Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series previewing the 2019 Boise State football team by position. The previews will appear throughout August. Previously: Defensive line, running backs, tight ends, cornerbacks, receivers. Check out the position-by-position roster here.
Boise State has ranked among the top 20 in the country in run defense three of the past four seasons.
During that same span, the Broncos’ pass defense has ranked no higher than 45th, including a disappointing 70th in 2018.
“We definitely see those stats, and we just look at what was the reason for these things happening,” Boise State junior nickel Kekaula Kaniho said. “A lot of it is easy stuff — communication, eye control, all stuff that happens before the ball is snapped.
“So we’re really taking this time right now to focus on those things, executing that at the highest level. And then the rest is just read and react from there.”
The Broncos’ secondary — and particularly the safeties/nickels group — has good reason to expect improvement against the pass in 2019.
Experienced starters return at boundary safety (senior Kekoa Nawahine), field safety (redshirt junior DeAndre Pierce) and nickel (Kaniho). The trio started the first four games of 2018 in those positions before a lacerated spleen sidelined Pierce for the remainder of the season and sent a ripple effect through the defense. Nawahine, redshirt sophomore Tyreque Jones, redshirt junior Jordan Happle and redshirt senior Evan Tyler then switched between both safety positions the rest of the year, with mixed results.
Nawahine still managed to lead the Broncos in tackles with 71, but it was a significant dropoff from the 108 tackles and three interceptions he produced in 2017. And the Broncos combined for just seven interceptions last year, which tied the 2016 squad for the lowest total in program history.
“When I got hurt and people were moving around, there were a lot of changes,” Pierce said. “It’s difficult when you do something for so long, and then you’ve got to switch unexpectedly for anybody. So at first it was hard, obviously, me being out and watching others struggle. But then midway through we started rolling and it felt better.”
Jones and former strongside linebacker Roman Kafentzis will join Kaniho at nickel this season. Additional reinforcements were added at safety in Citadel transfer Khafari Buffalo, true freshmen JL Skinner and Alex Teubner, and walk-on A.J. Smith, who joined the Broncos in the spring. The 6-foot-4, 213-pound Skinner has received early praise from coach Bryan Harsin, which in turn has helped push the veterans in fall camp.
“(We’re) just trying to elevate our game to the next step, always trying to be better than last year, better than our personal best,” Pierce said. “Nothing’s really ever good enough, in my opinion. ... I just never want to be complacent. I feel like if you ever get complacent, that’s when you start settling for things.”
While the Broncos ranked 39th in total defense a year ago, there were noticeable deficiencies in interceptions (tied for 102nd) and passes defended (tied for 117th), leaving plenty of room for improvement.
“We didn’t finish the season off the way we wanted to,” Boise State safeties/nickels coach Gabe Franklin said. “We’ve got to come back and start from square one. ... Even though they’re older guys, they know they’ve got to go back to the basics. They can’t skip steps, because if you skip steps, you get beat.”
The last time Boise State ranked among the top 10 in both run and pass defense was 2010, a season that ended with a victory over Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl, a 12-1 record and a No. 9 ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll.
“We want to compare ourselves to being the best in the nation, so when we look at stats, it’s a good benchmark for us,” Kaniho said. “(We’re) just trying to push it to the next level from where we were last year, and that’s just the kind of stuff that motivates us every day.”