The last time the Boise State football team boarded an airplane, backup running back Robert Mahone was left behind.
On Thursday, the Broncos will load up for their highly anticipated trip to play Florida State with Mahone in the starting role — Hurricane Dorian permitting.
The junior has changed his approach to school and football so much since he was academically ineligible for the 2018 First Responder Bowl that coaches now talk about his leadership qualities.
Mahone, meeting with the media Wednesday, cited “lack of focus” for his troubles at the end of last season.
“That happens,” he said, “but it’s easy to get back on track when you really want to be successful.”
Mahone was named the starting running back for the season opener Saturday against Florida State in Jacksonville (5 p.m. MT, ESPN). He steps into a star-making role that has produced a national-best 10 straight 1,000-yard rushers, including Alexander Mattison the past two years.
But Mahone (5-foot-10, 218 pounds) is no lock for the top job. He’s being pushed by powerful sophomore Andrew Van Buren and elusive true freshman George Holani, who also will have roles.
“I definitely want to take on that role of being the bell cow, the workhorse,” Mahone said. “That’s what I’m working for.”
Coaches have noticed a significant difference in Mahone this year — and he says missing the bowl game was a turning point for him. Little things, like being on time and developing a greater understanding of the playbook, have propelled him.
Mahone rushed for 115 yards on 35 carries in 2017 and 128 yards on 32 carries in 2018.
“Rob’s been one of those guys through his career that was always kind of inconsistent, and we always wanted to see the consistency with him,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “He always had the talent and the athleticism and balance and vision. It was just the consistency, and he’s gained that.”
Mahone is from Prosper, Texas, where he moved from safety to running back as a junior. He rushed for 1,172 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 125 carries as a senior.
“He has great vision, honestly,” Van Buren said. “As a running back, when you have great vision, it allows you to see a lot of things other people can’t.”
Mahone also has good hands, which makes him an asset in the passing game. Van Buren (6-0, 223) brings a little more power to the backfield and Holani (5-11, 192) was a key piece of the 2019 recruiting class.
“It’s going to be fun to watch us play,” Mahone said.
Weather threat continues
Hurricane Dorian is approaching Florida, which could affect the Boise State-Florida State game. Florida State issued a statement Wednesday saying that it will provide an update on the game’s status Thursday morning. The Broncos are scheduled to fly out Thursday afternoon. The storm is not expected to make landfall in Florida until Monday morning, but it could have an impact on the Atlantic Coast well before that.
HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
Three of Boise State’s defensive coaches will be making their Broncos debut Saturday, and two of them made a brief stop on their way to Boise.
Cornerbacks coach Jalil Brown (Utah State) and inside linebackers coach Zac Alley (Charlotte) accepted jobs at new schools before Boise State’s openings came into play. Both jumped at the chance to join the Broncos.
Brown previously was an assistant strength and conditioning coach and defensive analyst at Boise State, and one of his goals was to return to the staff. He was at Northern Arizona in 2018 and was hired by Boise State two days after his hiring was announced at Utah State.
“It was tough,” Brown said. “When you make a decision like that, you love to stand by your word. But when I left (Boise State), it was in hopes of gaining some experience and coming full circle. That was the ultimate goal right there.”
Alley was added to the staff in March after defensive coordinator Andy Avalos left for Oregon. The former Clemson graduate assistant was hired by Charlotte in February. Charlotte coach Will Healy encouraged him to pursue the opportunity, Alley said.
“One of my earliest memories of football was sitting in bed with my parents watching the Statue of Liberty (in Boise State’s 2007 Fiesta Bowl win),” he said. “... I’m really fired up to be here.”
Defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding is the other coach making his debut.
‘THE BEST AWARD’
Offensive guard John Molchon, safety Kekoa Nawahine and defensive tackle David Moa were voted captains by their teammates.
For Moa, it was an emotional moment, particularly given that he’s a sixth-year senior and he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace in September 2017.
“Be a leader on and off the field,” he said of his role as captain. “That’s something I want to do a better job of — especially a couple years ago, learning from all the mistakes I’ve ever done, teaching these young guys that this ain’t the path to go and telling them these are the guys you want to follow, the Kekoas of the team, the John Molchons, the Sonatane Luis. Eventually, if you keep listening, you’ll be on the field, too.”
Added Moa: “I think it’s the best award I’ve ever got — no, I don’t think, I know it’s the best award.”
The other captains’ reactions:
Molchon: “I’m so happy. It’s a blessing. I’m really excited to help the team as much as I can.”
Nawahine: “It means the world. ... It was a really humbling experience for me and it’s a pretty amazing feeling.”
BOISE STATE VS. FLORIDA STATE
When: 5 p.m. MT Saturday
Where: TIAA Bank Field (67,164, grass), Jacksonville, Florida
TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Greg McElroy, Tom Luginbill)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Boise State was 10-3 last year; Florida State was 5-7
Series: First meeting
Vegas line: Florida State by 5 1/2
Weather: Mid-80s, 10-20 mph wind, scattered thunderstorms