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Season Preview: Boise State Broncos

The Broncos enter the 2018 season with high expectations

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Oregon Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos enter the 2018 season coming off of a championship year with most of their key contributors returning. Since Harsin arrived in 2014, he has faced the expectations that come with being the head coach at Boise State, and nothing will change this year. Expectations in Boise, Idaho are as high as they have ever been since Kellen Moore donned the blue and orange.

The Broncos have everything you could ask for in a championship team: a senior starter at quarterback, a one thousand yard rusher, and a proven defense. The Broncos have had some good teams under Harsin; he has won two Mountain West Championships, a handful of games over power five teams, and a Fiesta Bowl. However, there is one thing Harsin has not done during his tenure as coach of the Broncos; he has not gone through conference play undefeated. Is this the year it happens? Is this the year that Harsin sheds Petersen’s shadow?

In this preview, I will break down and analyze each unit for the Broncos and their strengths and weaknesses.

Offense

Reasons for optimism: Brett Rypien. Rypien has had an interesting career at times. During part of his tenure, people viewed him as the next Kellen Moore, the quarterback that would bring Boise back into the NY6 picture and a future record breaker. Early last season, many fans were calling for Rypien to be benched in favor of Montell Cozart. The coaches made the right decision by keeping Rypien in the starting spot and allowing him to regain his confidence. Rypien has an opportunity to cement his legacy this season at Boise State.

Another reason for optimism is the running game and offensive line. The Broncos bring back one thousand yard rusher Alexander Mattison and backup Robert Mahone. The wild card in this group is true freshman Andrew Van Buren. Van Buren is expected to play, but will he be able to pass Mahone and become the number two running back? The new rule that allows true freshman to play four games will allow us to see if Van Buren is ready for that kind of workload. The offensive line overcame a miserable start to last season to finish strong. With a front loaded schedule, the men in the trenches cannot afford another slow start. Larson showed flashes at center last year while Hampton was hurt, is he ready to be the primary snapper?

Cause for concern: Are the young receivers and tight ends going to emerge? Let’s start with the tight ends, the Broncos are replacing Jake Roh, who was the Broncos second leading receiver and Rypien’s favorite target in the end zone. They are also replacing Alec Dhanens, who was a great blocker and emerged as a reliable receiver. There are some intriguing options for who will replace them. Chase Blakely, who is coming off of an injury, but coaches are intrigued by his pass catching ability. Matt Pistone is more in the Dhanens mold, he will be a force in the running game with his ability to block, it will be interesting to see if he emerges in the passing game. The most intriguing option is John Bates. Bates has the size to be a force in the red zone, he is only a sophomore and is looking to recover from what some would say was a disappointing freshman season. The wild card at tight end is true freshman Tyneil Hopper, Hopper was a highly touted recruit that had offers from some of the SEC’s finest. There are a few questions that he must answer: Does he have the ability to contribute as a true freshman? Will he be able to pass the other tight ends that have more experience in the system?

At wide receiver, the Broncos must replace Rypien’s favorite target in Cedrick Wilson. Wilson had the size and speed to be a force in all aspects of the passing game. My pick for Wilson’s replacement is Octavius Evans. Evans only had 15 catches for 131 yards, but his performance in the Spring game left fans gushing over his potential. CT Thomas is another sophomore that will be an important part of the passing game, he is expected to play more of a role in the short passing game with screens and quick passes. Thomas also has the ability to be a force in the deep game with his elite speed. Perhaps the most likely candidates to be the leading receivers of the Broncos are seniors Sean Modster and A.J. Richardson. Modster and Richardson were an important part of the passing game last year and are both likely to start when the Broncos play their first game at Troy. The Broncos have a huge crop of talented wide receivers coming in from their 2017 recruiting class. Khalil Shakir comes to Boise as one of the most highly touted recruits in Bronco history; will he be able to meet the expectations and step in to make an immediate impact? Or will he need time to assimilate? Will junior college transfer John Hightower be able to make an immediate impact?

Key Stat: 8. Can the offense be good enough for the Broncos to go undefeated in Mountain West play? The Broncos have accomplished quite a bit during the Harsin tenure. But they have never gone undefeated in Mountain West play. Last year the Broncos came close, but a loss to Fresno State in the final game of the regular season left the Broncos with a 7-1 record. This year, the Broncos have to play some of the toughest teams in the league, but most of those games are at home. It will be interesting to see if the Broncos can get this monkey off their back.

Wildcard

The true freshmen. The Broncos have had some highly touted recruits in the past, but rarely have they come from the skill positions. The Broncos have loads of talent coming in on the offensive side of the ball. I expect Van Buren, Hopper, Shakir, and Stefan Cobbs to be key contributors as true freshmen. Early indications from Fall camp suggest that Cobbs will have a role this year.

Defense

Reasons for optimism: The Broncos bring back 10 out of 11 starters from last year’s championship team. They are loaded on this end of the field. On the defensive line, the Broncos return all four of their starters and will easily be two deep at each position. The Broncos bring back their leaders in sacks, Jabril Frazier and Curtis Weaver, not to mention future NFL prospect David Moa. Sam Whitney will add to the depth at the STUD position as he returns from injury and is a great run stopping lineman.

The same can be said for the secondary, where all four starters are returning. The biggest question may be, will all of the starters remain the same? Redshirt freshman Jermani Brown and Tyreque Jones have impressed. Jalen Walker and Jordan Happle were key contributors in the Las Vegas Bowl victory over Oregon. Evan Tyler has shown potential but has been plagued by injuries. Dezmond Williams and Kekaula Kaniho both looked like forces at the nickel position. It is hard to see how the Broncos will be able to get all of this talent on the field.

Cause for Concern: Linebacker. The lone starter who is not returning comes in the form of first round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch. Vander Esch was the leader of the Bronco defense and will not be able to replace. Tyson Maeva is returning and has shown the potential to be an all conference performer. I expect Riley Whimpey to feel in nicely for Vander Esch, although he was bitten by the injury bug a bit this past season, but he produced when he was on the field. A name to keep an eye on is Ezekiel Noa, Noa is a huge talent who will have a chance to contribute as a redshirt freshman. The Broncos will also be able to graduate transfer Tony Lashley from the University of Idaho. Lashley was first team all Sun Belt last season.

Key Stat: 52. As dominant as the Broncos defense looked at times last year, they still struggled at times. Giving up 52 points to Colorado State was the perfect example. The Broncos were a young defense last year and hiccups were expected. The defense will have huge expectations to live up to.

Wildcard: Depth. The Broncos have struggled with injuries and depth on the defensive side of the ball. This looks to be the deepest defense the Broncos have had in quite some time. The Broncos have failed to overcome injuries in recent years, will this season be different?

Special Teams

Reasons for optimism: The Broncos bring pretty much everyone back. The Broncos return second team All Mountain West punt returner Avery Williams. Williams entered his freshman season as a walk on and finished the season as the starting cornerback and a prolific punt returner. His first return left Bronco Nation in awe…

The Broncos also return place kicker Haden Hoggarth. Hoggarth had a solid season making 18 of his 23 field goal attempts. Hoggarth surprised many when he was named the starting kicker, most fans assumed Joel Velazquez would fill that role. Hoggarth encountered some struggles late in the season where he missed a field goal in each of his last four games.

At punter, the Broncos return Quinn Skillin and Joel Velazquez who split duties last year. Both kickers improved as the year went on and presented different challenges to opposing teams.

Cause for concern: The Broncos lost their main kick returner in Cedrick Wilson. There are a few different candidates to replace Wilson. First, is Robert Mahone. In a bit of a surprise, Mahone was listed as the starting kick returner when the first depth chart was released during Mountain West Media Days. Second, is Avery Williams, by the end of the season we started seeing WIlliams return kicks more frequently. Williams showed his ability to be a dynamic punt returner, can he do the same as a kick returner? Also, do you want to expose a starting corner to more returns? Third, is Jermani Brown. Brown was a dynamic returner in high school and it I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in that role. Fourth, is CT Thomas, Thomas is a shifty receiver with break away speed like former Bronco Shane Williams-Rhodes. Thomas could prove to be a dynamic returner.

Key Stat: 0. The Broncos had zero kick returns for touchdowns last season. The kick return has been an area of concern for a few seasons now. Field position is such an important part of the game and the Broncos have put themselves in a difficult position by failing to develop a dynamic return game.

Wild Card: Jermani Brown. Brown has a elusive speed and has the ability to be a dynamic playmaker. The redshirt freshman will likely see the field as a backup corner and be involved with special teams.

Schedule Analysis:

September 1- @ Troy

September 8- vs. UCONN

September 15- @ Oklahoma State

September 22- BYE

September 29- @ Wyoming

October 6- vs. San Diego State

October 13- @ Nevada

October 19- vs. Colorado State

October 27- @ Air Force

November 3- vs. BYU

November 9- vs. Fresno State

November 16- @ New Mexico

November 24- vs. Utah State

Thoughts: Looking through the non-conference schedule, Boise’s most difficult games are on the road. The Broncos open the season at Troy, the defending Sun Belt champions. This will be an interesting game, as Troy fans are confident, but they are replacing a prolific passer and a great running back. The most difficult road game will take place in Stillwater, Oklahoma when the Broncos visit the Oklahoma State Cowboys. The Cowboys will be a tough task, they have become a perennial power in the Big 12. The Cowboys do have a lot of question marks as they are replacing an NFL quarterback, most of their offensive line, and a couple of wide receivers. Boise State faces a difficult Mountain West schedule this year. They are playing the best teams from the West, San Diego State and Fresno. Luckily for the Broncos, both of those games are on the Blue. The Broncos also host Utah State who is coming off an improved season and should be even better this year and Colorado State. On the road, the Broncos stiffest competition will likely be the Wyoming Cowboys. The Broncos will be looking to avenge their 2016 loss in Laramie, where current Buffalo Bill Josh Allen had the game of his life. The Broncos will also travel to Air Force, Nevada, and New Mexico.

Best Case Scenario: The Broncos win a close game in Stillwater and use the momentum to hurdle themselves into the NY6 and become sleepers in the playoff discussion. The Broncos finish the regular season 12-0 and defeat San Diego State or Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship game. The Broncos head back to their second home the Fiesta Bowl, where they face off against a Power 5 team.

Worst Case Scenario: The Broncos get destroyed in Stillwater and the offense once again struggles to find their identity. The Broncos lose two games in conference play, including a close game in Laramie. The Broncos lose the tiebreaker to the Cowboys and fail to represent the Mountain division in the conference championship game. The Broncos are relegated to the Potato Bowl and the Broncos fan base becomes more impatient.

Most Likely Scenario: The Broncos go 3-1 in non conference play after losing a close game in Stillwater. The Broncos also lose one conference game, this has been the norm. The Broncos finish the regular season 10-2 and win the Mountain division. The Broncos once again win the Mountain West Championship and represent the league in Las Vegas.

What I think will happen: The Broncos win the Mountain West Championship and their only loss on the season comes to a solid Oklahoma State team. They slip past UCF in the rankings and represent the G5 and the NY6 in their fourth Fiesta Bowl.