Gone are six of Boise State’s top seven tacklers from last season, as are players who had five of the defense’s seven interceptions.
But it’s not inconceivable for the Broncos to improve in 2017.
Coming off a year in which they forced a school record-low nine turnovers, they are chock full of lightly experienced options, yet ones that have a nose for the ball.
“We had a lot of opportunities, and we missed out on them,” cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose said. “We have to take advantage of those. We were a whole lot better in the offseason. We have a lot of guys that aren’t afraid to make plays now.”
To help facilitate creating more of those chances, the Broncos made it an emphasis since the start of the calendar year to be more proactive.
With trust in Ambrose’s group, defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said he wants to bring pressure from more places in a wider variety of looks.
“Just constantly put strain on the offense,” Avalos said. “... This year we want to be more on the attack.”
Aiding in that quest are some new additions and position shifts to take advantage of the unit’s athleticism. Junior David Moa shifts from nose tackle to defensive tackle, which will allow him more freedom of movement after leading the team in sacks in 2016.
Though he has yet to start a game, junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is big and athletic, poised for a huge breakout year. Quarterback Brett Rypien said “that guy is our best player.”
Sophomore middle linebacker Tyson Maeva is described as “super explosive,” quicker than your usual man in the middle. Sophomore safety DeAndre Pierce moves from cornerback, while redshirt freshmen Desmond Williams and Avery Williams will be flexible options as outside linebackers/nickels.
“Everybody here has something to prove,” junior cornerback Tyler Horton said. “Everyone’s saying we’re young and things like that. Those guys, the way they’re flying around, you wouldn’t even notice it. I feel like it’s going to be a big jump.”
It wasn’t like the defensive scheme needed much of an overhaul — the Broncos were 29th nationally in scoring defense (23.3 points per game). But they feel the flexibility in the defense will allow it to handle the wide variety of offenses on the schedule, from pass-heavy Washington State to pro-style Wyoming to the triple option of Air Force.
“That’s where the game is going,” Avalos said. “... I think the guys are having fun with it.
“You want guys that aren’t pigeon-holed into doing the one same thing all the time.”
It is tough to know exactly what to expect from the defense (only four seniors were on the pre-fall camp depth chart), but the Broncos are often the sort to reload, instead of rebuild. And with new pieces, the defense could bring a few more big cheers this fall.
“We’re Boise State,” Vander Esch said. “We’re always going to have an answer for something.”
STAR PLAYER: DT DAVID MOA, JUNIOR
There was good reason why teammates and coaches raved about Moa last offseason despite having just five games of experience under his belt.
Playing as an undersized nose tackle at 262 pounds, he still managed to start all 13 games and lead the team with 8.5 sacks, adding four passes batted down and a blocked field goal.
“David’s leadership on the field is big for us. He brings energy to it because he does make plays, we do rely on him a lot,” defensive line coach Steve Caldwell said. “He helps get everybody set and kind of motivates them.”
Moa, now listed at 271 pounds, moves over to a new spot this season after 300-pounders Sonatane Lui and Emmanuel Fesili emerged at nose tackle. The defensive tackle spot, where he played his first two years on campus, allows Moa to line up between the offensive guard and tackle instead of over the center.
“It gives me a lot more options to use my speed in pass rush, things like that,” Moa said. “At the end of the day, it makes our defense better.
“I love how everything’s going.”
BREAKOUT PLAYER: CB/LB AVERY WILLIAMS, R-FR.
A lot of schools are going to regret missing out on the 5-foot-9, 194-pound native of Pasadena, Calif. A two-way threat in high school, Boise State used him as a cornerback, nickel, running back and punt returner in the spring.
Williams showed a nose for the ball on defense and was put on scholarship the first day of fall camp. Expect him to play cornerback against multiple receiver sets while also serving as a nickel/strongside linebacker in certain situations. He’ll be a special teams stalwart, too.
“I’m going to help this team do better in the field position battle and on defense, the turnover margin. Those are two big things I hope to improve on this team,” Williams said. “... I’ve been learning a lot of positions, because I want to be versatile.”
That mindset, along with a skillset that coaches love, is why the staff was more than happy to put him on scholarship without yet playing in a game.
“On the field, on the sideline, energy. One of the best attitudes in football that I’ve ever been around,” defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.
KEYS TO SUCCESS ON DEFENSE
1. Turnovers, obviously: The two fumbles the Broncos recovered and their seven interceptions were both the fewest since becoming a four-year school in 1968. Yet, the defense still was solid in most aspects.
If Boise State wants to return to the dominance of old, it will need to create a lot more takeaways. With extra drills and incentives, it’s been a focus all offseason.
“We’ve got guys who aren’t afraid to make plays,” said cornerbacks coach Ashley Ambrose, who said he hopes to return the team to its standard of 30-plus takeaways a season. “It tends to even itself out, it happens all over. But we have to make it happen, we can’t assume it will. Going backward last year really bothered me.”
2. Depth on the line: Boise State was outstanding at creating pressure with its defensive line early in the season, leading the nation the first month of the season in sacks. But after racking up 20 in the first five games, they had just nine in the final eight games.
Injuries played a part, as did reliance on veterans as youngsters failed to take major leaps forward. The second unit was slow to do that this fall camp, but as game time has approached, the sense of urgency has yielded improvement.
“They’re definitely getting better ... we wanted them to progress faster, but sooner (than later) is good,” junior defensive tackle David Moa said.
3. Limiting big plays: Though Boise State didn’t create many turnovers, it kept teams at bay on the scoreboard thanks in part to preventing explosive plays. The Broncos allowed eight plays of 40 yards or more, 12 fewer than in 2015.
With some depth at defensive back and speed at linebacker, Boise State can make up some ground if an attempt at a turnover or a tackle is missed.
“Limit explosive plays, that’s right along with turnovers,” junior linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said. “A lot of it’s eye control, if you know what you’re seeing, what’s coming ... it’s going to give you confidence to get the job done.”
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
91 Durrant Miles, 6-5, 253, Jr.
93 Chase Hatada, 6-3, 267, So.
98 Sonatane Lui, 6-1, 305, So.
57 Emmanuel Fesili, 6-2, 302, So.
55 David Moa, 6-3, 271, Jr.
90 Daniel Auelua, 6-2, 298, Sr.
8 Jabril Frazier, 6-4, 243, Jr.
53 Sam Whitney, 6-2, 231, So.
38 Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 240, Jr.
56 Joseph Inda, 6-0, 233, Jr.
58 Tyson Maeva, 6-0, 214, So.
25 Benton Wickersham, 6-2, 231, RFr.
33 Gabe Perez, 6-4, 246, Sr.
9 Desmond Williams, 5-11, 201, RFr.
14 Tyler Horton, 5-11, 188, Jr.
26 Avery Williams, 5-9, 194, RFr.
27 Reid Harrison-Ducros, 5-10, 180, So.
6 Michael Young, 6-0, 211, Jr.
4 DeAndre Pierce, 5-11, 174, So.
32 Jordan Happle, 5-11, 198, RFr.
10 Kekoa Nawahine, 6-2, 199, So.
37 Cameron Hartsfield, 5-10, 197, Sr.
46 Joel Velazquez, 6-0, 228, RFr.
49 Quinn Skillin, 6-4, 185, Jr.
89 Brock Barr, 6-3, 204, Sr.
50 Nicholai Pitman, 5-11, 230, So.