Cornerbacks handled challenges, got turnovers in spring says coach Ashley Ambrose
Boise State’s defense was solid last season, allowing the second-fewest points per game in the Mountain West, but yes, the turnovers were few and far between.
The nine takeaways the Broncos had in 2016 were the fewest in school history, and the fewest by a Football Bowl Subdivision school with a winning record in the last 20 years. It was a focus in the spring, which concluded with Saturday’s spring game, and it almost is a guarantee more will come in 2017.
“We’re going to try to double, triple that this year,” senior linebacker Blake Whitlock said.
The Broncos used the spring to foster an attitude of aggressiveness, a focus we highlighted March 24.
“This year we want to be more on the attack,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
Special teams struggled last season, especially in the first half of the year, another aspect the team worked on plenty this spring.
After recapping the offense's spring Tuesday, we’ll take a look at the defense and special teams today.
Junior defensive tackle David Moa will anchor the group this fall, coming off a big sophomore campaign in which he had 8.5 sacks to lead the team. Now with two 300-pound sophomores in Sonatane Lui and Emmanuel Fesili, that duo is competing at nose, allowing Moa to move over a spot, off the guard instead of the center, which should let him be even more disruptive.
“I think it’s huge that we can move him to (DT) ... able to get those guys on the field that are true nose guards,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said.
At end, junior Durrant Miles appears the likely leader to replace Sam McCaskill, and his high-energy approach and size make it a solid fit. Junior STUD end Jabril Frazier missed the spring after multiple surgeries following last season, but likely will still be the No. 1 in the fall.
Caldwell said “we feel like we’re getting back to that depth we had a couple years ago,” but the expected top four seems set. However, the likes of Fesili, end Chase Hatada, tackle Daniel Auelua and STUDs Curtis Weaver and Sam Whitney should enable a solid rotation. Whitney took a majority of the first-team reps in Frazier's place, and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said “he’s had a really, really good spring.”
“He goes hard all the time, he doesn’t need somebody out there cheering him on,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “... he’s motivated. If something bad’s happening, other guys are down and we’re having an average day, he’s not having an average day. He doesn’t have that.
“He’s got a purpose about him every day we’re around him, in the weight room, the film room, on the field. Give us 110 of those guys that have that same purpose every day. If you have that, you’re going to go out there and dominate.”
Defensive line coach Steve Caldwell: “We’re trying to create depth, obviously, to be a lot better than we were last year, and I see that, it’s progressing slowly. There’s so many young guys out there, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Sophomore defensive end Chase Hatada: “I think coach Caldwell was getting stressed out, playing the starters 80 snaps a game. That takes a toll. That’s the focus, creating depth, and I think we’re doing a good job.”
Senior Joe Martarano, the expected starter in the middle, left the team after the first spring practice to pursue baseball. It’s a big loss, but sophomore Tyson Maeva should move into the role after playing in 12 games last season as a true freshman.
“Tyson’s been doing a hell of a job out there, he finished the end of last season as one of our best inside linebackers, and he’s been rolling along with that this spring,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
At strongside, redshirt freshman Desmond Williams, last season’s Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year, earned plenty of first-team snaps. At 5-foot-11, 203 pounds, he isn’t ideally sized, but he is quick and athletic.
Junior Leighton Vander Esch is poised for what could be a monster year after missing seven games last season. At 6-4, 242 pounds, he's big enough to be a tackling machine, and his position will allow him to work in space to make plenty of plays.
Depth became more of an issue with Martarano’s departure, but senior Blake Whitlock is a versatile option who had 36 tackles last season. Senior Gabe Perez could play STUD or strongside linebacker. Incoming junior college signee Joseph Inda and incoming freshman Breydon Boyd could contribute right away in the middle, too.
Senior linebacker Blake Whitlock: “Losing those guys (Martarano, Tanner Vallejo, Ben Weaver, Darren Lee), it’s sad ... but moving forward, we’re real young, there’s no getting around that, we’ve got a lot of guys that really want to work hard and find their way, help us win.”
Junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: “We’ve got young guys that are hungry, that’s the thing, we’ve got young guys that want to get out there and play, they’re all competing for a spot. ... I’ve got to set the bar and try to set it higher.”
A group that had some big question marks, it seems to have found an answer in one of the team’s new additions. Junior college transfer Mike Young enrolled in January, and quickly established himself as the top boundary cornerback. Coach Bryan Harsin said after Saturday’s spring game, “Mike’s a guy that’s gonna really help us.”
“Mike has done a great job, he’s a big, fast, strong, physical guy,” cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose said. “... he presents a challenge for guys that try to go one-on-one on the backside.”
Opposite the 6-foot, 209-pound Young is junior Tyler Horton, a starter in all 13 games last season who had an interception and broke up nine passes. Horton's maturity has allowed him to be a defensive leader and a reliable presence on the field side.
Sophomore Reid Harrison-Ducros played as a true freshman last season, and Ambrose said he led the team in the spring with “six or seven” interceptions. Redshirt freshman Avery Williams had an interception in the spring game and also can play the nickel, serving as a fifth defensive back that can be used in multiple ways.
Cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose: “The guys stepped up, really competed. Got our hands on a lot of balls, able to catch a lot of interceptions, cause a bunch of turnovers.”
Junior cornerback Tyler Horton: “It’s a big challenge, but I’m ready to take it. ... I have confidence in (the young players).”
One of the deepest groups on the team, the Broncos could be able to go three-deep in fall camp, but the top two coming out of spring appear to be sophomores Kekoa Nawahine and DeAndre Pierce.
Nawahine (6-2, 200) has a prototype build, and come on strong late last season, carrying into the spring. He had 15 of his 21 total tackles in the last four games with two pass breakups. Pierce (5-11, 168) is undersized, but has a high football IQ. He played cornerback, nickel and safety last year, but safety is where he has played most of his life.
“Our young safeties are ball hawks now,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said. “... We haven’t seen a lot of that.”
Senior Cam Hartsfield made nine starts last season, and sophomore Evan Tyler started the first three games last season before a knee injury ended his year. Jordan Happle impressed while redshirting in 2016. Harsin said part of what has enabled a more aggressive approach on the defense is because of the trust the team has in the back end.
“They’ve made a huge jump this spring,” Avalos said of the safeties.
Safeties coach Gabe Franklin: “ A couple guys have played a few games for us, right now, trying to get better, sharpen our tools.”
Sophomore safety Kekoa Nawahine: “We’ve got a lot of good guys, we all want to play, so we’re pushing each other ... we all want that position.”
It was brutal plenty of times for the Broncos. There was Akilian Butler muffing three punts and calling two fair catches inside the 5, a game-changing blocked punt at Air Force, allowing Colorado State to recover back-to-back onside kicks, allowing a 100-yard kickoff return at Oregon State, and going 9-of-13 on field goals all season.
“We’ve really focused on fundamentals and really attacking the drills,” special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “... from day 1 to now, our kickers and snappers have gotten better. That’s been a huge factor, so that’s obviously a concern since we’re breaking in new guys in all areas.”
But there were bright spots, namely when Cedrick Wilson began to return punts. He averaged 13.2 yards per return on 10 attempts. Though he was out for the first three weeks of spring and limited the last week, he should fill the role again this fall. He had a 73-yard return last season, but he didn’t score.
“Hopefully I can actually get in the end zone and not get tripped up by a punter again,” Wilson said.
Punter Sean Wale, who had a brilliant season, departed, and redshirt freshman Joel Velazquez could fill that role and as placekicker. The 6-foot, 220-pounder averaged 39.4 yards per punt as a high school senior and was 6-of-9 on field goals. He was 2-for-4 on field goals in the spring game, making them from 26 and 49, while missing from 52 and 41. Junior college transfers Brandon Heicklen and Haden Hoggarth were brought in as walk-on competition at punter and kicker, respectively.
“It would be a cool feeling to be able to do both, it would be kind of unique,” Velazquez said.
Coach Bryan Harsin: “Primarily in special teams, I really think we’re doing some good things there, that’s just been an area I’ve focused on this spring ... that’s an area I think has been pretty good so far.”