Though the losses at the position were plentiful, what the Boise State linebackers bring this season could be one of the most dynamic looks the unit has provided in a long time.
Gone are three of the top four tacklers from last season’s defense, and a projected starter at middle linebacker, Joe Martarano, left the team in March to pursue a pro baseball career.
Senior Blake Whitlock is the top returning tackler with 36, and he joined the team last year as a walk-on.
“When you look at it, we lost every linebacker we had, really, that played very much,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said.
Yet there’s a confidence in the group, not just because of its potential, but because it is full of athletic options.
“We can give the offense a lot of different looks,” junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said.
It starts with the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Vander Esch, who takes over as the starter at the weakside spot after missing seven games last season. A former all-state basketball player at Salmon River High, he is expected to do big things, coaches and teammates say.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien said of him, “That guy is our best player.”
No pressure, Leighton.
“I’ve got a lot to prove,” Vander Esch said. “He can’t just say that and me not back it up.”
At middle linebacker will be sophomore Tyson Maeva, who at 6 feet tall and 214 pounds doesn’t seem like your typical middle backer, but has all the intangibles. Junior defensive end Durrant Miles said Maeva “is somebody that’s taken control, he’s great with his vocal command.”
Vander Esch called Maeva “super explosive.”
“He has that natural leverage. He might not be as tall as everybody, but the kid is extremely strong,” Vander Esch said. “You can count on him to do his job every single play.”
It’s the Broncos’ strongside position that provides the most versatile mix of players, perhaps at any single spot on the team. The projected starter is 6-foot-4 senior Gabe Perez, who was quite disruptive as standup end (STUD) in 2013 and ’14 before injuries slowed him for two straight seasons.
Along with him, 5-11 redshirt freshman Desmond Williams is a playmaker with a nose for the ball, and 5-9 redshirt freshman Avery Williams has worked at the spot, along with playing cornerback. Harsin said he considers it the defense’s “weapon” position.
“You want guys that aren’t pigeonholed into doing the one same thing all the time,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
On the topic of versatility, the Broncos’ STUDs are best described as defensive end/linebacker hybrids, but their usage, along with whom they meet with during the week, has leaned toward the linebacker group recently. It gives the Broncos a flexibility to use both three-man and four-man fronts.
Junior Jabril Frazier could combine with Perez and the Williamses to create some havoc. He had four sacks in the first five games last season before three different injuries conspired to prevent him from having any more the rest of the way.
“He’s a major force on the edge,” Harsin said.
Along with Frazier, sophomore Sam Whitney is the sort of “blue collar” type that the team loves. Redshirt freshman Curtis Weaver has dropped about 40 pounds since last year, moving from tackle to the hybrid spot.
Expect Whitlock to see some time at the weakside spot, giving Vander Esch a rest, and a gaggle of new faces should vie for time, including junior college transfer Joseph Inda, redshirt freshman Benton Wickersham, and true freshmen Riley Whimpey and Breydon Boyd.
It has not always been smooth with so many linebackers and STUDs in new roles or shaking off some rust, but there are plenty of guys willing to fill the vacancies.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that have been rotating through, getting in there,” Avalos said. “... You put out one fire, here comes another. If we can keep adding on, we’ll be what we need to be here in a couple weeks.”
NOTE: This is the second in our position previews for the Boise State football team. Next up: defensive line. Previously: defensive backs.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
38 Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 240, Jr.: Primed for a starring role after missing 7 games in 2016; had 15 tackles, INT last two games
36 Blake Whitlock, 6-1, 222, Sr.: Joined team as a walk-on last summer, made five starts at strongside, had 36 tackles
58 Tyson Maeva, 6-0, 214, So.: Played larger role as season progressed as true freshman; fits position well with speed, confidence
25 Benton Wickersham, 6-2, 231, Fr.: Joined team as a walk-on in the spring, had offer from Hawaii before injuries
33 Gabe Perez, 6-4, 246, Sr.: Has played in five games past two seasons; size and ability are tantalizing as pass rusher
9 Desmond Williams, 5-11, 201, Fr.: Athletic with a nose for the ball, he could be used in multiple situations to make plays
STUD (stand-up end)
8 Jabril Frazier, 6-4, 243, Jr.: Excellent pass rusher, was poised for monster year, but three injuries slowed him down; missed spring
53 Sam Whitney, 6-2, 231, So.: Played in just five games last season with injuries; tenacious, hard worker who will find a role