There is extra attitude in the Boise State linebackers’ room. It comes from being one of the most experienced units on the team, and simply, the group is loaded with competitive, tough players.
The Broncos feel they can easily go two-deep at all three spots, anchored by senior starters Ben Weaver and Tanner Vallejo, and experienced middle linebackers Joe Martarano and Darren Lee.
“That group, when you walk by, they’re 10 minutes early, they’re focused, they’re dialed in,” coach Bryan Harsin said.
Borne out of competition with each other, the linebackers feel they are the standard bearer for this season’s defense.
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“The expectation, I think, is at a different level,” Weaver said.
Weaver, one of four captains, often speaks of accountability and trust, being able to communicate with one another and play as a group. He said after being suspended for last year’s Poinsettia Bowl, Vallejo has more than made up for it with his offseason effort. In that meeting room, the veterans sometimes have a freshman draw a play on the white board. Get it wrong, and it’s pushups.
“It’s a mentality, and it shows up when you have your 50-minute position meeting, to your 2-hour practice, to 10 minutes after practice when they’re out there hitting the sled by themselves,” Harsin said. “I just think they have this drive to really want to improve. Those guys love it, and that’s contagious. You’re really only going to do it one way. If not, you will stand out, and they’ll make sure you stand out.”
Though the group lost unheralded playmaker Tyler Gray, the rest return, with Weaver tops among all returning defensive players with 68 tackles and three interceptions last season. Hampered by an ankle injury, Vallejo still had eight tackles for loss while moving between nickel and middle linebacker.
He’s slated to play on the outside this season at strongside linebacker, a position similar to the nickel. When he was there full-time as a sophomore, he had 100 tackles (16.5 for loss) and scored two touchdowns off turnovers. There will be times he could play inside, and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said he could even have played some safety last season. Avalos said recently, “he’s been extremly impressive.”
“I’m going to be the ultimate team player,” Vallejo said.
Part of what has allowed the Broncos to keep Vallejo in that spot is the emergence of Martarano, who had 53 tackles and an interception, making four starts last season. He’s been pushed by Lee, a special teams ace who has gradually earned more snaps on defense.
“The competition’s there. That’s what brings out the best in us, but at this point, it’s almost a group effort to improve the whole unit,” Lee said.
Two newer names who will play roles in the rotation are junior Blake Whitlock and sophomore Leighton Vander Esch.
Both have underdog tales. Whitlock, a walk-on who joined the team this summer, was put on scholarship this week. Vander Esch is also a former walk-on who played 8-man football at Salmon River High in Riggins.
Linebackers depth chart (projected)
- WLB Ben Weaver, 6-0, 222, RSr.: A true leader, he has 30 starts and 219 tackles; had three interceptions last season
- MLB Joe Martarano, 6-3, 238, RJr.: Fruitland grad got better as year went on; opted not to play minor-league baseball this summer
- SLB Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 223, RSr.: Big-time playmaker slated to play in spot where he’s thrived; 208 career tackles (30 TFLs)
- WLB Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 236, RSo.: Super athletic, could be in role that will allow him to make a lot of plays
- MLB Darren Lee, 6-1, 228, Sr.: Strong special teamer has steadily improved defensively; career-best 20 tackles, sack in 2015
- SLB Blake Whitlock, 6-1, 208, Jr.: JC transfer earned scholarship this week; had 59 tackles, three sacks in 2015 at Saddleback College