Boise State Football

Boise State football spring analysis: Key questions remain, but new talent steps up

Spring football is done, and the next time we will see the Boise State football team, the Aug. 31 season opener against Florida State will be just around the bend.

As is typical of spring, there was plenty of work on the sorts of things that aren’t the most exciting to talk about, like fundamentals and technique. But, once fall camp rolls around, the Broncos hope that translates into a jump-start on the bigger things.

“We’re solving things we need to get better at,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “As far as if we’re coming out of this with the depth chart set, we’re not doing that. All of our schemes are set? We’re not doing that.”

Even if there is still plenty left to be answered, here is our position-by-position look at what we learned in spring and a glance ahead to the summer.

OFFENSE STILL HAS BIG QUESTION MARKS

Quarterback: No, we don’t know who is going to start. But there is a decent idea of where the depth chart lies headed into the summer. Senior Jaylon Henderson and true freshman Hank Bachmeier were the top two in spring. Henderson has greatly improved in the past year, and Bachmeier has a high ceiling. The wild card is sophomore Chase Cord; Harsin routinely made sure to mention him. Cord should be cleared by fall camp after tearing an ACL in October. He did throw a bit late in spring and, as the most experienced (even with only nine passes and eight rushes), he will be front and center in the mix.

“They’re very persistent and consistent in their preparation,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “... They’ve all done a great job handling it, excited for the offseason to get Chase Cord back, get him moving around.”

Running back: Again, no clear answers emerged from spring, though junior Robert Mahone and sophomore Andrew Van Buren had some nice moments in the Spring Game. Harsin has praised Mahone’s improvements but also has consistently challenged the whole group to make a leap. Is there an Alexander Mattison here? No. Could it be a by-committee approach? Perhaps. Harsin isn’t afraid to mention incoming freshmen George Holani and Keegan Duncan any time the running backs come up.

“There’s still the challenge, there’s still a lot in protection, there’s still a lot in running the ball, being physical, running downhill and seeing the holes, hitting it with speed,” Harsin said. “... We have a long ways to go. I like our guys, don’t get me wrong, but they know and we all know if we’re going to have success running the ball, that group will have to elevate in everything they do.”

Wide receivers: What we already knew was backed up throughout the spring — the Broncos have an embarrassment of riches here. Sophomore Khalil Shakir looks poised for a massive breakout, and senior John Hightower will again be one of the nation’s top big-play threats. A trio of Texans, redshirt freshman Stefan Cobbs, junior CT Thomas and senior Akilian Butler, were among the spring’s standouts. Junior cornerback Avery Williams said Butler was “looking like Antonio Brown.” Add in the enigma that is junior Octavius Evans, and the new quarterback has a serious benefit in the guys to whom he’ll be throwing.

“One thing we have to do is make sure we’re doing things on our part, we have to execute our jobs first and make it as easy as possible on the quarterback,” Butler said. “I love my guys.”

Tight ends: It is always a question fans want to know — will the tight ends be involved more? It didn’t seem clear in the spring, but fall camp will be interesting. The Broncos will add 6-foot-7 JC transfer Austin Griffin, whom Harsin said could cause some major headaches for opponents when paired with 6-6 junior John Bates. Senior Garrett Collingham was limited this spring after surgery, but he’ll be a factor, while redshirt freshman Tyneil Hopper, who had multiple SEC offers, made some big strides.

“It’s how we utilize them, it’s not that they can’t do it, we’ve got to utilize them better, and we’ve tried to do that,” Harsin said. “You see other teams, Oklahoma, they did a great job with their tight end ... and we study a lot of NFL teams because that’s what they play with, and we try to figure how to incorporate some of those ideas and plays.”

Offensive line: All five of the starting linemen in the last seven games of 2018 return, and all were healthy this spring. That could make a major difference for a group that also returned experience last year, but had a rough start. Boise State has yielded 13 and 14 sacks the first five games of the last two seasons. Junior left tackle Ezra Cleveland will be talked about as a potential first-round pick a year from now, and he was one of the guys Harsin said stood out in spring. Senior left guard John Molchon is as steady as can be, while right guard Eric Quevedo is up 22 pounds from last season.

“We got ahead on a lot of the installs, and our chemistry is there,” Molchon said, adding, “(we’re) developing that game mentality, that’s where we really need to put ourselves.”

VETS MAKE DEFENSIVE TRANSITION SMOOTH

Defensive line: This should be a strength of the team, and new coach Spencer Danielson has to be loving it. Senior Sonatane Lui anchors the nose spot, and sophomore Scale Igiehon was outstanding in the spring working behind Lui or at times next to him for some serious bulk up front. Add in sixth-year senior David Moa and senior Chase Hatada, who both missed spring practices, and it’s a deep, experienced group. Senior Matt Locher can play tackle or end, but he saw a lot of work at end this spring with Hatada out.

“As a unit, we want to dominate next fall,” Igiehon said. “We’re all getting better, making strides forward, with a great coach like (Danielson), all of us being coachable ... we’re going to be good.

“Strength in numbers, when they come back, they’re going to be forces and help us win games.”

Linebackers/STUDs: On the outside, one thing is for sure — junior Curtis Weaver is scary good. Already tied for sixth in school history with 20.5 sacks, he’s another potential high draft pick in 2020 and had two sacks in the first half of the Spring Game. The only other healthy STUD this spring was redshirt Dylan Herberg, who made some nice plays. Three true freshmen will be in the fold in fall camp. The other linebacker spots are intriguing, with junior Riley Whimpey rehabbing from a torn ACL. Sophomore Zeke Noa was a breakout star to end last season and has spent most of his time at Whimpey’s weakside spot. Junior Benton Wickersham saw the lion’s share of the first-team snaps at middle linebacker. When Whimpey returns, how will it impact the group? Harsin said he or Noa could move to the middle, or there may be creative ways to get everyone on the field. One thing is certain: the group needs to be more productive, as the returners combined for 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble last year.

“We’ve got a lot of versatile guys that are moving around a little bit,” Wickersham said. “... We like to keep it small, step by step. We’ve been working on our fundamentals, then we’ll slowly work into that more production (piece).”

Cornerbacks: Williams has the ability and the confidence to be a No. 1 corner, and he showed it, leading the team in turnovers during the spring. His leadership has been a major plus in a transitional year for the defensive staff. With Tyler Horton’s graduation, it appears junior Jalen Walker will step in as the other starter, and he impressed the staff with his improvement. Even with junior Robert Lewis’ dismissal, there is some depth, albeit minus much experience. Redshirt freshman Chris Mitchell had six tackles in the Spring Game and has a ton of potential.

“I’m really excited for those guys — Jalen has experience ... Chris Mitchell has one of the best press techniques out there,” Williams said.

Safeties/nickels: Another outrageously deep position, the group has six guys who have started at least four games (Kekoa Nawhine, DeAndre Pierce, Kekaula Kaniho, Tyreque Jones, Jordan Happle and Evan Tyler). Pierce’s return after redshirting last season with a lacerated spleen is a boost for the entire defense, while Kaniho again should be a versatile ballhawk at nickel. Jones is 4 inches and 15 pounds heavier than Kaniho, and he worked quite a bit this spring as a nickel against heavy formations.

“We know no matter who is in with us, we’re able to trust them, everyone knows what they’re doing and we play well together no matter who is in,” Kaniho said.

SPECIAL TEAMS FOCUSES ON LITTLE THINGS

Well, it is hard to imagine the kicking game being much worse than last year, as ESPN ranked the Broncos 95th and Football Outsiders had them 102nd. Running backs coach Lee Marks and defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding were named co-coordinators, replacing Kent Riddle, but Schmedding is exiting the role. There has been a major focus on the fundamentals this spring, which the team hopes can correct some of the woes from last year. Junior Joel Velazquez handled a vast majority of the kicking and punting duties, but competition will arrive this summer. Williams and Hightower should be weapons in the return game.

“I think our staff does a great job of having a lot of hands in the pot. ... We put a great focus on it this spring, our technique has been a priority and it’s really paying off,” Williams said.

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Dave Southorn is a 2004 graduate from the University of Colorado. He has covered Boise State athletics since 2005, and worked at the Idaho Statesman since 2013. He’s won multiple Idaho Press Club awards and once won a contest designing a play for the Seattle Seahawks.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.
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