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The 2021 Boise State Football Season Preview

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The outlook for the Broncos this fall

Mountain West Football Championship - Boise State v San Jose State Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Boise State Broncos enter the 2021 season amid a sea of change. After seven seasons with the Broncos, head coach Bryan Harsin left home and headed to Auburn and the SEC. His decision triggered a tumultuous offseason that included newly hired President Marlene Tromp having to hire a new athletic director and a new head coach at virtually the same time.

After initial angst from fans as the process played out, it appears Tromp knocked it out of the park. New athletic director Jerimiah Dickey has brought a new style to the front office. He has set high expectations for himself, Boise State Athletics, and even the fans. New head coach Andy Avalos has brought a message of brotherhood that has the team and its fans clamoring for gameday.

Part of the excitement for the 2021 season is due to the promising changes the program has gone through in the last year. Another factor is that the 2020 campaign left a sour taste in the mouth of Boise State fans.

The Broncos went 5 – 2 in the pandemic shortened season, but missed games due to injury and illness, and a listless effort in the Mountain West Conference Championship game were disappointing for a fan base that always has the highest of expectations.

With a new energy from the coaching staff, student athletes, and Bronco fans, the expectations are no different heading into the 2021 season. The standard is the standard if you will.

Offense

Along with the change at head coach, Boise State hired UC Davis offensive coordinator Timothy Plough to run the Boise State offense. For the first time since Chris Petersen and Robert Prince schemed up the pistol/read option offense to showcase Jay Ajayi, there will be big and noticeable changes to the offense for the Broncos.

Plough’s offense is a fast-paced and high-flying affair. Borrowing from numerous structured offenses, Plough has created his own playbook designed to attack the field from all directions, oftentimes at a breakneck pace. Bronco fans can expect plenty of screens, misdirection, and a vertical passing game to compliment a running game with RPO options available to the quarterback.

The Broncos will be executing the new offense with one of the most talented group of players in Bronco history, including nine returning starters.

Starting at the top, quarterbacks Hank Bachmeier and Jack Sears are embroiled in a fall camp battle for the right to take the reigns of an offense that relies heavily on the quarterback to set protections and make route adjustments for the receiving corps.

The Broncos return a deep and experienced group at the wide receiver position headed by star senior Khalil Shakir and senior CT Thomas. The dynamic duo is joined by camp standout Stephen Cobbs, Octavius Evans, Billy Bowens, Davis Koetter, and Shea Whiting who are battling for playing time in an offense that will spread the ball around. The Broncos will also look to use tight ends Riley Smith, Tyneil Hopper, and Austin Bolt in the passing game.

The running back room brought in some help after a disappointing season in 2020. Oregon transfer Cyrus Habibi-Likio joins starter George Holani and a bulked-up Andrew Van Buren to jumpstart the ground game for the Broncos.

In addition to working on getting back on track in the running game, Plough’s offense will throw to running backs out of the backfield far more than Boise State has in the past. That should increase Holani’s production significantly.

The final offensive group is the most important for the Broncos. After returning just one starter on the offensive line in 2020, Boise State returns four starters up front. Leading the group is senior guard Jake Stetz and junior tackle John Ojukwu. The other returners are center Kekaniokoa Holomalia-Gonzalez and guard Garrett Curran. The Broncos hope Uzo Osuji or Ben Dooley can take the next step and start at right tackle. Will Farrar, the senior transfer from Texas Tech, has also garnered some buzz in fall camp.

Reason for optimism: The new offense. Whenever a new offense comes to town there is always optimism within a fanbase. Add in that the offense is associated with hashtags like “Shredsville” and “Half a Hundred” and that optimism grows exponentially. Then when fans realize that this will be, by far, the most talented group of athletes to ever run the new system, it makes sense that the Boise area is absolutely bursting with optimism about the 2021 season.

Cause for concern: Ironically, the new offense. As electric as the Plough offense has been, it is a complex offense that puts a ton of pressure on the quarterback to run the show. Add in a tough opening schedule and there is some concern that the Broncos could get off to a rocky start.

Many folks would list the offensive line as a cause for concern, but the new offense should help that unit out. Unlike Harsin’s offense, Plough’s system stresses getting rid of the ball super quickly. Additionally, the increased emphasis on getting to the line and snapping the ball quickly will prevent defenses from dialing up exotic blitzes with the frequency of the last few years. Lastly, Plough runs a lot of screens and RPOs which will make the offensive line’s life easier in the run game.

Key number: 12. As in 12th and dead last in rushing yards per game in the Mountain West last season. That number will have to get much better if the Broncos are going to be successful in 2021. Injuries and shaky offensive line play resulted in a disaster in the run game last season.

This year there is a new system, some depth transferring into the program, and a more experienced offensive line group. Boise State hopes to reverse the downward trend in rushing yards, and they’ll need to if they want to have a successful 2021 campaign.

Wildcard: In this category in the 2020 Boise State preview, Austin Bolt was selected as the wildcard. In hindsight, that call was a bit too bold. However, Bolt is returning to the wildcard spot in 2021. It has been said that the sophomore tight end is the fastest player on the Boise State roster and looking at film from incoming offensive coordinator Timothy Plough, there is nearly always a tight end or two on the field and often a tight end is getting vertical at the snap. This bodes well for Bolt and certainly makes him a wildcard for the Broncos.

Defense

The biggest change for Boise State’s defense is the man running the show. Head coach Andy Avalos returns to reinstall his attacking defense after spending the last two seasons at Oregon. The Broncos return nine starters (depending on how you count them) from 2020. As unfortunate as it was for Boise State that so many players missed time due to COVID and injuries last season, the added depth and experience will be a boon for the defense in 2021.

As coaching staffs across the land will shout from the mountaintop, it starts up front on defense. The Broncos are deep and talented up front and look to ease the burden of replacing both starters at cornerback with a disruptive pass rush.

Senior Shane Irwin returns at defensive end and leads an impressive group including junior Scott Matlock or senior transfer Divine Obichere at defensive tackle, senior nose tackle Scale Igiehon, and either sophomore Isaiah Bagnah or Demitri Washington at EDGE.

Also battling for playing time and potentially a starting role are a host of Broncos including Jackson Cravens and Casey Kline among others. This group should compare to the glory days of Boise State’s defensive line where the Broncos could rotate two entire defensive line groups.

At linebacker, the Broncos not only return three of the best players on the defense (counting the nickel position with this group), but they also add Avalos, a former linebacker, and a proven master at coaching up the position. Senior Riley Whimpey and Ezekiel Noa are veteran leaders that have racked up the tackles when on the field, and Kekaula Kaniho might be the biggest playmaker on the Bronco roster.

The final position group on defense is the most uncertain. Boise State returns both safeties in a highly motivated JL Skinner and underrated Tyreque Jones. However, the Broncos will be without the services of both starting corners from 2020. They will attempt to replace that star power with junior Markel Reed and either Tyric LeBeauf or transfer Caleb Biggers. The talent is there, but the corners will likely need some help from the front seven as they adjust to starting full-time.

Reason for optimism: Andy Avalos returns. Change nearly always breeds optimism for both fans and players. It felt like the right time for a change at head coach for the Broncos, and Andy Avalos was a refreshing choice to take over for the all-business Bryan Harsin. Avalos brings high energy and speaks of a Bronco brotherhood that has already brought a renewed chemistry and a positive culture to the Boise State locker room.

On the field, Avalos should help the Broncos return to their ballhawk ways. Since leaving for Oregon after the 2018 season, Boise State has average just one turnover per game. In his three seasons as defensive coordinator at Boise State, Avalos-led defenses averaged over 1.5 turnovers a game with his last two season at the helm producing 26 and 24 turnovers.

Cause for concern: There isn’t much cause for concern on defense, but there should be a certain amount of angst about replacing two absolute legends at cornerback. Markel Reed has shown enough to instill confidence and LeBeauf and Biggers are certainly talented, but even some of the best cornerbacks in Boise State history have struggled early on in their stellar careers as starters. The fact that the front seven should be historically good helps quell the concern, but until they take the field in Orlando, the cornerback spot is a cause for concern.

Key Number: 3. As in three turnovers in seven games for the Bronco defense. That projects to just five turnovers over a 12-game regular season. That number also includes an almost impossible zero fumble recoveries! That’s a complete aberration and the added emphasis coming off a dismal season in the turnover department bodes well for the Broncos this fall.

Wildcard: It might be cheating to name JL Skinner as the wildcard for the Boise Sate defense, but that’s where he landed. Many Bronco fans expected Skinner to have a breakout season in 2020, and to be fair, he had a good season. He ended up fourth on the team in tackles and nabbed 33% of the team’s turnovers (this is a true, if misleading, stat). Calling his 2020 season disappointing would be a stretch, but Skinner himself said exactly that.

He was so disappointed that he didn’t go home for the holidays at seasons end and spent his offseason, oftentimes alone at the Boise State football facilities, building his confidence and resolve to become an all-time great safety at Boise State. With the help of incoming Bronco legend Jeron Johnson who joined the defensive staff this year, Skinner is poised to accomplish his goals in 2021.

If choosing Skinner as a wildcard is a bridge too far, let’s add Divine Obichere’s name to the list. The senior transfer will compete for playing time at defensive tackle, and he’s a good bet to play a lot of snaps for Boise State this fall. In seven games last season he logged 18 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss and 2 sacks.

Obichere didn’t rest on his laurels in the offseason either. In fact, he added 21 pounds to his frame since last season and is up to 306 pounds. Besides the stats, Obichere “popped” at times on the television screen last season and seems to have something special about him. Watch for him to be a wildcard for the Broncos in 2021.

Schedule Analysis

September 2 – @ UCF

September 10 – UTEP

September 18 – Oklahoma St.

September 25 – @ Utah State*

October 2 – Nevada*

October 9 – @ BYU

October 16 – Air Force*

October 23 – BYE

October 30 – @ Colorado St.*

November 6 – @ Fresno State*

November 12 – Wyoming*

November 20 – New Mexico*

November 26 – @ San Diego St.*

*Conference Game

Thoughts: The new Boise State coaching staff won’t have the ability to ease into the season and get their bearings straight. Boise State plays their two toughest games in the first three weeks. After that they have away games against Utah State and BYU and host Nevada. Those first six games will be a challenge, particularly while breaking in a brand-new offense.

After that the schedule eases up a little bit, but road games at Fresno and San Diego State won’t exactly be a picnic. Top to bottom the 2021 season may go down as having one of the more difficult schedules in Boise State history.

Best case scenario: If the Boise State offense is ahead of schedule with installing the new offense, then they have the advantage of surprise on their side early in the season. That could lead to an opening-game win in Orlando, and an upset on the Blue against Oklahoma State. It is unlikely, but the Broncos have the talent to get through the schedule unscathed and make a NY6 bowl game.

Worst case scenario: If Boise State is behind schedule with mastering the new offense, then it could be a rough first month and a half for the Broncos. In a disaster scenario, COVID causes issues again and the transition on offense starts off rocky resulting in the Broncos losing three of their first six games. Looking at the schedule, it is unlikely but possible that Boise State finishes the season 7 – 5.

What’s probably going to happen: The excitement surrounding the team and the talent on the field will allow Boise State to navigate a difficult schedule. History tells us that the Broncos nearly always win nine to 12 games. This year likely won’t be any different. Boise State is probably going to finish the regular season 10 – 2 and compete for another Mountain West Conference Championship.