This week continues the focus on the upcoming season. For the purposes of this roundtable, as well as future weeks, questions and answers will assume that the 2020 football season happens in some way, shape, or form. Until official decisions are made anyway. With that being said, which positions are you confident about and worried about for your team in the upcoming football season?
Let’s start with the offensive side of the ball for Boise State. I think the Broncos have far and away the best talent in the conference when it comes to the skill positions. The Broncos are absolutely loaded at the skill positions. Wide receiver will be the biggest asset on this team with guys like Khalil Shakir, CT Thomas, Octavius Evans, and Stefan Cobbs. The Broncos will also be three deep at running back, George Holani, Andrew Van Buren, and Robert Mahone are all capable of being 1,000-yard backs. Hank Bachmeier and Chase Cord are both capable of leading the Broncos at quarterback.
The biggest question for the Broncos will easily be the offensive line. They are replacing four starters, but oddly enough they might end up being better. Injuries were a major issue last year and many of this year’s starters got plenty of experience last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, I don’t really have that many concerns. Most people will say there are questions on the defensive line considering they lost all of their starters. But the Broncos were two deep last season and Demitri Washington was terrorizing opponents at the STUD position by the end of the season. I think the secondary will be better and have a lot more size than they have in previous seasons. The linebacker crew will have more depth with the addition of graduate transfer Brock Miller and Zeke Noa should be healthy by the beginning of the season.
Starting with the offense, much like many of the seasons prior to 2019, the Aztecs should be beyond productive running the ball next season.. Despite receiving most of the workload, Juwan Washington struggled to produce at a high level. In fact, San Diego State is returning four running backs that received 30+ carries last year, all of whom had a yards per carry above Washington’s paltry 3.3. Whoever wins the starting RB job should be an instant upgrade over Washington and with a more mature offensive line to run behind, they should be able to generate strong numbers.
Offensively, the quarterback position is by far what I have the least amount of confidence in. Once again, SDSU will presumably have one of the worst QB situations in the conference. Jack Sears was supposed to be the savior but after a head-coaching change, he pulled his commitment. Redshirt sophomore Carson Baker is the projected starter, with graduate transfer Lucas Johnson coming in as a dark horse. Either athelete can come in and provide quality play but until they do, QB remains a question mark for the Aztecs.
On the opposite side of the ball, San Diego State will have one of the best defenses in the entire Mountain West. The secondary is by far the position that I have the utmost confidence in. Tariq Thompson will be uber-productive from his slot/deep safety role, Dwayne Johnson Jr. should continue his dominance as a box safety, and Darren Hall can match up with most of the receivers he will face. The loss of Luq Barcoo will be felt but with their abundance of talent, the Aztecs should retain their “best secondary in the conference” label.
Unlike the defensive backs, the linebacker core is a little more of an unknown. Kyahva Tezino will leave a giant hole in his stead, as well as Troy Cassidy, albeit a much smaller one. Andrew Aleki is the only returning player to have taken snaps as a linebacker last season, so there will be new faces in the rotation. The lack of seniority at the position leaves room for worry, but with strong play up front and in the defensive backfield, the Aztecs may be able to get away with poor to average play from their linebackers.
For this week, I am going to go with the Utah State Aggies. Unfortunately, there will be no more Jordan Love. With that being said, I am quite nervous about the QB situation. The race for the starting job will include three freshmen and one sophomore. The lone sophomore Henry Colombi hardly saw the field, so he has very little experience under his belt. Hopefully, one of the guys will show up big time during camp, because the downgrade needs to be as minimal as possible for the Aggies to stay competitive. On the flip side, the running back tandem is going to be solid. Whichever QB wins the starting job, he is going to have a dependable player next to him. Gerold Bright, who will be a senior is back and ready to break 1,000 yards on the ground. The 190-pound back, averaged just over five yards per rushing attempt while bringing in nine touchdowns on the ground. Riley Burt will also be returning, to help soften the load that Bright is going to have. Both of these backs are going to need to contribute largely for the offense to pick up its pace and be efficient.
My highest confidence level position for the Falcons is the running back position. Kade Remsberg was a solid 1,000-yard rusher last year who came up with winning touchdowns against Colorado and Washington State. He is backed up by a solid senior in Josh Stoner, who averaged 9 yards per carry in the backup role. At fullback, Timothy Jackson returns after a breakout sophomore season, where he averaged over 6 yards per carry out of the fullback position. He would easily have gained 1,000 yards without the presence of Taven Birdow as the starting fullback. He will be backed up by Matt Murla, who was a solid third option at the position.
At the other offensive positions, of course Donald Hammond returns at quarterback with expectations of becoming the Offensive Player of the Year for the conference, but his backup is up in the air, which is crucial for option teams, given the punishment that the quarterback can take. The backups were outstanding last year, which I view as an exceptional endorsement of the performance of the offensive line. I have very high confidence that the offensive line will perform at an excellent level next year, with perhaps a little falloff in the backup roles. At wide receiver, the Falcons lose both very productive starters, but I really don’t see a problem. There are a few speedy backups who can step in and do well, especially if the run game forces defenses to sell out to stop the run like many opponents did last year.
On defense, I think that the front seven will be close to the performance of last year. The loss of Mosese Fifita at nose tackle might create a dropoff in the disruption potential, so that could be a problem. But without a doubt, the changeover in the defensive secondary is a major worry. The Falcons do have some very athletic players and a couple of multi-year starters in Milton Bugg and James Jones, but the loss of Garrett Kaupilla, all-MW Jeremy Fejedelem, Grant Thiel, and UDFA Zane Lewis will be a problem. Hopefully, their replacements can overcome a steep experience curve and outperform expectations.
On offense, Wyoming returns plenty of experience to continue being effective at running the ball. The offensive line returns with a ton of experience as Wyoming returns all five of their starters. Also, the Cowboys will be welcoming back Xazavian Valladay, Trey Smith & Titus Swen at running back. The headliner of that group would be Valladay who is coming off a 1,265 yds season in 2019 that saw him average 5.1 yds/carry. The position groups on offense with questions for 2020 are at wide receiver and tight end as the Cowboys look to find some guys that can catch the football. Gone are Raghib Ismail Jr. (WR), Austin Conway (WR), Josh Harshman (TE) & John Okwoli (WR). In fact, the returning player with the most receptions in 2019 would be Valladay (RB) with 11 receptions last season.
On defense, Wyoming has some nice depth at DE. Garrett Crall should be the leader at that position as a senior in 2020 who already has 3 years of playing experience. Solomon Byrd emerged in 2019 as a nice rotational player last season, finishing with 6.5 sacks. Davon Wells-Ross flashed a bit last season and might take another step entering his junior year as he continues to grow physically and as a player. The position with the most questions is linebacker. With Cassh Maluia & Logan Wilson departing for the NFL, Wyoming needs to replace two players that played a ton of snaps from 2016 to 2019 at linebacker. Chad Muma will bring some experience to the position as a junior after seeing the field a pretty good amount last season. The other spot will be much more inexperienced. Of those currently in the running, Charles Hicks, a sophomore with 4 tackles in 2019 as a freshman, would be the most experienced.
When a flashy offense puts up impressive numbers, it’s easy to attribute that success to the facilitators. Quarterback, running back, wide receiver, they’re the ones putting the ball in the end zone. For Hawaii football in 2019, all three position groups thrived, but the offensive line is what permitted that success. Any optimism for the 2020 Hawaii Warrior offense can be tied to that group returning a ton of experience.
As for a concern: anytime two 1,000 yard+ wide receivers (Jason-Matthew Sharsh just missed out on making it three) graduate, that’s going to be a problem for the next team. Also: yes, yes, optimism is high for quarterback Chevan Cordeiro, but losing Cole McDonald is a potential concern. See UNLV 2019 to be reminded that Cordeiro isn’t without a doubt or two.
I’ll also throw the linebacking group as a positive and the defensive line as a potential concern. Linebacker Darius Muasau is a rising star and Penei Pavihi returns after missing 2019 with injury.
...buuut while I’m high on Jonah Laulu, the defensive line loses experience and will be thin on depth again. JC transfer Kemon Smith must provide an instant impact.
I’ll take a look at San Jose State this week.
I’m confident in their wide receiver group. They return the dynamic Tre Walker and the up and coming Isaiah Hamilton, who burst on the scene last year as a redshirt freshman. That duo combined for 122 receptions, 1879 yards, and 6 touchdowns. And keep in mind there was another productive receiver in that group. There are a few other talented athletes who can step into the fold as well. All in all, the Spartans shouldn’t be without options.
On the other hand, the offense put up big numbers because of quarterback Josh Love. He’s gone and there isn’t a sure thing to replace him on paper. Nick Nash got a lot of playing time before his injury last season, but he is more of a running threat at this stage in his career. Arkansas/TAMU transfer Nick Starkel would figure to get the first shot at the job. He does have 19 college games under his belt, but 3 schools, a 57.6% completion percentage and 7 TDs to 10 INTs last year are reasons to be concerned.
Nevada’s strengths lay within the skill positions on the offensive end — especially its receiving core. Receivers Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs are one of the best 1-2 duos in the conference. The Pack also return two solid running backs: 2018 Mountain West Freshman of the Year Toa Taua and backup Devonte Lee. Quarterback Carson Strong will be under center after his roller coaster redshirt freshman campaign. Nevada also boasts a good defensive line, led by reigning All-Mountain West first team honoree Dom Peterson. Let’s also give credit to the special teams. Placekicker Brandon Talton — who made 21-of-25 field goals last season — looks to build off his stellar freshman season.
There is also some area of concern for this team heading into 2020. The Pack return all five starters on an offensive line that ranked eighth-worst in the nation last year, per Pro Football Focus. They also lose a number of defensive starters — including two All-Mountain West honorees Gabe Sewell and Daniel Brown. Nevada’s back seven will be something to keep an eye on — especially with a new scheme in-place under new defensive coordinator Brian Ward.