Not long after experiencing what he calls “my nightmare,” Spencer Danielson got a dream opportunity.
Nov. 4 could have been a low point. That was when the then-Boise State graduate assistant earned the sort of attention no one in his position wants.
With BSU holding a 17-14 lead over Nevada in the second quarter, Jabril Frazier forced a punt with a third-down stop. Danielson ran toward the junior STUD end to celebrate. But there was problem — a referee he didn't see was in between them.
“I just straight smoked the guy,” Danielson said. “I don’t think he fell. … I looked at him, he looks at me, and I was like, ‘I’d throw it. I won’t hate you for it.’”
Sure enough, Danielson was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Boise State coach Bryan Harsin wasn't thrilled, but Danielson said there was only a brief "don't make that a habit" talk afterward.
Nevada got a first down. Three plays later, freshman STUD Curtis Weaver hauled in an interception. Danielson went to him and said, "You took care of your boy more than you know."
In Southern California, a man who knows the 29-year-old Danielson as well as anyone saw the film a few days later. He knew exactly who the culprit was — a guy who played linebacker for him and was an assistant under him at Azusa Pacific.
“That’s Spencer. That’s his passion right there,” Azusa head coach Victor Santa Cruz said. “It’s an organic love and desire for the game.”
Brought on as a graduate assistant in January 2017, Danielson was soon asked by defensive coordinator Andy Avalos to lead Boise State’s STUD ends.
The defensive end/linebackers are an integral part of the Broncos’ defense, and Danielson said Avalos “never once tried to pull the reins.” Danielson wasn’t afraid to ask his own players questions about things he didn’t understand.
Last season, the group was massively productive – Curtis Weaver and Frazier combined for 17 sacks, and Sam Whitney, who started five of the first six games, was the best run-stopper of the bunch before a season-ending injury. On Jan. 5, Danielson was promoted to full-time assistant, a no-brainer for Boise State to take advantage of a new NCAA rule that allows a 10th assistant.
“I about flipped the table,” Danielson said.
Weaver, Frazier and Whitney will return this fall. Danielson said the Broncos are “on the cutting edge in creating (advantageous) matchups” and will find way to get them on the field as much as possible.
And it takes a special soul to manage some of the team’s most unique personalities, which the table-flipping, accidental-ref-bumping Danielson fits perfectly.
“Everyone expected it to happen at some point. I think it’s sweet,” Whitney said. “He’s still such a young guy, he can get on the same level as us, but also be our superior. You’ve got to have a lot of energy if you want to be in the same room as us.”
Avalos saw a Boise State-type coach in Danielson, first running into him on the recruiting trail, where Danielson has deep inroads across the Inland Empire in California. Avalos had Danielson coach linebackers at two summer camps in Boise. Last fall, he had Danielson run game-day operations on the field, relaying what Avalos was seeing with defensive coaches and players on the field.
“He’s very eager to learn, he’s a guy that’s accountable (who) you can trust,” Avalos said. “The players love him. He’s got the ability to teach, to motivate, to recruit. He’s a guy that sacrificed some things where he was at before to come here to be a (graduate assistant). That tells you a lot about a person.”
Danielson had a coaching job before he came to Boise State, having been on Santa Cruz's staff for four seasons, coaching linebackers the last three and serving as recruiting coordinator in 2016.
But Avalos came calling with a chance to join the staff as a graduate assistant. It meant long hours and not much pay, and he knew that after two years, he could very well wind up back coaching at a Division II school.
One thing that greatly appealed to Danielson was a simple question: How do you win like Boise State?
"I didn't know what I’d be making, what I’d be doing … but there’s such an aura around Boise State," Danielson said. "It was somewhat freeing. ... I knew I'd grow a ton."
Danielson, of course, did not need that second year of graduate school. He called his professor before the spring semester started and said, "Love you guys, but I won't be back in class Monday night."
Quick impressions are Danielson's forte. He transferred to Azusa Pacific after two years at the University of San Diego, in part to play with his brother Ethan. In his first game with the Cougars, Danielson was selected to carry the team flag.
In 35 games for Azusa Pacific, he had 190 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and five interceptions. Santa Cruz admired Danielson's effort, laughing about an offseason practice in which he "blew someone up" in seven-on-seven work in shorts with no helmets.
“All gas, no brakes," Santa Cruz said. "I ripped him for that, but that's just who he was. After he was done playing, he just showed up and started working in my office. I don't think he really asked."
Danielson was, as Santa Cruz says, a fixture in the program, and it was bittersweet to lose him. His ability to handle people is part of why he'll be successful at Boise State, Santa Cruz said. It is already paying off on the recruiting trail, as two of the Broncos' three 2019 commits are STUD ends, including four-star Casey Kline of Brawley (Calif.) Union High.
"When I first talked to him, it felt like it was almost already a done deal," said Kline, who committed Saturday. "He's so enthusiastic, you really want to play for a guy like that."
The youngest coach on Boise State's staff, Danielson is renowned for his energy. With his promotion, it might continue to grow.
"In our business, there’s so much turnover, so much stuff happens," Danielson said. "When you get an affirmation stamp like that, it’s huge. It motivates me more than anything else, to keep proving them right."