Boise State begins the third fall camp of the Bryan Harsin era Thursday morning with optimism after a strong finish last season, but also with question marks to be answered after what most players considered a disappointing season overall.
Sophomore quarterback Brett Rypien, when asked Wednesday what is pushing the Broncos this offseason, simply said, “9-4.”
Talent returns at the skill positions, but behind them, there are fresh-faced candidates vying for touches. On defense, the line loses nearly all of its heft, and the backs lose their veteran ballhawks.
Even in positions where the starter is on solid ground, there will be plenty of competition vying for the opportunity to step in when needed, which is a primary focus for Harsin this month.
“I’m not going to say it in a negative way, but our depth at all positions is one thing,” Harsin said. “We’re trying to create depth at all positions, and quality. Some have the depth, some have players. Then the quality has to come with it. Certainly working on that.”
Here is a look at some of the key storylines this fall:
DEFENSIVE LINE: SO MANY POSSIBILITIES, SO FEW KNOWNS
Seven of the 10 linemen who had at least 10 tackles last season are gone. In two of the vacated spots, seniors have the upper hand. Defensive end Sam McCaskill is a likely starter with 37 career games under his belt but was only a starter for one season (2014), and that was at tackle. Defensive tackle Elliot Hoyte has played in 31 games (one start).
STUDs Jabril Frazier and Gabe Perez have experience but will step into much larger roles after the loss of Kamalei Correa, now with the Baltimore Ravens. At nose tackle, sophomore David Moa had an excellent spring but has played in only five games, mostly in mop-up duty. The Broncos signed eight newcomers to replete their ranks.
“I think any time you bring in a big group of young guys, it’s kind of like starting over,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said. “It’s a huge challenge, but we have some older guys who have been around that I think can fit in and help those young guys come along, too.”
OFFENSE LOOKING FOR DEPTH
Senior receivers Thomas Sperbeck and Chaz Anderson and junior tight end Jake Roh are settled as top targets for Rypien, with junior running back Jeremy McNichols the workhose behind him.
After those four, no returning Bronco had more than 10 catches last season, and no one after McNichols had more than 30 carries.
Junior college transfer Cedrick Wilson could be an immediate contributor at receiver, and sophomores Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson had strong offseasons. Senior Devan Demas has a slight lead at the backup running back spot, but incoming freshmen Robert Mahone and Alexander Mattison will get opportunities to play right away.
“We’ll have true competition,” running backs coach Lee Marks said. “We’re going to have seven guys in fall camp. You know everyone’s going to bring it every day, and every day someone might surprise you. We know Jeremy’s going to be Jeremy, but we want to see what those other guys can do.”
NEW TWISTS IN THE COACHING STAFF
The Broncos have three new assistants in co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Zak Hill, cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose and safeties coach Gabe Franklin. Linebackers coach Andy Avalos has added defensive coordinator responsibilities, and offensive line coach Scott Huff is the co-OC with Hill.
In addition, Harsin will call plays this season. With the changes, each side of the ball will likely have a few new wrinkles. Hill said he’s still learning the offense, but at Eastern Washington, he oversaw a quick-strike passing game he’s already bringing to the table, helping Rypien get the ball out quicker on his throws.
“I think it’s a great thing,” Hill said. “We’ve got a great offensive staff. Coach Harsin obviously has a ton of offensive knowledge and quarterback knowledge, and we’re all going to do a great job of communicating. We’ve done that through spring and into the summer.”
FRESHMEN GETTING THEIR SHOT
In the first few weeks of the season, more than a half dozen true freshmen will likely see snaps. Caldwell expects to play three or four among his group, Ambrose said one or two is likely from his, and Marks could see one or both of his true freshmen play.
That could have been a rebuilding sign in the past, but Harsin said that’s no longer the case.
“I’ve kind of changed my tune on young guys playing,” he said. “Bring them in to play, and we’re going to find out if they can.”
The first three days of practice will be split between veterans and newcomers, a first for Harsin but a staple early in Chris Petersen’s tenure. Harsin estimates about 30 new players are on the roster, including walk-ons.
After building depth, he said his second area of concern is: “Who are going to become the special teams demons?” Ambrose told the freshmen that is where they can start to make a name for themselves, so that could be the entry point for a few new faces.
TIME SET FOR LOUISIANA OPENER
The Broncos’ game at Louisiana on Sept. 3 will start at 10 a.m. MT at Cajun Field in Lafayette, La., the Sun Belt announced Wednesday.
The game will air on the American Sports Network, and will be simulcast on ESPN3 and WatchESPN without blackout restrictions. A local television affiliate could pick up the game, but those details have not been announced.
Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @IDS_BroncoBeat
▪ Thursday: Practice begins (veterans in the morning, newcomers in the afternoon)
▪ Sunday: First full-team practice
▪ Tuesday: First of three two-a-day practices
▪ Saturday, Aug. 27: Fan Fest (details expected next week; team will hold two fall scrimmages prior, but both are closed to the public/media)
▪ Saturday, Sept. 3: Season opener at Louisiana, 10 a.m., American Sports Network and ESPN3 (more details on 3B)
▪ Saturday, Sept. 10: Home opener vs. Washington State, 8:15 p.m., ESPN2