There is no reason to think the Boise State football team will not have a dominant defense in 2018, losing just one starter.
But that one? Yeah, it’s big.
The Broncos will start the process of filling Leighton Vander Esch’s void when spring practices start Monday. Losing the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year is a major loss, but replacing productive players isn’t anything new.
“We’ve always wondered, ‘How do we replace Tanner (Vallejo)? How do we replace Leighton? How do we replace the leadership of Sam (McCaskill)?’ ” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “There are guys waiting in the shadows that are chomping at the bit to have their opportunity.”
Boise State spent last spring focusing on ways to create more pressure and more turnovers. It certainly worked, with five more sacks and a whopping 17 more takeaways than 2016. Again, it will be an area of emphasis.
“How we do create more opportunities, how are we going to finish and capitalize? We improved on some of that stuff,” Avalos said. “We can’t take that for granted, we’ve got to go right back and emphasize those things again to create even more opportunities.”
Expectations will be very high for the defense, but it wasn’t perfect last season, so chasing that is a motivating factor.
“Last year is last year, they all know that,” safeties coach Gabe Franklin said. “They know what happened last year, it’s a different team, a different group of guys. They’re going to come in hungry and humble. It’ll be fun to see them compete with our offense and versus themselves as well.”
Here’s a look at what the defense returns in spring ball, which concludes with April 14’s spring game:
The starting front three that was pivotal in Boise State’s top-20 rush defense all return in senior defensive end Durrant Miles, senior defensive tackle David Moa and junior nose tackle Sonatane Lui. Three of the four on the bowl depth chart behind them return, too.
What is new is line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a, hired in January. He coached similar defenses at Oregon State, Wisconsin and Utah.
“We have common ties within the profession with schemes,” Avalos said. “We wanted to take off and get rolling, not have to struggle getting everyone on the same page.”
Kauha’aha’a said “I’m fired up to work with these guys,” praising Miles’ length and Lui’s feet for his size. Of Moa, he said “we need some more production out of him, he’s a gifted player.” Moa had 8.5 sacks in 2016, but two last season.
As the staff had hoped, the STUDs were agents of chaos against opposing quarterbacks, as sophomore Curtis Weaver and senior Jabril Frazier combined for 17 sacks. That duo is back, along with junior Sam Whitney, who missed the second half of last season with an injury, but made five starts. The team also redshirted Aisa Kelemete, one of the top signees of the 2017 class.
That is a very nice way to start Spencer Danielson’s tenure as a full-time assistant, as he was promoted from graduate assistant in January.
“I love those dudes,” Danielson said. “I can’t be more excited about where we’re going, returning all of them. ... We’re going to find ways to use those 6-4, 250-pound bodies any way we can.”
Avalos and Kauha’aha’a were reviewing film during the offseason, and the new assistant made a simple observation.
“We’re going through these self-scout cutups … and Chad’s like ‘38’s making a lot of plays.’ We all know it, but even going back through it, it’s like ‘38 made a lot of plays,’ even ones he didn’t get stats for,” Avalos said.
Vander Esch’s 141 tackles, four sacks, four forced fumbles and three interceptions will be greatly missed, but just about the entire group returns. Junior middle linebacker Tyson Maeva (13 starts) will be a major piece, while sophomores Desmond Williams, Will Heffner and Kekaula Kaniho, who combined for nine starts at strongside linebacker/nickel, provide plenty of versatility.
“Some of the guys we’ve had here in the past helped Leighton get to where he was … Leighton did a great job with the younger guys we have,” Avalos said.
At Vander Esch’s weakside spot, look for senior Blake Whitlock, sophomore Riley Whimpey, sophomore Bruno DeRose and redshirt freshman Zeke Noa to be in the mix.
Boise State hired Jeff Popovich last month to coach the group, coming from the Indianapolis Colts, where he spent the last two seasons. Popovich inherits returning starters in first-team All-Mountain West senior Tyler Horton and sophomore Avery Williams, plus has a little bit of depth to work with.
Sophomore Jalen Walker was pressed into starting duty in the Las Vegas Bowl and performed well in his first serious action as a redshirt freshman, while touted recruit Jermani Brown and early enrollee Marques Evans redshirted last season.
“We’ve got some guys coming back that we’re really excited about,” Avalos said. “Tyler’s played a lot of defense for us, and done a really good job. Avery’s a guy that emerged … very smart, has a great feel for the game.”
Coach Gabe Franklin has a lot to work with this spring, perhaps with as much depth as any unit on the team.
The Broncos bring back their dynamic junior duo of Kekoa Nawahine and DeAndre Pierce, who combined for 191 tackles and four interceptions last season. Behind them, there is sophomore Jordan Happle, who had an interception in the bowl game, and Kaniho (two defensive touchdowns), who also can drop down with the linebackers.
Junior Evan Tyler started three games to begin the 2016 season, but has not played since because of injury. The group also includes the defensive scout team player of the year, Tyreque Jones.
“Those fundamentals, we’ll hit hard, they’re not finished products … but it’s going to be fun to see them develop some more,” Franklin said.
With senior kicker Haden Hoggarth, senior punter Quinn Skillin and sophomore punter/kicker Joel Velazquez returning, the Broncos have solid options. The Broncos took a big leap forward in the kicking game last season and have an electric returner in Williams, to boot.
“We expect to grow and get better and improve, continue to work at ways to practice better what we’re doing,” special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “Are we excited to have those guys back? Absolutely. Can they be better? Absolutely.”