Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series previewing the Boise State football team by position. Coming Tuesday: Offensive line.
The Boise State football coaching staff used fall camp to test sophomore quarterback Ryan Finley’s mental toughness.
They put him in a variety of game situations, like the 2-minute drill he executed so well in the open fall scrimmage Friday night. They watched him lead one of the nation’s least experienced quarterback rooms. They toyed with him a bit, giving other quarterbacks snaps with the first team as recently as Saturday just to see if he’d get flustered.
Finley passed all those tests.
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And on Sunday, coach Bryan Harsin made official what most expected since Finley’s impressive showing in the Spring Game in April: Finley will start the Broncos’ season opener Sept. 4 against Washington.
“He’s been unbreakable,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Eliah Drinkwitz said.
And not just this month.
Finley has dealt with a constant stream of adversity since he stepped on campus in the summer of 2013.
He was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder two weeks into his first fall camp and needed surgery. Four months later, the head coach (Chris Petersen) and quarterbacks coach (Jonathan Smith) who recruited him left for Washington.
“That was adversity right from the get-go,” said Grant Hedrick, last year’s starting quarterback who is helping coach his dad’s high school team in Independence, Ore. “It was kind of a rough start for him. He just did a great job of earning the trust of the coaches and earning the respect of the teammates the way he battled through that shoulder injury and came out of that even stronger. It was really good for him and kind of toughened him up a little bit.”
Finley lost his offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (Mike Sanford) again this past offseason.
Finley added some self-inflicted adversity in April when he was arrested on misdemeanor alcohol and resisting charges. That case still is pending in the court system but Harsin has said Finley won’t be suspended.
“He’s been through some stuff, which is good,” Drinkwitz said. “I said in August when we started this thing, things never go how you plan. How you respond to adversity kind of defines who you are as a person. He’s handled himself well.”
Harsin and Finley attended the press conference Sunday but didn’t take questions.
Finley made a statement. He hasn’t been made available to the local media since August 2014, when he expressed his “love” for the Broncos’ offensive system.
“I just want to thank coach Harsin and coach Drinkwitz for this great opportunity,” said Finley, a former all-state quarterback at Paradise Valley High in Phoenix. “I just feel very grateful and blessed to be a part of this team, this family we have here. I’m just really excited, to be honest. I’m just excited to get the season going and I’m excited for Sept. 4.”
Coaches informed Finley that he had won the job after practice Saturday. They told the team Sunday morning, when they also hiked to Table Rock.
The decision allows Finley to take the majority of practice snaps as the Broncos begin preparing specifically for the Huskies.
“His reaction was very humble and grateful and thankful and very appreciative to coach Harsin for the opportunity he has given him and the way coach Harsin has been loyal to him through everything with his shoulder and all the scenarios,” Drinkwitz said.
Finley won the backup job in spring 2014, when he returned to the practice field before the strength had returned to his shoulder. He replaced Hedrick in the second half of the loss at Air Force, facing a 20-0 deficit, and threw a pair of touchdown passes.
For the season, Finley completed 12 of 27 passes for 161 yards with two TDs and one interception. He also gained 64 yards on rushing attempts, flashing underrated speed.
“He knew what was going on inside and out,” Hedrick said. “We would go in every day, just the two of us, and test each other on the board. He knew it just as well as I did. He was very capable of being the starter even last year if he had to be.”
Finley was 13-for-25 for 196 yards in the Spring Game in April, throwing for almost as many yards as the rest of the quarterbacks combined.
Drinkwitz noticed him separate from the other quarterbacks again in the first fall scrimmage, which was closed to the public and media. No stats were released.
Finley completed at least 60 percent of his passes in every fall practice but one, Drinkwitz said. Then in the open fall scrimmage Friday, Finley took every first-team snap and was an efficient 13-for-17 for 111 yards and a touchdown. He also scrambled for 7 yards to move the chains on fourth down.
“He’s a very accurate thrower,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s gotten better with his feel in the pocket and (he’s) a good decision-maker. ... In Friday’s scrimmage he made a lot of really, really good decisions in situational football.”
Finley (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) will be the tallest Boise State starting quarterback since B.J. Rhode in 2002. Finley grew up playing basketball, tennis and hockey — so he should maintain the running threat that was a key part of the offense last year with Hedrick.
Coaches avoided assigning any particular style to Finley.
“We’ve had some good ones before him,” Harsin said, “but that’s not what this is about. It’s about him playing his game and doing what he’s been doing, so we’re excited about where we are at this time and we know we have plenty of work to do.
“... What I told him is the reason why you came to Boise State was to come here and graduate with a degree and be the starting quarterback at Boise State. He’s going to have an opportunity to do that, and that’s exciting. This is a very special and unique opportunity that happens in sports to be in that position and the attention that it brings.”
The backup job also will create a stir, Harsin knows, because of true freshman Brett Rypien — the highest-touted quarterback recruit in school history.
Rypien, sophomore Tommy Stuart and redshirt freshman Alex Ogle will continue to compete for the No. 2 job, Harsin said. All will travel to away games, Drinkwitz said.
“Brett Rypien has done a very nice job and had a very good camp,” Harsin said. “From when he showed up to where he is now, I’ve seen a great amount of improvement from him. He prepares well. He has a great demeanor and is only getting better. He’s still a true freshman, will have to physically improve like every other true freshman has to.
“... Those guys are still competing and that needs to be a constant competition. Between those three, they all need to prepare like they are the starter.”
Said Drinkwitz: “We were very impressed by the other guys and the way they handled business and we felt confident in those guys, too, but right now this is about Ryan. ... I believe in Ryan Finley.”