Boise State Football

Boise State’s linebackers develop versatility, depth at position in transition

Boise State defense 2018 highlights

Watch some of Boise State's defense highlights from the 2018 season.
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Watch some of Boise State's defense highlights from the 2018 season.

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, safeties. Check out the position-by-position roster here.

The Boise State football team began last season with two unquestioned starters at the inside linebacker positions.

It ended the season with neither of them on the field.

That upheaval, which included the dismissal of starting middle linebacker Tyson Maeva, could help the Broncos in 2019.

Junior weak-side linebacker Riley Whimpey (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) has returned from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, and his replacement — sophomore Zeke Noa (5-11, 242) — has practiced at middle linebacker.

The Broncos also return junior Benton Wickersham (6-2, 230) and junior Bruno DeRose (5-11, 223), a pair of former walk-ons who were pressed into spot starts last season. Wickersham started in the middle against UConn and in the bowl game, and DeRose started on the weak side in the Mountain West championship game.

That has created some depth at a position in transition on the Broncos’ roster. Three of the five scholarship recruits in the group are redshirt freshmen.

“We’ve got a lot of guys who can play both positions now,” Wickersham said. “We spend less time talking about the scheme. We can spend more time talking about the fundamentals. We’re making big leaps that way.

“... Last year, it was a great example of everybody being ready and being prepared every week.”

Whimpey was leading the team in tackles when he was injured and still finished third with 55 stops in nine games. Noa was an impressive replacement, racking up 34 tackles — including four for loss — to help the Broncos win the Mountain Division.

“Zeke’s a tank,” Wickersham said. “... He doesn’t like to look so deep into things that he overthinks it. He likes to know what he’s got to do and get it done, and that’s always fun to see.”

The move to the middle has been a “big change for me,” Noa said.

“In the beginning, it was definitely rough,” he said.

If Noa starts in the middle, that opens the door for Whimpey’s return on the weak side — assuming he’s healthy enough when the season begins Aug. 31. He’ll be less than 10 months out from his injury.

“(Noa) has grown tremendously when it’s come to the playbook,” Whimpey said. “He knows what he’s doing. I love the kid. ... If we did have an opportunity to play with each other, that would be awesome.”

Wickersham and DeRose provide experienced depth, while the Broncos could get a youthful spark from a speedy player like Brandon Hawkins (6-2, 217). Phillip Mills (6-2, 231) and DJ Schramm (6-0, 225) are the other redshirt freshmen in the group.

“I think we’re going to rally off each other,” DeRose said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re a group that has great brotherhood and camaraderie, and it’s going to be a lot of fun just to bounce ideas off each other.”

The linebackers are led by new position coach Zac Alley, a former Clemson graduate assistant. He replaces longtime assistant and former Boise State linebacker Andy Avalos, who left for the defensive coordinator job at Oregon.

Alley arrived a couple days before spring ball began and asked the players to coach him on the Broncos’ scheme and language.

“I love my group,” Alley said. “... It’s a testament to Coach Avalos — his room is prepared, they’re smart, they’re intelligent, they know what to do. ... They really helped me through that. I have a lot of confidence in them and all the things they’re going to be able to accomplish.”

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