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BOISE STATE 2018 FOOTBALL PREVIEW
June 24th 2018 1:24pm MST
Over the past 19 seasons, the Boise State Football football program has gone 207-41 with 15 seasons of double-digit victories. There have been 14 total conference championships, 16 straight trips to bowl games, and a number of other statistics that are mind boggling. No, it’s not Alabama or Ohio State. The Boise State Broncos, fresh off of their third Mountain West Conference championship, are primed and ready to add even more hardware to the trophy case in 2018.
While the Broncos haven’t been to as many BCS/New Year’s Six bowls as they may have liked over the last eight years, head coach Bryan Harsin has his Group of 5 favorites primed for yet another championship season. Boise State started slow last season but won nine of their last 10 games to finish 11-3. They beat Fresno State, a team they had lost to the previous week, 17-14 in the conference title game to earn their third conference championship. A wealth of talent is back and a return to the New Year’s Six discussion appears eminent for Harsin and the Broncos.
The Broncos’ offense, which averaged 32.5 points per game last season, returns seven starters and several others that played significant roles in 2017. The success of the offense begins with senior quarterback Brett Rypien who has piled up 9,876 passing yards thus far in his college career. That is the most among all active FBS quarterbacks. Still, Rypien struggled some last season and Harsin is hopeful that will not happen again.
Rypien had some difficulty with an early season injury. He missed the Broncos win over New Mexico and then looked awful in a loss to Virginia. Rypien threw for over 200 yards in just one of the first six games last season. He began to split time with graduate transfer Montell Cozart but quickly regained form and in his final seven games of the year Rypien completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 14.9 yards per completion, and posted a 159.7 passer rating.
The 6-2 senior loses his best receiving target in Cedrick Wilson (83 rec., 1,511 yds., 7 TDs) but seniors A.J. Richardson (33-494) and Sean Modster (32-335) return. Sophomore Octavius Evans (6-1, 201) also returns as does the speedy Akilian Butler who missed most of the season with a torn ACL. Harsin and offensive coordinator Zak Hill must also replace the two top tight ends – Jake Roh and Alec Dhaenens – from last year, but the position is one of the deepest on the roster. The Broncos have five returning 3-star tight ends led by the monstrous 6-foot-6-inch, 247-pound sophomore John Bates.
Boise State’s running game last season was its weakest since 1996, the first year of FBS play for the Broncos. The offense averaged 143.5 rushing yards per game but did have a 1,000-yard running back for the ninth consecutive season in Alexander Mattison. The 5-11, 219-pound junior ran for 1,086 yards and 12 TDs which included his 23-carry, 242-yard, and three touchdown effort against Colorado State. Boise State had to come from behind to ultimately beat the Rams 59-52 in overtime.
Mattison will run behind a very experienced offensive line. Four starters – Ezra Cleveland, John Molchon, Garrett Larson, and Eric Quevedo – return and a fifth, senior Andres Preciado (6-6, 293) has started games in the past. The offense is in good hands for the future as none of the four returning offensive line starters are seniors. Harsin, Hill, and the rest of the offensive staff made the running game an off-season priority. Don’t be surprised if Mattison gives Boise State a 10th straight 1,000-yard rusher.
While the offense is primed to be even better than a year ago, it could be the defense that really makes the Broncos special in 2018. Nine starters and 10 of the top 11 tacklers from 2017 are back. The one starter that Boise State and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos will miss is last year’s Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Leighton Vander Esch, the No. 19 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. While Vander Esch will be missed, the Broncos return eight freshman and seven sophomores from last year’s defensive unit that improved to 30th in defensive S&P, a measure of a defense’s overall true efficiency.
A year after setting a school record for the fewest turnovers (9) forced in a season, Avalos’s unit finished 16th in the country by creating 26 takeaways. The 2018 Broncos defense can be even better with both starting corners and both starting safeties returning. Tyler Horton, a 5-11, 185-pound corner, is the only senior among the bunch. Horton and Avery Williams, also a dangerous kick returner, combined for four interceptions and 19 pass breakups as the starters at corner in 2017.
Up front, the Broncos should wreak havoc on opponents. Four of five defensive tackles return including one very large nose tackle in 6-1, 316-pound Sonatone Lui. Add in freshman recruit Scale Igiehon (6-2, 334) and running the ball inside against Boise State could be very difficult. On the edges, Avalos and Boise State are even better.
Defensive end Curtis Weaver recorded 11 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman last year. The defensive end rotation also includes seniors Jabril Frazier (6-4, 236) who had six sacks and Durrant Miles (6-5, 266) who recorded 33 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles. The Broncos tied for 27th in the nation in sacks (34) with MWC foe Fresno State and national runner-up Georgia. The pass rush will be one of the best in the country in 2018.
For a defense full of freshman and sophomores a year ago, the Broncos didn’t have many let downs. They faced three Top 20 rushing offenses – Air Force, New Mexico, and San Diego State – and held them to an average of just over 127 yards a game. Avalos’s unit played very well all season except for roughly five quarters – two each against Virginia and Colorado State and a fourth quarter letdown against Washington State. There’s reason to believe that the Broncos defense could be dominant in 2018.
Like the offense and defense, the special teams units return virtually everyone. Kicker Haden Hoggarth returns after hitting 18-of-23 field goals including 12 of his first 13. He is joined by fellow senior Quinn Skillin who averaged 40.7 yards per punt last season. Joel Velasquez, a sophomore, also handled some of the punting duties and averaged 40.6 yards per punt. Velasquez also handles the kickoff duties and recorded touchbacks on 53 of his 84 kickoffs. Skillin and Velasquez combined to allow Broncos’ opponents just 63 punt return yards for the entire season.
The return game is solid with Williams who made an even bigger impact in punt returns than at corner. The first time the 5-9, 193-pounder touched the ball last season he took a punt back for a score against Troy in the season opener. He added another in the win over San Diego State and averaged 11.2 yards per punt. Williams also averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff return in 2017. With so much experience returning, the Broncos’ special teams units should once again be among the best in the nation.
In Harsin, the Broncos have what schools around the nation covet – an alum leading the program. The 41-year-old Harsin has spent all but four years since 1995 at Boise State. He was a quarterback for the Broncos from 1995 to 1999 before returning as a graduate assistant in 2001. Harsin eventually rose to the role of offensive coordinator before taking the same job at Texas. After one season as head coach at Arkansas State, Harsin was tabbed as the Broncos head man and became the school’s first former player to take on the role.
Now with 42 wins in four seasons and a pair of Mountain West titles, Harsin is a name that pops up anytime a Power 5 job becomes available. He is an outstanding recruiter and takes after his mentor, former Boise State and current Washington head coach Chris Petersen. Harsin has also assembled a staff that is top notch and that can go head-to-head with the Pac-12 in recruiting the West Coast.
Hill, the offensive coordinator, was a record-breaking quarterback himself at Central Washington and served as an assistant at FCS powerhouse Eastern Washington before taking charge of the Broncos offense. Hill has helped in the development of Rypien and has the makings of another prolific offense in 2018.
Like his boss, Avalos is a former Boise State player. He was a two-time All-WAC linebacker and a four-year letter winner for the Broncos from 2001 to 2004. When the defense slipped in 2016, Avalos revamped the unit and Boise State finished 22nd nationally in total defense (332.6 yards per game) and placed nine players on MWC all-conference teams. Avalos’s 2018 defense is loaded and can be even better than last year.
Harsin’s staff is loaded with both continuity and former Broncos. Special teams coordinator Kent Riddle has been at Boise State for 10 years. Running backs coach Lee Marks, a former Bronco, enters his fourth season at Boise. Gabe Franklin, who coaches safeties, also played for the Broncos and will be in his third season as a coach. Harsin also had to replace a couple of coaches and did so with former Oregon State defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a, Spencer Danielson, who was a graduate assistant with the Broncos last year, and a name some might recognize for reasons other than football. New cornerbacks coach Jeff Popovich has a ton of experience, including a few years in the NFL. He was also on the first season of the popular reality television show The Bachelorette.
The bottom line is that Harsin and the Broncos have an outstanding coaching staff that has recruited well enough to add another Mountain West championship trophy to the university’s award cache.
Last year, the Broncos started slow going .500 in September. The potential for a repeat is there as tricky non-conference games at Troy to open the season and at Oklahoma State in Week 3 loom. Boise gets Connecticut at home on Sept. 8 and ends September at Wyoming, which will be breaking in a new quarterback after Josh Allen’s exit to the NFL.
The Broncos do get perennial MWC West contenders San Diego State and Fresno State at home this season as well as Colorado State and non-conference foe BYU. Surprisingly, Boise State has not won at Air Force since joining the Mountain West. The Broncos must travel to Colorado Springs this season. They also have a late-season trip to Albuquerque where they will face the triple-option attack of New Mexico. Facing option teams is daunting enough and to have to play two on the road this season could be difficult.
Harsin’s teams have been known for their late-season heroics. In his four seasons as head coach, Harsin-led Broncos teams are 14-2 in October and 11-4 in November. If Boise State can get out of September with at least three wins, the potential is there for a big New Year’s Party in Boise.
There are not many FBS programs that return as much experienced talent as the Broncos. A greatly improved defense returns nine starters. The offense returns a four-year starting quarterback, a 1,000-yard rusher, a plethora of quality receivers, and enough stars at tight end to name a constellation. Don’t forget the four all-conference offensive linemen. Boise State’s special teams were very good a year ago and nearly everyone returns. There is enough talent on the 2018 Boise State roster to make a strong run for a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. The Broncos will be the favorite to repeat as Mountain West Conference champions again. The month of September will likely determine whether or not the Broncos are in the discussion for a College Football Playoff berth. Don’t be surprised if they are.