The strangeness of 2020 has followed us into fall. On August 10th the Mountain West Conference postponed all sports indefinitely due to COVID-19 health concerns. Shortly after fall camp opened for the Broncos, the season came to a screeching halt. The weeks that followed that announcement were filled with argument, concern, and rumor, but it has finally sunk in, the Broncos are not going to be suiting up this fall.
As disappointing as the reality of a canceled 2020 football season is, there is still some hope that the Mountain West Conference will play in the spring. For now, that glimmer of hope will have to do. Follow along as we take a trip through make-believe-land and preview what might have been, and what may be yet to come for whatever football we are lucky enough to see from the Broncos in 2021.
Boise State ended the 2019 season with a sour taste in their mouth after a tough loss against Bronco legend and departing Washington Head Coach Chris Petersen in the Las Vegas Bowl. It was the conclusion to a wild season that featured a true freshman quarterback leading the Broncos to a road victory against Florida State in week one, included three different quarterbacks starting and winning games for Boise, and showcased the incredible young talent in the pipeline for the Broncos.
After a rollercoaster of a season in 2019, Boise State was poised to take their newfound experience and untapped talent in to 2020 and defend the Mountain West title for the third consecutive season. On offense, Boise State was set to return almost all their skill position talent (with the notable exception of John Hightower) and figured to be explosive with another year of experience under their belts. The big question mark is the offensive line which lost four of the five starters from the 2019 season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Broncos were looking to reload after losing all four starters on the defensive line, but with a deep group at linebacker and a mix of experience and raw talent in the secondary, the Broncos were expected to pick up where they left off in 2019. Bryan Harsin and company have continued to recruit better than anyone in the Mountain West Conference, and 2020 was to be the year that a lot of that young talent would explode onto the scene.
Boise State returns six starters from 2019 and several other key contributors. The list of returning athletes includes QB Hank Bachmeier, RB George Holani, WR Khalil Shakir, and TE John Bates. The Broncos must replace four of their five starters along the offensive line, but return John Ojukwu who will move from RT to LT.
The Broncos will also be without the services of John Hightower but have several veteran receivers and some exciting young talent to replace Hightower’s tremendous production.
Reasons for optimism:
There is no better feeling then having an offense that is set at quarterback. A team can have all the talent in the world and still struggle to overcome mediocre play from the signal-caller. Boise State has Sophomore QB Hank Bachmeier. Bachmeier showed enough of the type of talent he possesses in an injury-plagued freshman season for Bronco fans to be riding high with optimism.
If that weren’t enough, the quarterback room at Boise State is stacked with talent and experience. They return Chase Cord, who now has more time to recover from his own injuries and added USC transfer Jack Sears. Bryan Harsin has shown he is willing to get creative with playing time, and he certainly has the horses to do so again when football resumes.
In addition to the promising quarterback room, Boise State is absolutely loaded at the skill positions. Even with the loss of Philadelphia bound John Hightower, the Broncos return an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position.
The most exciting receiver to watch when the Broncos return to action is junior Khalil Shakir. Shakir burst onto the scene in 2019 with 63 catches for 872 yards and six touchdowns. He added three touchdowns on the ground and his undeniable talent and explosiveness leaves little doubt about his future as a playmaker at Boise State and beyond.
Joining Shakir in the wide receiver room are seniors CT Thomas and Octavius Evans, and a bevy of young talent highlighted by RS sophomore Stefan Cobbs. If that wasn’t enough to get the optimism-meter rising, the Broncos also return tight end John Bates who looks to cement his legacy with a memorable senior year, and bring in exciting prospects like Austin Bolt who looks to be a jack-of-all-trades weapon for the Broncos.
The passing game isn’t the only reason for optimism for Boise State fans. The Broncos return a trio of talented running backs highlighted by the explosive sophomore George Holani. Holani extended the impressive streak of Bronco running backs to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season to 11 straight years in 2019. Watching the young star in action, it seems like a near certainty that the streak will hit a dozen years when football resumes.
The only reason the streak might be broken is because Holani is joined on the depth chart by two experienced and talent running backs in RS senior Robert Mahone and junior Andrew Van Buren. Overall, there is a lot to be optimistic about when the offense finally returns to The Blue.
Cause for concern:
The Broncos only have one cause for concern on offense heading into the season. It is (literally) a big problem. Boise State returns just one starter along the offensive line in the upcoming season. The Broncos will move standout tackle John Ojukwu to left tackle and the RS junior will see a lot of new faces up front. The Boise State offensive line has struggled to get going in recent years, and a wholesale change up front won’t make it easy to reverse the concerning trend.
The Broncos will lean on a mix of fifth-year seniors and young talent to replace the veteran group that took the field in 2019, but it’s anyone’s guess how the depth chart will shake out or how many combinations are experimented with before the group is set in stone.
The cliché that games are won and lost in the trenches has endured because it’s mostly true. Boise State is loaded with talent at the skill positions, but without protection in the pass game and mauling defenders in the ground game all that skill won’t get a chance to really shine.
Boise State converted 95 of 199 (48%) third downs into first downs or touchdowns in 2019. That was good enough to be top 10 in the country in the category. What was extra impressive about the conversion rate was that Boise State often found themselves in third and long situations.
The Broncos return two players, CT Thomas and Khalil Shakir, that were integral in achieving such a high rate of success on 3rd downs. The success on 3rd downs allowed Boise State to stay on the field and score 33.9 points per game making them the 19th highest scoring team in the country.
There is likely to be some regression to the mean on the conversion rate of 3rd and long plays, but with a full year featuring Holani, and another year of reps from Bachmeier, expect the Broncos to once again find themselves among the elite in this statistical category.
There are several candidates to be the wildcard on offense for the Broncos. Boise State has played multiple quarterbacks in each of the past few years, there are any number of offensive linemen that will likely step up and shine, and young guys like Stefan Cobbs will see an increase in opportunities when football returns.
Maybe the wildest of wildcards is Austin Bolt, the true freshman tight end faces an uphill battle for reps at a position that is notoriously difficult to pick up at the college level, but the talented converted quarterback has a special quality about him that may be too intriguing for Bryan Harsin and the offensive staff to hold off on. With the new rule allowing athletes to play four games and still redshirt, and with the additional time that Bolt has with the postponement of the season, the local sports phenom might just prove to be a trick up the Bronco’s sleeve when football returns.
Depending on how you count them, Boise State returns five starters from the 2019 defense. The list of returners includes both starting cornerbacks, both linebackers, and nickelback extraordinaire Kekaula Kaniho.
The Broncos lose all four of their starters on the defensive line which will expand the roles for promising defensive linemen Scale Igiehon and Demitri Washington. Boise State will also showcase the talents of highly anticipated Broncos such as safety JL Skinner and cornerback Markel Reed when football returns.
Reasons for optimism:
Bronco fans should be optimistic about the back seven of the Boise State defense. Boise State’s back seven combines the experience and freakishly talented young players to take over games. The Linebacker group is arguably as deep and talented as any group in program history, and the Broncos will start two RS senior cornerbacks with a lot of starts under their belt. Except for strong safety, everyone in the back seven is a junior or senior.
The starting linebackers are senior Riley Whimpey and RS junior Ezekiel Noa. Whimpey was a breakout star last season with 80 tackles (seven for a loss), two sacks, seven passes defensed, and a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Noa spent most of 2019 sidelined with injury, but in his four games he averaged seven tackles per game and nearly a tackle for a loss in each contest. Joining Whimpey and Noa in the linebacker room are graduate transfer Brock Miller and senior Brenton Wickersham.
At corner the season opening starters will almost certainly be RS senior Jalen Walker and RS senior Avery Williams. Walker made his presence known in 2019 and showed his ability as a true lockdown corner. The sky is the limit for the talented senior, and he’ll look to put an exclamation point on his Boise State career before taking his talents to the NFL. Williams has struggled at times, but the veteran corner has the experience and drive to have a huge swan song season for the Broncos.
As if having two dependable corners wasn’t enough, Boise State has the luxury of bringing in a third option in sophomore Markel Reed. Reed showed flashes in a limited role in 2019 and by season’s end it may be impossible to keep the exciting young player off the field.
The safety room is a deep mix of proven veterans, young talent, and lunch pail guys that have put in the work and now have the opportunity for an expanded role. The centerpiece for the safeties, and arguably the whole defense, is senior Kekaula Kaniho. Kaniho has been a fixture in the Boise State secondary since he arrived on campus. The ballhawk safety had 10 tackles for a loss in 2019 and added 3 sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles.
At strong safety the Broncos will start sophomore JL Skinner. Skinner is a rare talent with the combination of size and speed that demands optimism. The starting free safety will be RS junior Tyreque Jones who may be the most underrated player on the Boise State roster.
Cause for concern:
As with the cause for concern for the Bronco offense, the trenches are the biggest question mark for the Bronco defense. Boise State loses all four starters along the defensive line. This includes Curtis Weaver, the all-time sack leader in Mountain West Conference history.
In addition to Weaver, the Broncos also lose stalwart defensive linemen David Moa and Sontane Lui. Boise State certainly has an exciting group of young talent to step in for the departed Bronco legends, but until the games begin the defensive line is a concern.
The player that the Bronco fans should have the least concern about is the man filling in for Weaver, Demetri Washington. In a limited role in 2019, Washington had 4.5 sacks and 34 tackles. He looks to slot right in as the next star at the STUD position for BSU. Similarly, Scale Igiehon has a proven track record and should fill the sizeable hole that Lui has left in the middle of Boise State’s defensive line.
The last two starters on the defensive line will likely be RS junior Shane Irwin at DE and RS sophomore Jackson Cravens. Depth will be provided by a large group of young guys and RS senior Sam Whitney.
Add the losses from 2019 to the unproven depth that will be relied upon when the inevitable injuries occur, and you have a cause for concern with the Boise State defense. Ultimately it looks like the Broncos are in a good position to overcome the talent that they lost but until the reloaded group has the chance to prove it, let the anxiety commence.
Boise State finished the 2019 season with a top 15 ranked run defense. The Broncos allowed just 112 rushing yards per game (even with Air Force on the schedule). Boise had 98 tackles for loss and 40 sacks to help keep opponents rushing numbers down.
The four starting defensive linemen that won’t return when the BSU season gets under way were a huge factor in containing the running attack. A big question mark for next season is if the new defensive line can create as much havoc and keep opposing offenses off schedule and one dimensional.
It is a fun exercise to find a real diamond in the rough and predict that they’ll be a wildcard, but the wildcard for Boise State when football resumes is a guy that everyone is aware of. The wildcard is the 6’4” and 220-pound JL Skinner.
Skinner, a George Iloka clone, has too much potential and has shown too many flashes to be denied his rightful role as Boise State defensive wildcard. Skinner appeared in 14 games in 2019 in a limited role. He broke up three passes and recorded 14 tackles, but he is just scratching the surface of his potential. Given a larger role, and the newly eligible “0” jersey number, Skinner is the odds-on favorite to break out in a major way if we ever get to play college football again.
Up-and-comers to watch out for:
Boise State has traditionally been able to reload year to year as opposed to rebuilding when their stars graduate to greener pastures. They do this by building depth through limited playing time for younger players. The stars on the field today are often the players that showed glimpses of brilliance in limited snaps early in their BSU career.
Last season JL Skinner and Markell Reed had moments that made it clear they were destined to make a big impact for the program. In years past, running backs like Alexander Mattison and Jeremy McNichols seized the opportunity that a backup role provided them and used it as a launching point to become NFL prospects. Some names to remember on the current roster are:
RS Freshman WR Shea Whiting: Whiting was a three-star commit in the 2019 class. He redshirted last season and appeared in three games. Whiting is 6’2” and 190 pounds. In addition to a standout high school football career in Houston, Texas, Whiting also ran track and was a member of the nationally ranked 4x4 relay team. The Bronco roster is chalk full of talent ahead of him on the depth chart, but look for Whiting to showcase his skills during his limited reps.
Freshman TE Austin Bolt: Bolt is a three-star recruit out of Borah High School in Boise. The 6’4” Bolt was a QB and jack-of-all-trades talent in high school and fits the style of Harsin’s offense. He can be used all over the field and become a player that frustrates opposing defensive coordinators during game preparations and on the field.
RS sophomore STUD Dylan Herberg: Herberg is a member of the 2018 class and redshirted during his first year on campus. Herberg hails from Timberline High School in Boise, Idaho. The young STUD end is currently third on the depth chart behind Demitri Washington and Sam Whitney. Herberg appeared in three games last season and recorded a sack and a tackle for a loss.
Freshman FS Semaj Verner: Verner is a four-star recruit out of Mayfair High School in Lakewood, California. The talented safety had 19 offers including most of the PAC12. Verner also received an offer to play for Yale, so picking up the playbook is very unlikely to prevent the freshman from earning early playing time for the Broncos.
2020 Schedule (All Games Canceled or Postponed):
*San Jose State
-Home Games in Bold
Oh, what might have been. Boise State had a great home schedule lined up with seven games on The Blue including the always popular BYU game and the highly anticipated Florida State contest. The schedule also set up nicely for another run at a Mountain West Conference Championship.
The betting markets and predictive algorithms nearly unanimously had Boise State as a touchdown or more favorite in every game except for Florida State.
It seems like the best chance of seeing a Boise State season would be a conference only slate sometime in early 2021. If that plan comes to fruition, then the expectations for the Broncos would be an undefeated season and a Mountain West Conference Championship.
As an optimist, I will continue to think that Boise State plays in January until that dream, like all others in 2020, dies a merciless death. If the Mountain West does indeed trudge forward and schedule a conference only season, then I predict that the Broncos emerge from the fray unscathed and record the strangest undefeated season in program history.