Dec 24, 2013; Honolulu, HI, USA; Boise State Broncos quarterback Grant Hedrick (9) takes the snap behind linemen Matt Paradis (65) and Marcus Henry (72) against the Oregon State Beavers in the 1st quarter of the 2013 Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Boise State Broncos back?

From 2006 to 2011, the mighty Broncos lost 6 games, including a 3-loss season in 2007. Over the last 2 seasons, they’ve lost 7. What does this mean? Has Boise State lost its way? Is it no longer a thorn in the side of the BCS (well, yes, but for other reasons)? That may be a little hasty, as the Broncos still have plenty of talent on board to make another run. Last season’s 8-5 record may have been acceptable for most non-AQ teams, but for Boise State, it’s a huge slip. In 2012, the offense struggled a little, but the defense carried the team to 11 wins and 2 very close losses. Last year, the offense was back to its outstanding self, but the defense fell apart with just 3½ returning starters. The Broncos were also blown out by Washington, and were beaten soundly by BYU and Oregon State, teams the Broncos likely would have beaten a couple of years ago. As you may know, the Chris Petersen era is over with his hightailing to Washington, but former offensive-coordinator Bryan Harsin has returned to try to right the ship. Can he do it?

 

Offense

Oct 25, 2013; Provo, UT, USA; Boise State Broncos running back Jay Ajayi (27) runs with the ball as tight end Jake Hardee (84) blocks during the second half against the Brigham Young Cougars at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Brigham Young won 37-20. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

It was good to see the offense back on form after suffering from inconsistency in 2012. They had some redzone struggles, but the unit was mostly efficient. Joe Southwick took  a lot of the blame for the struggles of the previous year, yet despite throwing a duck against Washington in the first game, he was very good until an injury waylaid him for the last 6 games (2 passes excepted) of the season. Grant Hedrick took over and did a fine job, passing for 1825 yards and 16 TDs (5 interceptions), and rushing for 277 yards and another 6 scores. Of course, they both had a good bunch of receivers to throw to. Matt Miller was the star, catching 88 passes for 1140 yards and 12 scores, but Shane Williams-Rhodes and Geraldo Boldewijn combined for 116 receptions, 1230 yards and 8 scores. Pedersen unleashed running back Jay Ajayi on the Mountain West, and he responded with an excellent season, tearing off 1425 yards and 18 TDs. He was also a useful receiver, adding 22 receptions for 222 yards and a score. Paving the way was an experienced offensive line that returned 4 starters. LT Charles Leno and center Matt Paradis both made all-conference.

Southwick is gone at quarterback, but the Broncos look to be in good shape with Hedrick returning for his senior year. The senior may have to battle for his job though, with a solid bunch of contenders. Richard Finley came in last year and took a redshirt, while JUCO Thomas Stuart and freshman Alexander Ogle arrive this year. Stuart will be in for spring too. The receivers take a hit with a bunch of secondary targets, led by Boldewijn, departing. Luckily the top 2, Miller and Williams-Rhodes are back, and there are some green, but talented, reserves ready to step up. Ajayi is also back to pace the ground game, but Jack Fields or Derrick Thomas will have to step it up as a reserve, especially with the departure of Aaron Baltazar. The offensive line only returns right guard Marcus Henry and right tackle Rees Odhiambo, who was banged up a lot in his first season as a starter. Both Travis Averill and Steven Baggett saw starting action last season when Odhiambo was down. Averill could see a move to center, as he began the season backing up Paradis, while Baggett was the primary reserve for Leno, and should replace him. Top 2013 recruit Andrew Tercek is a contender to replace Paradis or departed left guard Spencer Gerke. Whatever starting combination the Broncos go with in 2014, they need to tighten up on pass protection after allowing 26 sacks last year.

 

Defense

Oct 25, 2013; Provo, UT, USA; Boise State Broncos linebacker Ben Weaver (51) tackles Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) during the second half at Lavell Edwards Stadium. Brigham Young won 37-20. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Broncos allowed over 400 yards per game on defense was back in 1997, when Houston Nutt prowled the sidelines. Citing 3½ returning starters as an excuse may be acceptable for some teams, but when you have aspirations to greatness akin to Boise’s, it doesn’t wash. The defensive line was an active bunch though, led by DeMarcus Lawrence. The junior has been one of the top ends in the conference the last couple of years, and made 72 tackles this year, with 20.5 for loss and 10.5 sacks. Nose Ricky Tjong-a-Toe and tackles Tyler Horn and Armand Nance combined for 137 tackles. The other end, Khayree Marshall was tied for second on the team with 7 tackles for loss. The linebackers suffered some injury problems last season, and while it isn’t an excuse for the defensive struggles, it certainly didn’t help with development with 3 new starters. Freshman Ben Weaver and sophomore Tyler Gray shared the weakside linebacker spot, yet Weaver still managed to lead the team in tackles with 89. Another freshman, Tanner Vallejo, did a good job filling in for injured Blake Renaud in the middle, making 51 tackles, 5.5 for loss. On the strong side, Corey Bell started most of the season after Jonathan Brown went down with injury in week 1. He made 76 tackles. The secondary struggled much of the season, despite returning both starters at safety, and could have looked a lot worse statistically but for games against air Force and New Mexico. Sophomore cornerback Donte Deayon had a great first season as a starter, making 54 tackles, broke up 9 passes and made 6 interceptions, while Bryan Douglas also had 9 PBUs and 4 interceptions.

This season, the defensive line loses 3 starters, while the rest of the unit is relatively unscathed. Lawrence is the biggest loss, but Tjong-a-Toe will be missed, as will Marshall, who had a solid but injury-plagued career. Beau Martin backed up Lawrence last season, making 3.5 sacks, and will get the thankless job of trying to replace an all-conference player. At nose tackle, Nance is big enough to hold the fort, leaving Horn to man the other tackle spot, but there are plenty of decent options ready to step in and play. Gabe Perez flashed some playmaking ability as a freshman, and could be in a position to replace Marshall. If the Broncos can manufacture a decent pass rush, this group could be better than last season’s. The linebackers should be in great shape too, with only Jonathan Brown gone from all the players who started last season. There will no doubt be some reshuffling, but Weaver is a lock on the weakside after last season’s performance. Bell should continue opposite him, but Renaud, Vallejo and perhaps even Gray will compete for the spot in the middle. The secondary should be much stronger too. Douglas and Deayon are no longer wide-eyed first year starters, while Darian Thompson and Jeremy Ioane were already a solid pair of safeties. This could be a sterling defense.

 

Special Teams

Dan Goodale is probably better known for the kicks he missed, than the ones he made, but last season he made an outstanding 17 of 19 field goals, with a long of 47. Just don’t mention TCU, or San Diego State for that matter. Punters Trevor Harman and Sean Wale shared the job last season and both were pretty solid, if unspectacular. The return teams were excellent. Douglas led the kick return team with a 30.4 average, scoring a TD, while Williams-Rhodes averaged 14.6 yards per punt return. Both coverage units were very strong.

Goodale is back for one last hurrah, and while he showed more confidence last season, let’s hope he keeps the nagging doubts about his misses under control. Harman is gone at punter, but Wale should be fine in his stead. The rest of the unit remains essentially unchanged, so expect similar results.

 

Prediction

Are the Broncos back? The team should certainly be back in double-digit wins this year . There are some significant questions – can they put together an offensive line? Can they find someone to rush the passer? – but they aren’t short on talent at any of these positions. The other minor question is at quarterback, although Hedrick looks like he could be really good this year. If he’s beaten out in camp by one of the young bucks, Boise could be even better for it. The schedule opens up with a tough trip to the Georgia Dome to take on Ole Miss, but every game after that is very winnable, even against tough BYU. Harsin has some great pieces in place, let’s see if he can return the Broncos to their dominant ways.

 

Tags: Alexander Ogle Andrew Tercek Armand Nance Beau Martin Ben Weaver Blake Renaud Boise State Broncos Bryan Douglas Bryan Harsin Corey Bell Dan Goodale Darian Thompson Derrick Thomas Donte Deayon Gabe Perez Grant Hedrick Jack Fields Jay Ajayi Jeremy Ioane Marcus Henry Matt Miller Mountain West Football Rees Odhiambo Richard Finley Sean Wale Shane Williams-Rhodes Steven Baggett Tanner Vallejo Thomas Stuart Travis Averill Tyler Gray Tyler Horn

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