College Football Preview 2015-2016: 23. Boise State Broncos
2014-2015 Record: 12-2 (7-1 Mountain West)
Coach: Bryan Harsin, 2nd year (12-2 overall)
Key Losses: RB Jay Ajayi, QB Grant Hedrick
Heisman Hopeful: WR/RB Shane Williams-Rhodes
Breakout Player: RB Jeremy McNichols
Life after Chris Petersen was a scary thought for years in Boise, Idaho, as Broncos fans lived in fear that the coveted coach would eventually skip town to a BCS school. Petersen eventually would leave to Washington, but the winning in Boise didn't stop. Under former Arkansas State head coach Bryan Harsin, the Broncos won 12 games and did their usual crashing of big-time football programs, by thoroughly punishing Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl in the first year of the College Football Playoff era. Tailback Jay Ajayi left a year early for the riches and bright lights of the NFL, and quarterback Grant Hedrick graduated, hurting the Broncos' offense, which was wonderful last season. Even so, Harsin once more has the talent returning to win the Mountain West and lead the Broncos right back to a big-time bowl, where they can wreak even more havoc.
Backfield: Hedrick showed off an amazing array of talents in his lone season as starter in 2014-2015. He threw for 3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns, while also showing off his dual threat abilities, running for 592 yards. His departure certainly hurts, but Harsin has options waiting in the wings. Sophomore Ryan Finley is the most experienced returning QB. Finley threw 27 times last season, but completed just 12 of them. If Finley doesn't prove himself the clear starter, incoming freshman Brett Rypien could overtake the veteran. Rypien is certainly the gem of the 2015 recruiting class for Boise, a four-star prospect out of Spokane, Washington who chose the Broncos over Washington and other Pac-12 schools. Finley has the edge only because of slightly better experience, but Rypien has the accuracy and potential to become quite the quarterback in offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz's system. After running for 1,823 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, Jay Ajayi decided it was time to test the pro waters. He was selected in the fifth round of the Draft by Miami, and has a chance to see plenty of action with Lamar Miller this next year. That type of production is not easily replaced, but there is reason to believe that sophomore Jeremy McNichols could put together a breakout season. Unlike Ajayi, a powerful runner with considerable size, McNichols is smaller and quicker. At 5'9", the sophomore is always ready for a big play. Receiving 17 attempts behind Ajayi and others, McNichols ran for 159 yards, an average of 9.4 yards per carry. Joining McNichols in the backfield will be redshirt junior Devan Demas, who ran for 173 yards and 2 scores last year. Demas is a little bit more of a physical runner than McNichols, but neither are the bulldozer that Ajayi proved to be throughout last season. But, for an offense that loves to spread the ball around and has a lot of speed, they fit in nearly perfectly.
Receivers: Not only was Ajayi an excellent runner, he was one of the Broncos' top receivers. The back proved to have wonderful hands, reeling in 50 catches for 535 yards and four scores. But, let's move on from the obvious Ajayi-will-be-missed theme here. Boise still has a number of weapons returning in the passing game, including junior Thomas Sperbeck. Sperbeck was the leading receiver on the team a season ago, picking up 877 yards. While not the biggest guy on the field, Sperbeck has proven to be an exceptional route runner and has great hands. Not having Ajayi to work underneath routes may hurt Sperbeck and the other Bronco receivers on deep routes and over the top, but they will figure things out. Senior Shane Williams-Rhodes is perhaps the team's top returning playmaker and could be in line for a monster year. Williams-Rhodes had 68 receptions and 585 yards last season as a receiver, but also proved just how dangerous he could be in other aspects. On flanker reverses and jet sweeps, Williams-Rhodes rushed for 179 yards on 15 carries, averaging nearly 12 yards per carry. Williams-Rhodes is 5'6", a shifty veteran who is lightning on a bottle and can score any moment he touches the ball. Players like that are becoming more common every single year in college football, but Williams-Rhodes is even more explosive than most. He could easily be the most entertaining player to watch in the Mountain West this season. Also back to help guide Finley or someone else at quarterback will be junior Chaz Anderson, a solid weapon in the passing game. Anderson is also very fast with proven hands. A trio of Sperbeck, Williams-Rhodes and Anderson gives opposing defenses real problems, with the mix of experience, reliability and pure explosiveness. While not having Ajayi is clearly a problem, those three alone should help keep this offense among the nation's elite and most exciting to watch. At tight end, the Broncos bring back an impact weapon in redshirt sophomore Jake Roh. Roh is a decent blocker, but certainly excels more as a receiver. Roh recorded 408 receiving yards in 2014-2015 along with two touchdowns, and averaged over 11 yards per reception. He is very quick for a tight end, often too quick for linebackers in coverage. But, at 6'3" he is often too big and physical for defensive backs, making him the perfect mix of speed and size and a dangerous option through the air. Senior Holden Huff will also see opportunities through the air at tight end. Not an incredibly gifted pass catcher, Huff does most of his damage in the red zone, where he is extremely effective.
Offensive Line: The Broncos offensive line will be a major fit to the team's new quarterback and running back as tons of experience returns, along with two All-MWC Offensive Linemen. Senior Rees Odhiambo is the sure fire starter at left tackle after a terrific 2014-2015 campaign. Odhiambo is a strong, athletic tackle who was a major reason for Grant Hedrick and the team's success throughout last year, earning him All-Conference honors. Joining him will be senior center Marcus Henry, who also earned All-Conference honors for his performance throughout last season. Henry is also a very athletic linemen though isn't the biggest. Even so, he is a punishing center and has been a proven run blocker throughout his career. While Boise most likely won't run between the tackles too much this season, having a veteran like Henry is still a major plus. Besides Odhiambo and Henry, there are three other starting linemen returning, all with plenty of experience. At the tackle slot opposite of Odhiambo will be junior Steven Baggett. Baggett has impressive versatility but Boise will most likely have him anchored him at the right tackle position. Joining him on the right side of the unit will be junior Mario Yakoo, a physical beast with great size. And, rounding out the unit will be junior Travis Averill, a steady veteran set in on the left guard spot. All five know how to win tough games in the Mountain West and they were a major reason why Ajayi was so great and the Broncos' offense as a whole was so effective. Unless major injury, depth shouldn't be a problem. Sophomore Archie Lewis saw action a year ago and will be able to contribute at either tackle position, while the Broncos also managed to bring in a three-star ready to help in John Molchon, a product of Las Vegas.
Defensive Line: Boise State's defensive line has always seemed to have a dominant pass rusher during their recent years of being the dominant non-BCS or non-Power Five years. They certainly have the next on their roster this season, with the return of Kamalei Correa, who is already establishing himself as a legit 2016 NFL Draft prospect. Correa made a living in opponent's backfields throughout 2014-2015, racking up 19 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. A lethal mix of 6'3" size and strength, Correa also has an explosive first step that can often overwhelm most of the offensive linemen in the Mountain West. Despite being the clear-cut top pass rusher on the Broncos' roster and likely facing an absurd amount of double teams this season, Correa will still put up crazy numbers. Joining Correa on the defensive line will be two proven run stoppers at defensive tackle and nose tackle. Seniors Tyler Horn and Armand Nance are two of the better tackles in the conference in run support and their returns are major pluses to the Broncos' defense. Nance picked up 36 tackles along with two sacks and should find multiple ways to contribute. Horn managed just four tackles a year ago as he struggled through injuries, but he should see plenty of snaps this season. Also returning to the Boise D-Line will be junior defensive end Sam McCaskill. McCaskill has seen action at defensive tackle in his career and could see snaps there this season, but he is a more natural end, because he is a very strong pass rusher. McCaskill doesn't have the lethal first step of Correa and he isn't as powerful, but he has good instincts and a good mind for the game. He managed to reel in 2.5 sacks last season, and he should be even more productive this season. Junior Gabe Perez is a versatile weapon who will back up Correa at the "STUD" defensive end position. Perez is solid, but needs to grow more as a natural pass rusher. Expect junior college gem Ben Moa to see snaps at defensive tackle after transferring from Grossmont College in San Diego. He was rated as a three-star prospect by most scouting services.
Linebackers: Much like their defensive line, the Broncos' linebacker corps should be a major strength, especially with the return of junior Tanner Vallejo. Vallejo was everywhere all of last season, contributing to the Boise cause by racking up an impressive 100 tackles, with 16.5 of them going for a loss. Vallejo was still pretty wrong last season, but even so his instincts and knowledge of the defense was never in question and they clearly helped his production. Joining Vallejo will be another junior Ben Weaver, who will start in the Broncos' 4-2-5 defense. Weaver also was very productive throughout last season, picking up 62 tackles himself. Much like Vallejo, Weaver has a great mind for the game and superb instincts. He is also a great help in run defense, and his return will only help the rush defense for the Broncos continue to flourish. Behind Vallejo and Weaver will be senior Tyler Gray, a veteran. Gray has put together a pretty impressive career throughout his time in Boise and he will still make an impact this season even if he isn't starting. Gray had 61 tackles and 5.5 TFL and also proved he has advanced coverage skills, with two interceptions and seven pass deflections. Gray has the natural talent to put together a big season and even with a defense that uses five defensive backs, Boise and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates could use a linebacker with his athleticism and coverage skills. Also returning is Joe Martarano, a sophomore who is ready to step up and play more. While not as experienced as Vallejo, Gray or Weaver, Martarano is a fearless linebacker who can lay quite the hit on the defender. Having him adds major depth and gives Boise State more options. The impact newcomer in this unit is sure to be three-star talent Drew Berger, an inside linebacker from tiny Coeur D'Alene High School. The unit as a whole is very experienced, and has a lot of guys that can do a multitude of different things. It might be one of the strengths of the team, and in fact, the front seven as a whole could be the top in the Mountain West.
backfield should be even more scary to opposing offenses. The unit is stock full of hard-hitters, ball hawks and impact players, and it is led by senior Darian Thompson. The strong safety is a ferocious defender who is always ready to make a big play. He has wonderful closing speed, allowing him to pick off a ton of passes. He had seven interceptions last season and while quarterbacks will try to watch for him and not throw it anywhere near him, he is quick enough to break into plays from nowhere. Joining Thompson, will be All-MWC cornerback Donte Deayon, another interception machine. The senior is nearly impossible to shred, he has a strong base despite being slightly undersized and won't shy away from anyone. He recorded six picks last season, with two of them going all the way back for touchdowns. Combined, Deayon and Thompson recorded 153 return yards and three touchdowns off interceptions. No matter what the offense is doing, having that help is going to help big-time. Joining those two in the secondary, will be junior Jonathan Moxey, the likely starter at the other cornerback spot. Opposing quarterbacks will also try to avoid Deayon and pick on Moxey, but that is no easy task. Moxey is a great athlete and very disciplined. The unit will be bolstered by two impact helpers. One of them, junior Chanceller James returns from injury, after suffering a season ending injury against Wyoming. That injury came after an injury that restricted him from playing a single snap in 2013, after suffering an injury in fall camp. Now fully healthy, James is ready to play a much bigger role. Even with that injury, James appeared in ten games last season, and started three. He was pretty impressive in that action, picking up 36 tackles, 25 solo. He possesses good size at 6'2", and much like others in the secondary, is a hard-hitter. The other impact newcomer is sophomore Kameron Miles, a JUCO product. After being dismissed from Texas A&M, Miles landed in Butler Community College in Mesquite, Texas. He was superb in his lone year there and was rated as three-star player in this year's recruiting cycle, by ESPN. There was a reason that Miles landed at Texas A&M earlier in his career; he is a wonderful athlete with good ball skills. While Harsin and the rest of this staff brought in a ton of recruits to their defensive backfield (seven in total), they already had plenty of depth. Sophomore Dylan Summer-Gardner returns to bring even more experience and talent to the unit. Even without seeing much time last season, Summer-Gardner recorded 19 tackles and 2 pass deflections.
Special Teams: The kicker position is now a question mark for the Broncos after the graduation of Dan Goodale, who was 16 of 21 on field goals last season. His likely replacement will be junior Tyler Rausa, who saw action in just one extra point last season. Punter Sean Wale is back for his junior campaign, and could be one of the better at his position in the conference.
Few teams lose their stud quarterback and wonderful running back and are expected to be perhaps even better (and they won 12 games a year ago). But, why not pick Boise to roll through the Mountain West once more? Ignoring an uncharacteristic 2013 when they went 8-5, Boise has gone 47-6 in the last four years, and no team in the Mountain West has anywhere near the type of talent this team has on their roster. While there will be some growing pains at quarterback and the offense might not be as dominant as last year, the defense is wonderful and has an abundance of stars, including Correa, Vallejo and Thompson. Outside of the season opener against an interesting Washington team, and a now healthy BYU squad a week later, Boise State's schedule is really devoid of any team that can hang with them. While Utah State could give them some competition, he Mountain Division inside the MWC is theirs to lose. Once more, Boise State should be able to showcase their signature postseason magic in another big bowl, likely representing the Group of Six or non-Power Five schools in one of the New Year's Six bowls.