Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill on quarterbacks, spring game
The Boise State football team opens fall camp Friday without a clear choice for the starting jobs at quarterback and tailback — a double dose of backfield uncertainty not seen on The Blue in 15 years.
And that’s just the start.
There’s a new defensive coordinator and a new approach on special teams. There’s a star-studded list of players returning from major injuries. And there’s a schedule loaded with unfamiliar teams.
Where will it lead?
The Mountain West media predicted a third straight Mountain Division title in the annual preseason poll. A fourth trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game certainly is possible. Yet with so many question marks, so is a disappointment like 2015.
Here’s a look at six mysteries that will play a key role in determining what kind of year 2019 becomes for the Broncos:
Redshirt sophomore Chase Cord has thrown nine passes in his Boise State career — and that’s tops among the five candidates hoping to replace four-year starter Brett Rypien. Cord is returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained in an October practice and will have only 10 months of recovery under his belt when fall camp begins. He’ll be limited through the early practices, adding an additional layer of uncertainty to the quarterback competition.
If Cord, who was Rypien’s backup before the injury and adds dynamic running ability to the offense, doesn’t emerge as the starter, senior Jaylon Henderson and true freshman Hank Bachmeier likely would be the top contenders. But coach Bryan Harsin spoke highly of the progress redshirt freshman Riley Smith and true freshman Kaiden Bennett have made this summer, so they’ll get a look, too.
Boise State has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for 10 straight seasons with a string of stars — Jeremy Avery, Doug Martin, D.J. Harper, Jay Ajayi, Jeremy McNichols and Alexander Mattison. Each time one left, the next was the obvious choice to step up.
There’s no such clear answer this year. The leading returner in rushing yards is sophomore Andrew Van Buren, who contributed 163 yards last season. Junior Robert Mahone had 128. They’ll get competition from redshirt freshman Danny Smith and highly regarded true freshmen George Holani and Keegan Duncan (Declo).
It’s easier than it used to be to gain 1,000 yards with more games and more plays per game. But one of those players is going to have to emerge as a dependable featured back to get there.
3. Defensive coordinator
A former Boise State player served as defensive coordinator from 2010 through 2018 — Pete Kwiatkowski (2010-13), Marcel Yates (2014-15) and Andy Avalos (2016-18).
Jeff Schmedding, a total newcomer to Boise State, takes the reins this year. He was added to the staff in January to coach outside linebackers and special teams and was promoted to coordinator in March after Avalos left for Oregon.
Schmedding consulted Kwiatkowski and Avalos as he developed as a coach, so there will be plenty of carryover in the Broncos’ defense. But the longtime Eastern Washington assistant also leads a defensive staff that has undergone extensive changes — only safeties coach Gabe Franklin is in the same position as last season.
4. Special teams changes
Kent Riddle was stripped of his special teams coordinator role after last season, the second time in three years that the kicking game was a major weakness for the Broncos. Riddle had served in that role for all six of Harsin’s seasons as a head coach, including one at Arkansas State, and previously for five years at Boise State under Dan Hawkins.
The original plan was for Schmedding and running backs coach Lee Marks to reinvent the special teams units, but Schmedding’s promotion short-circuited that. Now it’s Marks in a “directing” role, Harsin said, with various members of the staff owning pieces of the work.
The hope is that increasing the staff-wide ownership of special teams — all coaches were involved to some degree before — will produce better results.
5. Remember them?
The Broncos overcame an ugly injury list to win the Mountain Division in 2018. Now many of those players are back on the field — but it remains to be seen how the injuries and time on the sideline affect them. Some players return as good as, or better than, they were before; some are never the same.
Returners include junior safety DeAndre Pierce (spleen laceration), who was an All-Mountain West honorable-mention pick in 2017; junior linebacker Riley Whimpey (torn ACL), who was leading the team in tackles when he was injured in November against BYU; senior defensive tackle David Moa (calf), an All-Mountain West first-teamer in 2016 and second-teamer in 2017; junior wide receiver Octavius Evans (high ankle sprain last fall, foot fracture in spring), who was expected to be the top target last season but rarely played; senior wide receiver John Hightower, who was a non-factor after Halloween last season while dealing with an injury but made the preseason All-Mountain West team for 2019; and Cord (torn ACL).
That’s six guys with all-conference potential — and none of them played a significant role in last year’s Mountain West championship game.
6. And you are ... ?
Boise State’s non-conference opponents include the first meeting with Florida State, the first meeting with Marshall since the 1994 Division I-AA semifinals, the first clash with Portland State since 2005 and the usual rivalry with BYU. The conference schedule includes games against UNLV, San Jose State and Hawaii — a trio the Broncos haven’t seen since 2016.
That means only six of the Broncos’ opponents are teams they faced last year.
Adding to the unknown are the first two opponents: Florida State is coming off its first losing season in 42 years; Marshall is coming off a 9-4 season with signs that the Herd could be on the rise. Are the Seminoles truly bad? Is Marshall the best non-conference team on the Broncos’ schedule?
Who knows — and that’s a fitting way to start this season.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman’s Assistant Editor and sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @chaddcripe on Twitter.