Bronco Beat

Boise State football position breakdowns: Vallejo, Weaver lead deep LB corps

Today, I start my Boise State football position previews. I'll post a blog with many notes and quotes about the position and write a feature for the newspaper that runs the following morning.

First up: Linebackers.

LINEBACKERS ROSTER

36 Tyler Gray, 6-4, 232, Sr.

51 Ben Weaver, 6-0, 228, R-Jr.

44 Darren Lee, 6-1, 229, Jr.

20 Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 230, Jr.

7 Joe Martarano, 6-3, 228, R-So.

43 Joe Provenzano, 5-11, 204, R-Fr.

38 Leighton Vander Esch, 6-4, 234, R-Fr.

22 Drew Berger, 6-1, 220, Fr.

35 Marquis Hendrix, 6-1, 225, Fr.

45 Blair Ewers, 6-0, 215, Fr.

41 Will Heffner, 6-2, 209, Fr.

On mission:

Riley Whimpey, 6-2, 205, Fr.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART

Middle linebacker

Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 230, Jr.: The Broncos' leading tackler and the defensive MVP of the Mountain West championship game and Fiesta Bowl moves back to his natural position after spending most of last season at nickel. Vallejo recorded 100 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss, the most TFLs by a Broncos linebacker in the FBS era.

Joe Martarano, 6-3, 228, R-So.: The Fruitland High grad became a larger part of the defense late last season and was on the field for the final play of the Fiesta Bowl. He ranked eighth on the team with 42 tackles despite only starting once.

Weak-side linebacker

Ben Weaver, 6-0, 228, R-Jr.: The Broncos' top tackler in 2013 got off to a slow start last year as he overcame offseason ankle surgery. A strong finish pushed him to third on the team with 62 tackles.

Tyler Gray, 6-4, 232, Sr.: The linebackers' best pass defender contributed two interceptions, seven pass breakups, a team-high three forced fumbles and a touchdown last season while splitting time with Weaver.

THE BREAKDOWN

Overview: The Broncos boast four starter-type players for two spots with the nickel position moved back into the secondary. Juniors Vallejo and Weaver, the leading tacklers in 2013 (Weaver) and 2014 (Vallejo), likely will start but expect Martarano and Weaver to play major roles. Coaches also likely will use Vallejo at nickel in certain situations and put a third linebacker on the field. "We've got a fair amount of guys who have played a lot of football for us – on defense obviously, but also on special teams," linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. "That game experience, it goes a long way. With four guys who have played a ton of football, we're trying to push the envelope as well as hopefully bring along some of the younger guys and create some more depth."

Key to success: The linebackers became playmakers last season, something that had been missing from the group. They contributed three interceptions, three forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries and three touchdowns last season. The top four returners combined for 26 tackles for loss. Those numbers may shrink with only two on the field, but they need to continue to make the big play.

Reason for concern: None. (Not sure I've ever written that about any position group before).

Star player: Vallejo should contend for the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award. He might lose some opportunities by moving to the middle, but he said in the spring that he isn't concerned. "I feel like I'm going to make plays wherever I'm at just based on how I work at practice," he said.

Breakout performer: Weaver slipped under the radar last season because of the emergence of Vallejo and defensive end Kamalei Correa. But Weaver was the leading tackler in 2013 and he was nearly as productive as Vallejo in the last two games of 2014. Weaver made a team-high 16 tackles in the Mountain West championship game and eight tackles in the Fiesta Bowl. He was limited early last season while he tried to play his way back into shape after missing the offseason training program while recovering from ankle surgery. He's healthy now. "Going in full speed now, it feels good," Weaver said. "(The end of last season) kind of made me feel like back my redshirt freshman year again. Hopefully I can take off from those last few games and start off hot like that."

Newcomer to watch: Vander Esch earned a scholarship with the way he performed as a redshirt last fall and in spring ball. He has impressed coaches and teammates with how quickly he has adjusted to major college football after playing eight-man football at tiny Salmon River High in Riggins. He should be one of the team's most active special-teamers this season. "I think that's going to be my main role this year," he said. "If they need me on defense, need me at linebacker, I'm going to be there. I'm going to push myself and keep studying film and just keep developing myself."

Quotes/notes

– Returning linebackers ranked first (Vallejo, 100), third (Weaver, 62), fourth (Gray, 61) and eighth (Martarano, 42) on the team in tackles last season.

– Gray is the group's only senior. None of the linebackers are fifth-year players.

– The middle linebackers are Vallejo, Martarano, Lee, Hendrix, Ewers and Provenzano. The weak-side linebackers are Weaver, Gray, Vander Esch, Berger and Heffner.

– Avalos on what he tells Gray and Martarano: "Just because somebody steps on the field to start the game doesn't mean that that's how it will be for the whole game. You have to be ready to go, first and foremost, no matter what, like you're the starter. And I think that's the way those guys prepare. Honestly, I think that's the way they all see themselves."

– Avalos on the linebackers' goal for fall camp: "We want to continue to get better at our movements. We've got to be able to get into position to execute our jobs and obviously be great with our hands getting off blocks and being able to make plays. And we want to continue to work at the coverage game as well."

– Avalos on playing time: "We're deep, and so there's no question that we should be going 110 percent. There should be guys out there moving at a different speed than anyone else because we've got plenty of guys who can get on the field. At the same time, if someone is hot and they're in the zone and they're making plays left and right, everyone knows the deal, that guy is probably going to roll a little more than the other guy."

– Martarano played 18 games of pro baseball this summer, his second straight summer of baseball. "I enjoy both and I just think it’s a good opportunity to kind of keep both dreams alive," Martarano said. "The coaches understand that and they’re real supportive."

– Vallejo on last year's success: "I just let it all go. It's a new year, a new me. ... I'm not worried about individual stats. I'm just worried about our team goal."

– Lee on playing behind Vallejo and Martarano: "What I love about football is the theory of competition. There's nothing better than having multiple guys going for the same position. It brings the best out of everyone. So I'm going to do what I can to keep them on their best, because I'm still trying. I understand that Tanner Vallejo and Joey Martarano, they're amazing. I get that. I'm totally OK with that. I'm here to do what's best for the team. At this point, if what I can do to be the best is to assist them and push them, then yeah, I'm more than willing to do that."

– Lee on what stands out about this group: "The willingness to study. ... We're deep because the seconds know just as much as the first-stringers and the thirds know just as much as the seconds. We do the film. We break it down together. Coach Avalos is an amazing coach. He focuses on every single one of us."

RELATED POSTS

Martarano proves he can juggle football, baseball

Player spotlight: Ben Weaver

Scholarship surprise left Vander Esch speechless

Vander Esch likely to play large role on special teams

Email me at ccripe@idahostatesman.com.

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