Bronco Beat

Boise State football spring preview: A ton of talent and a ‘baby giraffe’ at linebacker

Through the spring, we have previewed each position on the Boise State football team. This is the final installment in the series.

Today: Linebackers

Previously: Defensive line, wide receivers, special teams, offensive line, defensive backs, tight ends, tailbacks, quarterbacks

Now full strength, Weaver could have breakout year

Ben Weaver was Boise State’s rising defensive star in 2013, when he led the team with 89 tackles.

He was the forgotten man for most of 2014, when offseason surgery slowed his production. Then he finished the year with 16 tackles in the Mountain West championship game against Fresno State and eight more in the Fiesta Bowl. Those 24 tackles accounted for more than one-third of his 62 for the season.

“Toward the beginning of the season, I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Weaver said. “I wanted to get back to making an impact, getting some tackles. It felt good, like my redshirt freshman year again. Going into the offseason, I wanted to strive to do that.”

This has been a much different offseason for Weaver, who is going into his junior season. He had surgery to repair a high ankle sprain last year and missed spring ball. The injury had hobbled him for the second half of his freshman season, when his production plummeted from 72 tackles in eight games to 17 in four.

“He basically didn’t have an offseason last year because of an injury and a surgery,” linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. “He did nothing because of that. In terms of development for a young linebacker, he lost an offseason. So it was a big emphasis for him individually to continue to develop in the weight room and get, literally, his feet back underneath himself. And he’s done a great job of that this spring. He’s moving a lot better. It’s a credit to him to jump in and do what he did last season. You could see him come around in the middle of October, really getting in shape. And so to have the type of offseason he’s had this year and spring ball, we’re expecting big things out of him next year.”

Weaver is part of a loaded linebacker corps that will have its footprint reduced from three positions (middle, weak side and nickel/strong side) to two (middle and weak side) as the Broncos try again to implement a 4-2-5 scheme.

Junior Tanner Vallejo, the defensive MVP of the Mountain West championship game and Fiesta Bowl, returns to middle linebacker from nickel. He led the team last year with 100 tackles and recorded 16.5 tackles for loss, the most by a Broncos linebacker in the FBS era. He added three sacks, one interception, three fumble recoveries, four pass breakups and two touchdowns.

“When you’ve got Tanner in the middle of the field, he makes a lot of plays,” Avalos said.

Weaver’s backup is senior Tyler Gray, who started three games last season and finished fourth on the team with 61 tackles. He also recorded two interceptions, seven pass breakups and three forced fumbles.

“Tyler Gray really took off last year and had a good season,” Avalos said. “I think he’s even improved on that this spring. He’s a long, athletic guy that has so much range – especially in the passing game. He’s a great blitzer. ... We had a great amount of production out of that boundary side Will linebacker position. I’m excited to see these two guys do it again this year.”

Vallejo’s backup is sophomore Joe Martarano, who started one game last season and earned significant playing time behind then-senior Blake Renaud late in the season. Martarano was on the field for the closing plays of the Fiesta Bowl. Martarano finished eighth on the team with 42 tackles on the season.

He has taken strides in the mental side of the game this spring.

“That was our goal for Joey – to get more comfortable running the show ... and not feel rushed,” Avalos said. “He’s done a great job of that this spring.”

The quartet of linebackers gives the Broncos four guys who likely could start at most Mountain West schools.

“A lot of the meetings aren’t really learning,” Weaver said. “It’s refining what we already know and picking up on new things.”

PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE

Linebackers

36 Tyler Gray, 6-4, 229, Sr.

51 Ben Weaver, 6-0, 231, R-Jr.

44 Darren Lee, 6-1, 234, Jr.

20 Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 226, Jr.

7 Joe Martarano, 6-3, 229, R-So.

43 Joe Provenzano, 5-11, 214, R-Fr.

95 Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 222, R-Fr.

Signees:

Drew Berger, 6-1, 220, Fr.

Marquis Hendrix, 6-1, 225, Fr.

Riley Whimpey, 6-2, 205, Fr. (going on mission)

Returning starters (2 of 3): Vallejo started every game last season, mostly at nickel/strong-side linebacker. He had a monster season playing outside. He thinks he can do the same from the inside. “I feel like I’m going to make plays wherever I’m at just based on how I work at practice,” he said. Weaver started 11 games at weak-side linebacker.

Key losses: Blake Renaud started 11 games at middle linebacker last season, giving the Broncos the luxury of moving Vallejo to the outside. Renaud finished ninth on the team with 39 tackles.

Other key returners: Martarano finished eighth with 42 tackles and became an important figure on the defense in November and December. Gray finished fourth with 61 tackles and was one of the team’s best turnover producers with two interceptions and three forced fumbles. And Lee is the Broncos’ best special-teamer and the answer if any of the top four linebackers gets injured.

Other players to watch: Vander Esch, the multi-sport star at Salmon River High, walked on last year and is an intriguing prospect because of his size and athleticism. Avalos called him “our baby giraffe.” “The kid is awesome,” Avalos said. “He’s picking things up. Coming from eight-man football to 11-man football is a little bit of an adjustment on top of everything.”

Projected starters: MLB Tanner Vallejo, WLB Ben Weaver

Out for spring: Provenzano

Incoming signees: Berger, of Coeur d’Alene, was one of the centerpieces of the Broncos’ 2015 recruiting class. Hendrix, of Florida, was a late addition when a scholarship became available. And Whimpey fit a need for a ready-to-play linebacker in 2017 because Vallejo and Weaver will be gone by then.

NOTES/QUOTES

– Vallejo’s move back to middle linebacker was dependent upon the emergence of a defensive back who could play nickel. “Because if we don’t,” coach Bryan Harsin said at the beginning of spring ball, “we’re going to have to put Tanner back at nickel.” Senior Mercy Maston quelled those concerns during the spring.

– Vallejo on 2015: “You’ve just got to forget about last year. It’s a new team and it’s a new me.”

– Weaver on the Broncos’ linebacker depth: “You want to have that competition because that’s what gets us better. We have that every single day.”

– Avalos said he hadn’t talked to Martarano about whether he would play pro baseball again this summer.

– Avalos said the linebackers have posted GPAs of 3.4 and 3.2 the past two semesters. “I hate to say it because of the past groups I’ve coached, but this might be the best group I’ve gotten to coach in terms of people,” he said. “... These are a bunch of go-getters, fun personalities, fun to be around.”

– Avalos on the spring: “Our goal was, one, to improve on our change of direction and our burst. And also going along with that is our keys and our get-off. We’ve got a lot of guys with experience so you’re trying to find those little details where we can get better, get ourselves in a better position to make more plays. I think they’ve done a great job with that this spring. ... When you have veterans who have played a lot of football, you can’t let them get comfortable. You’ve got to keep finding little areas where they can continue to improve and develop.”

• • • 



SPRING BALL COVERAGE

April 14: Quarterbacks preview

April 14: Spring answers, fall questions as spring ball ends

April 13: Tailbacks preview

April 13: Updated roster

April 12: QBs show promise, RB Young steps up in Spring Game

April 12: Kellen Moore honored

April 11: Spring game recap – Finley looks like QB leader

April 11: Tight ends preview

April 11: Top recruit Dylan Sumner-Gardner gains confidence

April 10: Kicker Tyler Rausa prepares for long-awaited chance

April 9: Defensive backs preview

April 9: Turner leaves homelessness behind

April 8: Boise State expects to net nearly $1.7 million from Fiesta Bowl

April 8: Recruit Raymond Sheard arrested, won’t join team

April 7: Jordin Sparks concert to follow Spring Game

April 7: This Spring Game has some intrigue

April 6: Finley likely to lead QB pecking order into fall camp

April 6: Broncos will have new helmet for Spring Game

April 4: OT Eli McCullough uses Air Force mistakes as learning experience

April 3: Broncos to honor Kellen Moore, not retire jersey

April 2: Special teams preview

April 1: QB competition likely to last deep into August

March 31: Recap of Bryan Harsin’s weekly press conference

March 31: Cornerback Jonathan Moxey prepares to excel

March 30: Wide receivers preview

March 29: Chaz Anderson builds on successful position change

March 24: Bertoli, once slighted, has proven himself a Division I player

March 20: Dillon Lukehart retires for medical reasons

March 19: Bryan Harsin recaps first scrimmage

March 17: Broncos help Lyle Smith celebrate 99th birthday

March 13: Defensive line preview

March 12: DL Tyler Horn gets second shot at senior year

March 11: Adventurous former walk-on Charles Bertoli chases RB job

March 10: All signs point to Kellen Moore tribute at Spring Game; read a replay of our live chat

March 10: Tanner Vallejo back home at middle linebacker

March 9: Seven players out for spring with injuries; highlights from the first day of practice

March 9: Players and positions to watch this spring

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