NOTE: Tickets out for this week's game: 33,700. That's a 3,200-ticket increase since Monday.
Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin has reversed a trend of dependence on true freshmen in his first year with the Broncos.
The Broncos played seven true freshmen in 2013, five in 2012 and five in 2011. Once a rarity, the Broncos used 30 true freshmen in coach Chris Petersen’s final seven seasons — an average of more than four per year. That group includes 10 players (seven, and possibly eight, on defense) expected to start Friday against Fresno State.
Only two members of the 2014 class — safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner and running back/wide receiver Jeremy McNichols — have played as true freshmen.
That’s partly a lack of need and partly a difference in philosophy. Boise State used to have a roster stacked with redshirt seniors, but depth issues in recent seasons have led to fewer fifth-year stars.
Twenty-one players on this year’s roster — one-fifth — are not expected to use a redshirt year during their college careers. This year, the Broncos have just seven redshirt seniors.
With Harsin expecting to redshirt 25 freshmen this year (including walk-ons), the trend could change.
“There are (true freshmen) that could play right now,” Harsin said. “How much, I don’t know. But you want to marinate these guys a little bit and sometimes you microwave them. Those two freshmen we have playing for us, we need them and we feel like they can be successful or we wouldn’t do it. Other guys that are redshirting that we feel could come play for us right now, we don’t need them and we’d like to have them lift, eat, get school dialed in, get used to life and be ready to rock ‘n’ roll in the spring.”
Coaches have told the true freshmen to be ready if they’re needed. McNichols made his debut in the sixth game.
“You can’t look at this like, ‘Hey, I’m a redshirt, I’ll get ready in spring ball,’ ” running backs and special teams coach Kent Riddle said. “You have to have a ‘win now’ mentality. If you don’t play all year, you’ll still be better for it when we get to the spring. Our guys have done a good job understanding that.”
Boise State linebackers have intercepted five passes in the past three seasons.
Junior Tyler Gray is responsible for three of them — including a pick six at Nevada. He also made an interception this year against Ole Miss and is tied for the team lead with four pass breakups.
He is the backup to Ben Weaver at weak-side linebacker but splits time there and is particularly active in pass situations.
“There’s a strategy to when they’re in and when they’re not in, too,” Harsin said. “He keeps getting better, keeps getting plays.”
Gray is the tallest linebacker at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, and one of the most athletic.
“He’s got a lot of range,” linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. “The thing that is really impressive is he’s getting a lot better and having a really good feeling for figuring out route combinations and knowing where he’s supposed to be in the pass game. When you’re that tall and that long and can close windows that quick, we’ve got chances.”
On the touchdown against Nevada, Gray slid from the middle of the field to his left — stepping in front of a receiver — as the Broncos brought a blitz from that side of the formation. They knew where quarterback Cody Fajardo liked to throw in that situation and the combination of the blitz and Gray’s movement at the snap produced a game-turning play. The touchdown gave Boise State a 23-21 lead late in the second quarter and started a 21-point surge by the Broncos.
“That was something that we had practiced a lot and obviously he executed it exactly how we hoped he would,” Avalos said. “You do things like that all the time in hopes that you get the opportunity with that defense against that look. For him to execute exactly the way he did, the way we talked about it, was awesome. It was an awesome feeling for him and all the guys who were out there.”
Said Gray: “It was a formation that we’d seen on film and we knew that was a pass they like to do out of it. The play call we had called that down was the perfect play, really.”
The touchdown — on a 32-yard return — allowed Gray to take care of his dad’s weekly request.
“Every game my dad always texts me, ‘Are you going to get me a pick six?’ ” he said.
— Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates on his favorite memories of playing Fresno State: “It was always at Fresno because their crowd is so hostile. I always liked that atmosphere there, whenever they were hostile against us and we won the game.”
— Boise State junior safety Darian Thompson is fourth in the nation in interceptions per game. He has four in five games. Only three players have more total interceptions, too — one with seven and two with five. Thompson has 11 interceptions in his career. “Sometimes it’s just an overthrow, sometimes I’m just in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I just read my keys and do what the coaches say and the next thing I know the ball is right there.” He should have had another one at the end of the Nevada game. He dropped one on the Wolf Pack’s last play. “It kind of hurt when I dropped that one,” he said. “I can’t drop the give-mes.”
— Sophomore middle linebacker Tanner Vallejo has played nickel the past three games so senior Corey Bell can play safety, replacing Jeremy Ioane. Vallejo still meets with the linebackers, though. “Tanner can play any one of the three positions,” Avalos said. “He plays two of them right now, just given situations or packages that we’re in. For a linebacker, he’s about as athletic as they come. He’s luckily a guy who’s been able to help us out out there when we got banged up in the secondary. We like what Blake (Renaud) and the other guys are doing inside, which has allowed us to move him out there.”
More on the 1994 reunion here.
Fresno State at Boise State
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387 , FieldTurf)
TV: ESPN (Dave Flemming, David Diaz-Infante, Allison Williams)
Radio: KBOI (670AM), KKGL (96.9 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 4-2 overall, 2-1 Mountain West; Fresno State is 3-4, 2-1.
Series: Boise State leads 11-5 (Fresno State won 41-40 last year in Fresno)
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