The guys who will shoulder a bulk of the Boise State offense seem to be in place — but they’ll need others to step up to lessen the burden.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien and senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson are team captains who will provide big plays in the passing game. Sophomore running back Alexander Mattison appears ready to become the latest in a long line of Bronco stars at the position.
But there are a lot of catches to be made, blocks to be set and yards to be gained on the ground with the top rusher, top receiver and three linemen departed.
“I think it’s exciting. There are guys you kind of know what to expect, but there’s a lot of chances for other ones to step up. You can tell they’re hungry,” Rypien said.
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Added to the mix of what’s new is a different look to the offensive staff, as Zak Hill takes over as offensive coordinator and play-caller. He shared OC duties last season with Scott Huff, who left for Washington. In Huff’s place, the Broncos hired Brad Bedell as offensive line coach, and Eric Kiesau was hired to be receivers coach after Junior Adams left for Western Kentucky.
Hill will coach quarterbacks, which he also did last season. Bedell worked under coach Bryan Harsin at Arkansas State in 2013, and Kiesau was on staff with some of Boise State’s coaches at Colorado from 2006 to 2010.
“Very fortunate with the staff we’ve got, the new guys have brought a ton,” Hill said. “... We love being around each other, and that goes a long way.”
As far as what Hill’s offense may look like as he takes the play-calling reins from Harsin, he said the Boise State offense that has been so successful won’t change much. Still, he’ll bring some concepts from his former spot, pass-happy Eastern Washington. He also said he wants “more of that downhill run game ... and (we’re) trying to be explosive with our pass game.”
Rypien, the first-team All-Mountain West quarterback, is vital to maintaining stability. He hopes to improve the Broncos’ 33.8 points per game, a dip of 5.3 ppg from 2015 and the second-lowest in a Boise State season since 1998.
Names like junior receivers Sean Modster, A.J. Richardson and Akilian Butler, redshirt freshman offensive tackle Ezra Cleveland, senior running back Ryan Wolpin and redshirt freshman tight end John Bates may not be as well-known as Rypien, but their improvements are vital.
“ It’s patience, really, you’ve got to wait your turn, but it’s time to step up, not just for me, but everybody,” Richardson said.
An X-factor that could prove a big boost for the offense is the group that includes some of the team’s most versatile guys.
The tight ends, who run five-deep, had just 29 catches last season combined because of inexperience and injuries. Hill said he wants to utilize more shifts and motions — a hallmark of the tight ends — and wants to improve in the red zone. Surely, they can help.
“We’re taking a big role in the offense, and hopefully we can make some plays,” senior tight end Alec Dhaenens said. “I think it’s a group that can show our stuff and help win games.”
STAR PLAYER: WR CEDRICK WILSON, SENIOR
In his first season with the Broncos after transferring from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, the 6-foot-3 Wilson proved to be not just electric on the field, but a perfect fit off it.
Wilson contributed 56 receptions for 1,129 yards in 2016, both second on the team, and a team-best 11 touchdowns. He also had 10 punt returns, averaging 14.2 yards. He recently was named one of the Broncos’ three season-long captains.
“I have a big role to play this year, just leading,” Wilson said. “... I definitely can work hard to show them what it looks like and hold them accountable.”
As he becomes the Broncos’ go-to receiver, Wilson has been one of the team’s standouts in fall camp.
“He’s one of those guys that makes unbelievable plays at any time. He’s made a few catches that were eye-popping, even for us,” offensive coordinator Zak Hill said.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: OT EZRA CLEVELAND, REDSHIRT FRESHMAN
It isn’t common for an offensive lineman to earn Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year, but Cleveland’s potential is unusual.
Cleveland hasn’t played in a game for the Broncos, but he was good enough to be listed as the starting left tackle on the team’s pre-fall camp depth chart. Senior Archie Lewis started all 13 games last year at left tackle but moves to the right side.
“Ezra’s an animal, he’s going to be really good,” sophomore STUD end Sam Whitney said.
Stoic and even-keeled off the field, Cleveland visited Boise State as a potential defensive lineman before the staff saw a potentially dominant blocker. Coach Brad Bedell said he is trying to add some pressure in practice, to prepare the freshman for game situations. But Cleveland (6-foot-6, 296 pounds) isn’t easily flappable.
“I try to really block all that stuff, listen to the coaches, keep my head down,” Cleveland said. “I’ve always been a quiet guy. ... When I do speak up, the O-line kind of makes fun of my voice. I’m kind of monotone.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS ON OFFENSE
1. Red-zone redemption: Boise State scored on 84.6 percent of its red-zone trips, tied for 60th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. When the Broncos were stopped by a smaller Air Force team on four downs inside the 5-yard line late in the regular-season finale, this shortcoming was put into focus.
With the offensive line trying to impose its will to help create a downhill running game, a strong back in Alexander Mattison and expanded receiving options, the Broncos hope last season’s scoring (second-lowest since 1998) is an anomaly.
“The red-zone efficiency is something we’ve been talking about for a while now, finishing drives when we need to,” junior quarterback Brett Rypien said.
2. Spread the wealth: Four players had 80.2 percent of the receptions last season, and three of them are gone. The receivers who some thought might step up in 2016 must in 2017 — as well as a couple of newcomers. The contributors could include juniors Sean Modster, A.J. Richardson and Akilian Butler, sophomore Bryan Jefferson and true freshmen Octavius Evans and CT Thomas.
Factor in a deep tight end group, and this could be like days of old when opponents have to pick their poison when figuring out who to focus on in the pass game.
“If you have one receiver and they press him ... you’ve got to get it to the other guys, that’s the point of developing a group, even our tight ends, so they can’t just focus on (Cedrick Wilson),” receivers coach Eric Kiesau said.
3. Rypien rising: In a handful of aspects, Rypien improved as a sophomore, from his interception-to-attempt ratio to his yards per completion and pass efficiency. His completion percentage dipped slightly, and when he turned the ball over, the result often was a close game or loss.
If he can take a leap forward in his third year on the field, as many Boise State quarterbacks have done before him, and find chemistry with new targets, the offense should be potent.
“I want to be a more complete player, be able to extend plays, be the guy where everyone knows what they’re going to get week in, week out,” Rypien said.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
4 Brett Rypien, 6-2, 208, Jr.
3 Montell Cozart, 6-1, 205, Sr.
22 Alexander Mattison, 5-11, 214, So.
21 Ryan Wolpin, 5-8, 195, Sr.
WIDE RECEIVER (X)
1 Cedrick Wilson, 6-3, 188, Sr.
9 Bryan Jefferson, 5-11, 193, So.
WIDE RECEIVER (H)
7 A.J. Richardson, 6-0, 209, Jr.
6 CT Thomas, 5-8, 152, Fr.
WIDE RECEIVER (Z)
8 Sean Modster, 5-11, 196, Jr.
81 Akilian Butler, 5-10, 193, Jr.
88 Jake Roh, 6-3, 227, Sr.
87 Alec Dhaenens, 6-3, 246, Sr.
76 Ezra Cleveland, 6-6, 296, RFr.
66 Isiah Moore, 6-4, 275, Jr.
67 Garrett Larson, 6-4, 295, So.
52 Andrew Tercek, 6-1, 278, Sr.
59 Mason Hampton, 6-3, 295, Sr.
71 Donte Harrington, 6-2, 298, RFr.
77 John Molchon, 6-5, 313, So.
79 Eric Quevedo, 6-4, 304, So.
74 Archie Lewis, 6-3, 299, Sr.
78 Andres Preciado, 6-6, 292, Jr.
46 Joel Velazquez, 6-0, 228, RFr.
41 Haden Hoggarth, 6-0, 198, Jr.
27 Reid Harrison-Ducros, 5-10, 180, So.
1 Cedrick Wilson, 6-3, 188, Sr.
26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 194, RFr.