Boise State Football

Spring practices will provide Boise State football team chances to build depth

After an eight-catch campaign in 2016, junior wide receiver Sean Modster will be a primary target for Boise State’s offense this spring.
After an eight-catch campaign in 2016, junior wide receiver Sean Modster will be a primary target for Boise State’s offense this spring. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

No matter how a season ends, the motivation never is lacking. Finish strong, carry the momentum into the spring. Finish with two straight losses, and it’s all the more reason to want to get onto the practice field.

That’s where Boise State finds itself as its begins its spring schedule Monday with 15 total practices and concludes with the spring game April 8.

“How we finished, when you don’t finish the right way, the only thing you want to do is start preparing to get back,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “I think our guys are really on edge to get out there in a good way to practice, to compete.”

With an assistant coaching vacancy, some key players out while recovering from surgeries and some big roles to be filled, the Broncos enter spring with plenty of unknowns. It also means a prime opportunity to create depth, which was noticeable when the team often failed to finish games strong.

Harsin said the team will work heavily on individual work in the first half of the spring, and the position groups he’s keeping an eye on are wide receiver, linebacker and quarterback.

“Nobody on our team really has the opportunity to just be out there and be a guy. You need to be ready to be able to play,” Harsin said. “When we were getting into some of these games toward the end of the year in the third and fourth quarter ... we need to have guys that are three-deep that can play. That’s really what we have to get better at.”

OFFENSE

Quarterback: Having a veteran like junior Brett Rypien in the fold will be a benefit with many key players on offense out. Rypien will look to find consistency after an up and down 2016. Junior college transfer Rathen Ricedorff enters the fray to compete for the backup gig, while redshirt freshman Jake Constantine is one of the team’s most improved players.

“At no point is he ever happy, even in his successes,” quarterbacks coach Zak Hill said of Rypien. “He’s not happy where he’s at. He’s always trying to improve.”

Running back: With sophomore Alexander Mattison out following shoulder surgery, the Broncos have two scholarship backs on hand in senior Ryan Wolpin and redshirt freshman Robert Mahone. Wolpin had 13 carries last season. It creates plenty of chances to get snaps and perhaps build depth alongside or behind Mattison, the likely starter, following Jeremy McNichols’ early entry into the NFL Draft.

“There’s not a guy who is really proven,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “It’s finding a guy who can be consistent and do the things we ask them to do. He doesn’t have to be Jeremy. He doesn’t have to be Jay (Ajayi).”

Wide receiver: Senior Cedrick Wilson (1,129 yards, 11 TDs in 2016) is out following surgery, and the returners have a combined 29 career receptions. Junior Sean Modster flashed moments of big potential last season, and Bubba Ogbebor played as a true freshman but did not register a catch.

“There’s some guys that might push the panic button like, ‘Whoa, man, I don’t have a lot of game experience.’ But if you look at it in a positive way and kind of shift your paradigm how you think about things, well, what a great opportunity,” first-year receivers coach Eric Kiesau said.

Tight end: It’s hard to imagine the tight ends won’t be more productive in 2017, going seven-deep in the spring with 6-foot-7 Nick Crabtree and 6-6 John Bates coming off redshirts. The group had only 21 receptions in the regular season, but with senior Jake Roh healthy and the unit more experienced, it is expected the tight ends play a bigger role.

“With really just Ced coming back at receiver ... the tight ends have to pick that up,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said.

Line: No unit has as many unknowns this spring as this one. Offensive line coach Scott Huff left for Washington last week, and the three returning players who made starts last season, including center Mason Hampton (Meridian High), are out. New faces like newcomers John Ojukwu (Boise) and Zach Troughton or offensive scout team player of the year Ezra Cleveland will see lots of work.

“You might come out for all 15 practices, and we might have a different offensive line out there each day,” Huff said last month.

DEFENSE

Line: Junior defensive tackle David Moa (8.5 sacks last season) anchors the unit, which is full of talent and numbers but relatively unproven. Two starters graduated, and the Broncos will rely more on four players who saw the field last season in their first year in the program. Add in athletic players that redshirted, like Curtis Weaver and Jabari Watson, and options aren’t lacking.

“We’ll see that big jump next fall. ... I’m hoping we’ll be three deep all the way across,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said.

Linebacker: The trio of starters the majority of last season have graduated, but the unit was one of the deepest, allowing the likes of sophomore Tyson Maeva and senior Blake Whitlock to make contributions. Juniors Leighton Vander Esch (Salmon River) and Joe Martarano (Fruitland) will be key contributors after missing most of 2016 with injuries.

“I’m excited. I know they’re excited to get their opportunity to step in those shoes and fill those reps that those guys are leaving behind,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.

Cornerback: Starter Jonathan Moxey graduated, but junior Tyler Horton will be relied upon to be a No. 1 presence after starting 13 games as a sophomore. Cornerbacks combined for just two interceptions last season, certainly a focus this spring. Sophomore Reid Harrison-Ducros played 10 games in 2016, but junior Michael Young and freshmen Robert Lewis, Marques Evans and Avery Williams have not played.

“Honestly that whole group is wide open,” cornerbacks coach Asehley Ambrose said. “... I know one thing: they are playmakers. They’re guys with good ball skills and I’m excited to see how they all function out there.”

Safety: Chanceller James (team-high three interceptions) graduated, and Dylan Sumner-Gardner (three starts) was kicked off the team. Senior Cameron Hartsfield returns after starting nine games, and sophomore Kekoa Nawahine (Rocky Mountain) came on strong late, making 11 tackles in the final two games. Sophomore DeAndre Pierce makes the switch from cornerback, adding to an already deep group.

“Nobody has a spot right now,” safeties coach Gabe Franklin said. “We have a long way until the first game. They know that’s how I coach, that the best guys are going to play. They’re all fighting for spots right now.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

Boise State must replace both kicking specialists in kicker Tyler Rausa and punter Sean Wale. Redshirt freshman Joel Velazquez worked at both spots last season and is expected to do so in the spring, while the team added walk-on punter Brandon Heicklen in January.

In the return game, the Broncos will mix in a handful of potential candidates after some early-season struggles. Once Wilson took over punt-return duties, it turned around, but as he is out, work will be done not just on the returner spot on kicks and punts, but the other 10 players on those situations.

“That was encouraging,” Riddle said of Wilson’s return ability. “... We’ve got to find ways to make some yards.”

5 PLAYERS TO WATCH

DeANDRE PIERCE, S

It spoke plenty of Pierce’s football intelligence that he was able to play at cornerback, nickel and safety last season as a true freshman. He finished the year with 19 tackles and a pair of pass breakups, showing some physicality at times despite his 5-foot-11, 168-pound frame. This spring, he’s working at safety full-time, a position he played throughout high school at California power Long Beach Poly.

“I never played corner until I got here. Safety’s kind of always been a natural fit for me. ... I feel like there’s a lot more plays you can make at safety — tackles, interceptions — it’s a free realm I can be in,” Pierce said.

JOHN BATES, TE

Boise State was able to redshirt the 6-6, 229-pound Bates last season, a luxury it had with five more experienced players on the roster. Even with all five back, Bates is primed for a role this season, bringing size and athleticism to a group that had a combined 29 receptions in 2016.

“John Bates is a guy we’re really counting on,” tight ends coach Kent Riddle said. “He has unlimited potential. That guy can be a bigtime guy for a lot of years.”

LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH, LB

With all three linebackers that started a majority of last season’s games having graduated, the junior from Riggins will be expected to start and be productive. He missed seven games, but had 15 tackles, including an interception, in the final two once he returned. Vander Esch (6-4, 236) will play at the spot where Tyler Gray and Ben Weaver have starred in recent seasons.

“We obviously lost some good players there ... even a Leighton Vander Esch, who did play for us, but still, here’s an opportunity for a guy like that to emerge as a leader,” coach Bryan Harsin said.

ROBERT MAHONE, RB

Jeremy McNichols is gone, Alexander Mattison is out for the spring after shoulder surgery, so Mahone will see plenty of work with senior Ryan Wolpin. Mahone (5-10, 209) redshirted last season after averaging 9.4 yards per carry as a senior at Prosper (Texas) High.

“Robert’s looking really, really good,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “Robert’s changed his body ... he’s really digging in right now, understanding what it takes to work hard and develop that. I’m happy with his progress as far as learning how to work, how to be an elite running back.”

EMMANUEL FESILI, DT

After appearing in two games early in the season as a true freshman, Pierce’s high school teammate didn’t crack the rotation at a position lacking depth. The 6-2, 308-pounder will hope to make an impact as a sophomore, not having the compressed timeline he did last year, arriving in July and playing in September.

“Emmanuel’s got a ton of ability,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said. “We’re just so excited about having time to really groom him this spring.”

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

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