectual young man.”
— On his confidence in the offensive line: “So much better from the spring. In scrimmage situations, we’ve given up more sacks than we’d like to. A lot of that had to do with mismatches there might have been with the second O-line against the first-string defense. I feel good about the starters. I feel good about the ongoing competition (at right guard) between (Mario) Yakoo and Archie (Lewis). I also feel good about the position versatility those guys give you. Archie was a left tackle all spring and now he’s battling at right guard. You feel good about having five, six, seven guys you feel like can plug and play at different positions. I like where that group is at.”
— On Williams-Rhodes: “We’ve got to give him the ball. A lot of his touches last year, it’s not always designed to go to him. It’s a reaction to what the defense gives you. A lot of those are sideways plays that get you plus yardage. He can play receiver. He’s not purely a slot-bubble guy. He can play receiver and he’s done a good job of that all camp. He did a good job in the spring. He’s shown good catch versatility, to be able to make the tough catch in traffic. He’s got really good catch range — his radius to catch the football is a lot more than you would think when you look at that height/weight number. He’s got the ability to go make a play.”
— On his game-day demeanor: “I try to maintain my poise regardless of what’s going on. We always talk to our players about having a ‘one play at a time’ mentality. As a coordinator, you have to have the same mentality or other guys are going to feed off of your panic. That’s legitimate. I’ve been around some coaches who do panic in those situations. You have to trust your plan and trust your preparation.”
Guessing game for Rebels
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told the Mississippi media that he’s more troubled by the Broncos’ unknown defensive scheme run by Marcel Yates than their unknown offensive scheme run by Sanford.
“It's definitely difficult on the offensive staff because the (defensive) coordinator that’s been hired has not been a coordinator before. So you’re not sure,” Freeze said. “ I’m sure he’ll take something from everywhere he's been just like all of us did, and you're just not sure what his flavor is. That’s a bit difficult.
“Offensively, with their head coach being an offensive guy, even though he's not going to coordinate it, you have an idea what they'll be like. We'll study the places the OC came from also. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it happens.”
Scouting Ole Miss
The Ole Miss defense returns nine starters from a defense that allowed 23.7 points and 370.5 yards per game last season. The Rebels struggled against the run, allowing 154.9 yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry and 27 touchdowns.
“I think this is a better defensive team than has been around here the last couple of years,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said, according to the Daily Journal in Tupelo, Miss.
The defense returns all five starting defensive backs, including first-team All-American safety Cody Prewitt. The defensive front includes former No. 1 national recruit Robert Nkemdiche (8.0 tackles for loss last year), preseason All-SEC end C.J. Johnson (injured after four games last year), nose tackle Bryon Bennett (21 starts) and standout nose tackle Issac Gross, who is injured. Gross’ status for the game is unclear.
Nkemdiche’s brother, linebacker Denzel, is suspended for this game. The top linebacker is preseason All-SEC pick Serderius Bryant (78 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, three forced fumbles last year).
Other than Prewitt, the top defensive back is sophomore nickel Tony Conner. He ranked second among SEC freshmen with 66 tackles last season.
One interesting note: Both starting cornerbacks are 5-foot-9. Boise State also plans to start a pair of 5-9 corners — Donte Deayon and Cleshawn Page.
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