When fall camp opened in 2014, Boise State football player Chaz Anderson moved from cornerback to wide receiver. He ended the season with a touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl.
Defensive end Kamalei Correa was coming off a disappointing spring and fighting for a job in last year’s camp. He ended the season with a Fiesta Bowl-clinching tackle and the Mountain West sacks lead.
The Broncos will search for similar success stories beginning Thursday, the first day of fall camp in 2015. The team returns 18 starters but still needs to fill vacancies at quarterback and tailback and develop depth at wide receiver and defensive back before Washington invades Albertsons Stadium on Sept. 4.
“Potential doesn’t win games; performance does,” offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz said. “There’s a lot of potential, but we’ve got to see these guys perform. That’s why you have fall camp. If you didn’t have to see guys perform and work through all these things, we’d schedule our first game for next Friday.”
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1. Can Finley be caught?
Sophomore Ryan Finley, the backup last year, opened a “big gap” in the quarterback derby during spring ball, coach Bryan Harsin said. He has the deepest understanding of the offense and the only game experience at this level.
Sophomore Tommy Stuart, redshirt freshman Alex Ogle and true freshman Brett Rypien will chase him. The challenger with the most upside is Rypien, who impressed when he arrived in January but must overcome his youth and inexperience.
The first two or three days of camp will be critical, Harsin said. That’s when coaches learn how much the players progressed working on their own.
“When you’re training that position, you’re going to put them in a lot of different scenarios,” Harsin said. “... Fall camp is where it’s all going to have to happen.”
2. The playmaker search
The Broncos return four players who made at least 20 catches last season. All other returners combined for 28.
They don’t return a player who rushed more than 25 times.
Sophomore Jeremy McNichols, senior transfer Kelsey Young, redshirt freshman Cory Young, junior Devan Demas and senior Jack Fields will compete at tailback.
Junior Rick Smith, sophomore D.J. Dean, redshirt freshman A.J. Richardson and junior college transfer Austin Cottrell need to provide depth behind the returning trio of starters.
And redshirt freshmen Chase Blakley and David Lucero add some new blood to an already impressive group of tight ends.
Who will provide an Anderson-like impact?
And who will languish on the depth chart?
“We’re not going to know until we go out and play,” Harsin said. “We’re going to prepare the best we can but there’s no better way to go out there and find out what a guy can do until you get in game situations. ... We’re in year two (as a coaching staff). We’re growing. We’re developing. We have plenty of new faces.”
3. The cornerback conundrum
The Broncos went through spring ball with three scholarship cornerbacks — returning starters Donte Deayon and Jonathan Moxey and junior college transfer Raymond Ford.
Three true freshman cornerbacks — Ladarryl Blair, Donzale Roddie and Tyler Horton — will have a chance to join the rotation.
Creating depth at cornerback could be one of the keys to the season.
“To me, when you have a great defense, you’re not worried about corner,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said.
4. Next man up: Drinkwitz
Drinkwitz becomes the fourth coordinator to run the Broncos’ offense in the five years since Harsin left the job at the end of the 2010 season.
He feels the strain of a position that comes with high expectations.
“There’s a standard of play that Boise State offenses have had for a long time,” Drinkwitz said. “You’ve got to meet that standard. There’s pressure to get that done.”
He was a coordinator under Harsin at Arkansas State in 2013 and, as Drinkwitz is quick to note, at Springdale (Ark.) High.
Drinkwitz endured some critical “self-reflection” after spring ball and says he needs to correct some mistakes and hone his teaching of the quarterbacks.
“The good thing is this isn’t the first time coach Harsin and I have worked together,” he said. “There is a familiarity. We’re on the same page in a lot of things and anticipate what the other person is thinking.”
5. O-line shuffle
The Broncos return their five starting offensive linemen but already are dealing with injury issues that could test their depth. Center Marcus Henry will be sidelined for the first part of fall camp and backup left tackle Eli McCullough’s career has ended for medical reasons.
That leaves one experienced backup — sophomore tackle Archie Lewis. Senior Jerhen Ertel needs to step up, Harsin said, and starting guard Mario Yakoo might play some tackle.
But if the top six are healthy, they likely will take all the competitive snaps.
“If everyone shows up with edge, it will be really hard for that (top group) to change,” senior left tackle Rees Odhiambo said.
The Broncos return nine starters — all but a dual-threat quarterback who dazzled the last two-thirds of last season and a tailback who tried to take every snap on his way to the NFL. There’s terrific continuity mixed with troubling uncertainty at the two most productive positions on the field.
The group must build an identity in camp, Drinkwitz said, around the program’s core offensive principles: control the tempo, run downhill with physicality and stretch the field with a vertical passing game.
“And at the end of the day, execute,” Drinkwitz said. “If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The return of eight starters, including the top five tacklers and two players who combined for 35.5 tackles for loss (linebacker Tanner Vallejo and Correa), has fueled great expectations.
The line should be loaded with the addition of three seniors who were hurt or ineligible last season. But questionable depth in the secondary and a tendency to allow big plays last season provides at least a little cause for concern.
The Broncos allowed at least 30 points five times last year.
“We need to start off by doing the little things right,” second-year coordinator Marcel Yates said. “To me, the main thing is not giving up explosive plays.”
Special teams outlook
Punter Sean Wale and long snapper Kevin Keane return and kicker Tyler Rausa steps into the starting job. Stability among the specialists, though, hides some work that must be done.
The Broncos ranked 32nd in punt returns, 50th in net punting, 114th in kickoff returns and 54th in kickoff-return defense last season — poor numbers for a program that became a Top 25 regular in part with some of the best special teams play in the country.
“We just want to be a better special teams football team overall,” Harsin said. “We talked about that quite a bit. We’ve got to figure out personnel — who are the best people on those units to go out there and play? The fun part about it is figuring out who those guys are going to be.”
• Offense (9): WR Shane Williams-Rhodes (sr.), WR Thomas Sperbeck (jr.), WR Chaz Anderson (jr.), TE Jake Roh (so.), LT Rees Odhiambo (sr.), LG Travis Averill (jr.), C Marcus Henry (sr.), RG Mario Yakoo (jr.), RT Steven Baggett (jr.)
• Defense (8): DE Kamalei Correa (jr.), DT Sam McCaskill (jr.), DT Armand Nance (sr.), LB Tanner Vallejo (jr.), LB Ben Weaver (jr.), CB Donte Deayon (sr.), CB Jonathan Moxey (jr.), S Darian Thompson (sr.)
• Specialists (1): P Sean Wale (jr.); also, long snapper Kevin Keane (sr.)
NEWS AND NOTES
• Sophomore offensive tackle Eli McCullough’s career has ended for medical reasons, Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin said without providing details. McCullough, a former Rocky Mountain High star,was a promising tackle for the Broncos
. He made his only career start last year at Air Force. McCullough took first-team reps at left tackle in the spring because starter Rees Odhiambo was in class and recovering from an injury.
• Senior center Marcus Henry and senior defensive tackle Armand Nance, who are returning starters, won’t begin fall camp for medical reasons but will be back before camp ends, Harsin said. Henry was a late scratch from Mountain West media days last week.
• Defensive lineman Sam Whitney, originally slated to grayshirt, will join the team for fall camp because of McCullough’s departure.
• Former Boise State defensive end Sam Ukwuachu faces a sexual assault trial Aug. 17 in Texas stemming from an incident that occurred shortly after he was dismissed from the Broncos program.
Ukwuachu was a Freshman All-American for the Broncos in 2012 but was dismissed from the team for an unspecified violation of team rules in the spring of 2013.
Ukwuachu started 12 games in 2012. He wasn’t on the sideline for the Spring Game in 2013 and coach Chris Petersen indicated Ukwuachu had “personal things he’s taking care of.” Ukwuachu returned to the program before the end of the semester but his dismissal was announced May 7, 2013.
Ukwuachu transferred to Baylor but hasn’t played since he arrived in the fall of 2013. The school had indicated he would play this fall.
The Waco Tribune story says the alleged incident with a Baylor student happened Oct. 20. Ukwuachu wasn’t until the summer of 2014.
“We are looking forward to the trial,” Ukwuachu’s attorney, Jonathan Sibley, told the newspaper. “Sam passed a polygraph exam, he’s been cleared by Baylor and has graduated and is 100 percent innocent of these charges against him. He has done everything a man can do to clear his name and he is looking forward to the trial so he can finally do that.”
The story says prosecutors have subpoenaed a Boise police officer, an assistant athletic director, Ukwuachu’s former roommate and a woman with whom he had a relationship in Boise. Records obtained from Boise State in the case detail a dispute between Ukwuachu and a woman that left him with a cut on his arm and prompted a police investigation.
BOISE STATE’S KEY DATES
• Thursday: First practice
• Monday: First practice in full pads
• Tuesday: First two-a-day
• Aug. 13: Closed scrimmage
• Aug. 21: Open scrimmage (6:30 p.m., free)
• Aug. 24: First day of school
• Sept. 4: Season opener vs. Washington, 8:15 p.m. (ESPN)