Boise State Football

Boise State football’s next defensive star could be the winner of nickel competition

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series previewing the Boise State football team by position. For more on the defensive backs, visit IdahoStatesman.com/BroncoBeat . Coming Monday: Quarterbacks.

Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates helped turn nickel into one of the highest-profile positions on the football team during his six-year run as the defensive backs coach.

While he was away for two years, the position lost its big-play identity.

Now that he’s back, and in charge of the entire defense, Yates is determined to restore the nickel.

“That spot is the key to our defense because that’s a guy who can help us out in the run and on the pass,” said Yates, who coaches the safeties and nickels. “Whoever is going to win that race has to do it all.”

The contenders are junior Chanceller James, a former safety, and senior Mercy Maston, a former cornerback. Both are coming off of major injuries last season and have started before.

In classic nickel style, both were in the middle of the action Friday night in the Broncos’ scrimmage. James intercepted a tipped lateral, and Maston just missed what probably would have been a pick-six.

“It seemed like they were at the point of attack a lot tonight,” coach Bryan Harsin said. “I don’t know how many plays were made by them, but they were around it and either making a guy have to make a move and the other guys rallied to the ball or they seemed to be there.”

The nickel is a safety/linebacker hybrid, a player who can stay on the field for every down instead of coaches rotating a linebacker and defensive back depending on the offensive personnel. He’ll blitz, cover man to man, cover in zones and move up to stuff the run.

The Broncos switched to the full-time nickel in 2008, and previously anonymous Ellis Powers was named All-WAC first team (78 tackles, eight tackles for loss). Winston Venable replaced him and contributed two terrific seasons (63 tackles, eight for loss in 2009; 53 tackles, 9.5 for loss in 2010).

Coaches took a different approach in 2011 and often used defensive end Shea McClellin as the nickel. He made 50 tackles, including 12.5 for loss, and was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears because of his versatility.

But in 2012-13, the nickel wasn’t the same job. And in 2013, the Broncos removed that name. The position became strong-side linebacker.

When Yates returned last season, so did the nickel’s prominence. Tanner Vallejo moved from middle linebacker to nickel when the Broncos didn’t have enough defensive backs and finished with a team-high 100 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss, the most by a Boise State linebacker in the FBS era.

As productive as Vallejo was, his presence at nickel limited what Yates could call because the linebacker couldn’t cover like a defensive back. Vallejo returned to middle linebacker this year, opening the door for James and Maston.

Maston, who redshirted last year with a leg injury, knows the history.

“There’s a possibility that I could leave a legacy here,” he said. “That’s what I like about it.”

For Maston, the adjustment to nickel has entailed learning the game from a different perspective. Cornerbacks rarely defend the run and don’t need to know what the defensive line and linebackers are doing.

“I’m getting stronger at that position, and I feel like I can make an impact at that position,” Maston said.

James fits the Powers/Venable mold the best because of his aggressive style of play. But coverage could be tricky at his size (6-foot-2, 216 pounds).

James’ greatest asset is his football intelligence.

“Chanceller James is one of the smartest football players I’ve ever been around,” Yates said. “... He’s always in somebody’s office. He’s a guy who’s just thirsty to learn, and if he does something wrong, he wants to get it right.”

James and Maston could be a productive pairing at nickel because both are capable of playing in any situation, yet coaches could rotate them based on the best matchups for their particular skill sets. They’re backed by senior Darian Thompson, an All-Mountain West player, at free safety; and sophomore Dylan Sumner-Gardner, a former top-100 recruit, at strong safety.

The safeties/nickels group, decimated by injuries last year, should be one of the team’s greatest strengths this year.

“The safeties are go-getters,” junior cornerback Jonathan Moxey said. “That’s what we aspire to be as a secondary group.”

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