It was not crazy to think depth on Boise State’s defense might have been an issue coming into this season.
Seven starters in the Poinsettia Bowl graduated or left early for the NFL. Of the projected starting defensive linemen, the four made a combined one start in 2015. Total newcomers or relatively inexperienced Broncos were going to need to see much larger roles.
The Broncos are No. 2 nationally, averaging 4.0 sacks per game, No. 8 with 9.0 tackles for loss per game and No. 19 in scoring defense, allowing 18.6 points per game. Boise State coach Bryan Harsin has been more than happy with what defensive coordinator Andy Avalos’ group has done.
“I know my background is offense, but I’m all about the defense,” Harsin said. “If you’re going to be a successful football team, you play very good defense.”
Harsin said after Friday’s 49-21 win at New Mexico the focus has been impressive, noting “the stuff we talk about, we’re actually doing, and the guys are seeing the results because of that.”
“If you do that, you deserve to go out and have success ... and those guys are certainly doing that,” Harsin said.
Boise State has done it while testing that depth.
Sophomore safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner, who started the first four games last season before a season-ending injury, has not played yet this season. Junior linebacker Joe Martarano, a starter in the season opener, has played in one game since being hurt early Sept. 3 at Louisiana.
He and sophomore linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (12 tackles in four games), did not travel to Friday’s win at New Mexico because of injuries. Senior linebacker Tanner Vallejo missed the second half of the Sept. 24 win at Oregon State and all of the Oct. 1 win over Utah State.
Newcomers such as junior linebacker Blake Whitlock, who joined the program as a walk-on this summer, junior safety Cameron Hartsfield (31 tackles this season, 12 prior in his career) and senior linebacker Darren Lee (29 tackles and a fumble return TD) have performed well stepping in to start for Vallejo, Sumner-Gardner and Martarano, respectively.
“I think we take great pride in getting our next man up,” senior defensive end Sam MCaskill said.
The Broncos are also building up depth and experience for the future. Seven true freshmen have played on defense this season. Players and coaches have spoken many times about making things “black and white,” removing as much gray as possible to cut down on hesitance and communication mistakes. The staff also altered how the team tackles in practice, even without hitting, making sure players wrap up and stop the ball carrier, instead of perhaps just getting a hand on them.
Boise State has allowed three plays of 40 yards or more, and though there is plenty of football left, the Broncos gave up 20 such plays last year.
“A lot of credit goes to the coaches, teaching some of the younger guys their jobs and teaching them well to the point where it’s kind of simplified for them and they don’t have to think too much and just play ball,” Vallejo said.
POLLS OUT MONDAY
After Hurricane Matthew postponed the Georgia-South Carolina matchup from Saturday to Sunday, the major college football polls were pushed back a day from being released.
The Associated Press Top 25 will be released at approximately 10:30 a.m. Monday, and the Coaches Poll is expected early Monday afternoon. Boise State was ranked 19th in both polls last week.
ESPN HAS BSU IN COTTON BOWL
Following No. 6 Houston’s loss to Navy, national projections have Boise State as the front-runner to nab the Group of Five’s automatic bid into a New Year’s Six bowl. On Sunday, ESPN projected the Broncos to play in the Cotton Bowl, facing Baylor or Tennessee.