The Boise State Broncos have gotten off to an uneven start in the Andy Avalos era. They struggled in 2021 and for the first month of 2022 before making some fundamental changes on offense. Even for much of the Harsin era, they were a good but not great team. In fact, the Broncos have not been ranked in any poll since 2020 and haven’t finished a season ranked since 2019. All of that is a long way from the program highpoint of being ranked 2nd in the entire country in the USA Today, Coach’s, and Harris Polls back in October of 2010. It has been a slow but steady downward journey ever since; such a gentle fall from grace that some turning points went unnoticed until well after the fact.
How did they go from being on top of the world to their low point in September of 2022? Some of the major turning points in the program’s history are reviewed here.
The Gentle Decline to Rock Bottom
NCAA Violations (2011)
On social media, this is often referred to as “Couch Gate.” Basically, the football committed minor infractions by providing improper benefits to incoming freshmen, totaling just under a hefty $5,000. Football players usually join the program in the middle of summer and take part in conditioning and player-run practices but are not official students in the school yet, meaning they don’t have a play to live. Due to this, there was a long-standing pattern of freshmen sleeping on couches of upperclassmen and getting some money for (fast-) food, as well as driving them to practices.
In the report, the NCAA threw around the old “lack of institutional control phase,” which the Broncos disagreed with. Boise State decided to impose penalties on themselves while waiting for the NCAA to conclude its investigation. They decreased their fall camp (padded) practices by three for two years and reduced their scholarship limit from 85 to 82 for the same timeframe.
Through the investigation, Boise State attempted to work with the NCAA to improve its protocols. However, it turns out even the NCAA doesn’t understand the rules, and somehow, that was Boise State’s fault. Due to this error, three of their players couldn’t play in a few games at the start of the 2009 season. Later, during the appeals or wrap-up process, the NCAA admitted the penalties were too harsh but did not lessen any of the restrictions, which seemed inconsistent as well.
Longtime athletic director Gene Blaymaier became the scapegoat during all of this and was fired after 30 years in the position. This led to some instability in the athletic department and the disappointing tenure of AD Curt Apsey, who was largely seen as someone who did next to nothing during his tenure.
It should be noted that following this situation, Boise State created a bridge program for incoming freshmen where they should take summer courses so they could move in during the summer for practices in a legal manner.
Unable to afford to retain coaches (2009-2011)
Coach Petersen’s original coaching staff ended up being a great group of coaches. It’s filled with future head coaches and coordinators. While college football staffs rarely stay together, this one suffered some significant losses at specific times.
Following the second Fiesta Bowl, vital staff began to leave in order to pursue other opportunities. DC Justin Wilcox went to Tennessee, and a year later, OC Bryan Harsin ventured to Texas. Then, in 2011, another round of departures occurred with Jeff Choate (LB/ST), Brent Pease (OC/QB), and Marcel Yates (DBs) all leaving to go to Power 5 programs as well. The defense was able to hold steady, but the Broncos were never able to truly keep things going on offense, which will be highlighted in greater detail below.
Off-field trouble (2012-2013)
Boise State usually recruits high-character type of players. Fans may remember Coach Pete constantly using the phrase “our kinda guys,” and on the internet, it was common to see “OKG” everywhere for a few years. This system was never perfect, and there were always players who didn’t work out (think of Jeff Worthy and Jeremy Childs, and to some extent, Titus Young). However, at the end of Petersen’s tenure, there were more incidents and more serious ones at that.
Highly touted kicker Jake Van Ginkel was kicked off the team in November of 2012. Trouble must have started before this because he didn’t even make the fall camp roster of 105 players. When asked about it, Coach Pete sounded resigned, saying something to the effect of “Maybe it’s better for him to work independently.”
Meanwhile, two others were suspended that season and eventually dismissed from the team in January of 2013. Phenom safety Lee Hightower was starting over Darian Thompson, which indicates the level of talent Hightower had. Some may remember that Thompson was once the Mountain West Conference career leader in interceptions before becoming an NFL draft pick. Also dismissed was tight end Hayden Plinke, who was a reserve, but one who had significant potential.
A few months later, Sam Ukwuachu announced he was transferring to Baylor. This was a big blow, as he was a freshman All-American during the 2012 season. However, it came out he had some legal trouble while still at Boise, which resulted in him being dismissed from the team, which initiated his transfer.
All of those examples demonstrate that some character issues with players off the field contributed to some unnecessary challenges in the years following the Golden Era. Perhaps that hastened Coach Pete leaving. Or maybe it was indicative of the challenges mid-major schools faced in attracting talent. Either way, it was another critical set of instances that produced a negative impact on the program.
Restructuring the offense (2013)
Following a season where the offense failed to score an offensive touchdown in two different games, it was announced that Boise State would be restructuring its offense. Originally, Coach Pete described the shift as “trimming the fat,” meaning the playbook had become too big and too difficult for players to digest. However, the change was much more significant.
Under controversial offensive coordinator Robert Prince, and with the blessing of Coach Pete, Boise State went from a pro-style offense to a spread offense. They went from being arguably the most innovative offense in the country to running the same exact offense as everyone else. Not only was it controversial, but it was ineffective.
In their 2013 form, the Broncos did not have the correct personnel. Joe Southwick was a pocket-passer and was never a threat to run with RPOs, which basically became half-back dives every first down. Passes to the flat were extremely common as well. Jay Ajayi was a great running back but was a power-back, which would have been better suited for their previous offense, although his talent won out. Matt Miller was a great wide receiver, but he did not possess blazing speed. None of it made sense, and although they were still talented enough to put up points (37.5), they were predictable and frustrating and easily neutralized by good defenses, indicated by their 8-5 season.
More off-field trouble (2015-2017)
Like his predecessor, the Harsin era had its share of player issues as well. Every program seems to have them, but the Bronco’s football program had some high-profile departures in the first few seasons during Harsin’s tenure.
Mat Boesan was a Coach Pete recruit, but he was enjoying a breakout season under Coach Harsin in 2014. He was charged with careless driving and obstructing/resisting officers the summer before the season, but he still played during the fall. However, halfway through the year, he was dismissed from the team due to an undisclosed violation of team rules (if the reason came out, I either forgot it or never saw it).
A year and a half later, a trio of players were not only kicked off the team but out of the school altogether. Linebacker Marquis Hendrix and defensive backs Donzale Roddie and Darreon Jackson were all promising recruits in the class of 2015. However, none of them even completed a year on campus. In May of 2016, it was announced Hendrix and Roddie were expelled while Jackson was suspended for a year, all stemming from a sexual assault investigation. None of them saw the field in their short time on campus and left holes on the depth chart at those positions.
Defensive back Kam Miles was a high-profile junior college transfer who played for Boise State for 11 games in 2015 and 2016. Unfortunately, his lack of production was outdone by his behavior off the field. In February of 2017, Miles pleaded guilty to a drug paraphernalia charge, and one week later, he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery. That was the end of his time in the program.
A constant shuffle of coordinators (2014-2019)
The Petersen era was hurt by assistant coaches leaving, and that trend continued with the Harsin regime, specifically with his coordinators. During his seven-year run as head coach, he went through four offensive coordinators (five, if counting Scott Huff) and three defensive coordinators.
Mike Sanford was tremendous in 2014 but left after only one season. He was replaced by Elijah Drinkwitz took up the mantle for the 2015 season, but he too only stayed for a year as OC before moving on. Zak Hill lasted the longest, being brought on as a co-OC in 2016 before running the show solo for three seasons. 2020 brought on Eric Kiesau, who likely would have stayed longer had he not followed Harsin to Auburn.
On the defensive side of the ball, Marcel Yates stayed in his position for two seasons before moving on and was replaced by Andy Avalos. Avalos ran the defense for three successful seasons but was lured away by Oregon. Then it was Jeff Schmedding’s turn as defensive coordinator for two seasons. Again, he may have stayed longer but accepted Harsin’s offer to join him at Auburn.
Coaching turnover was not kind to Boise State, but it was especially difficult changing coordinators every year or two, making it more challenging to be consistent with schemes and player development.
The destruction of the offensive line (2017-2022?)
OL coach Scott Huff was on staff for both Coach Petersen and Coach Harsin and passed up some opportunities to leave Boise State over the years. But when Coach Pete called with a chance to join him at Washington as the OL coach, the opportunity was too good for him to pass up.
This occurred in March and left the Broncos without someone to coach the offensive line late in the coaching carousel cycle. Options were likely limited, so Coach Harsin turned to someone he was familiar with from Arkansas State, Brad Bedell. On paper, Coach Bedell had the experience and NFL pedigree to be successful. Instead, it ended up being a four-year stretch of putrid play on the offensive line. The units allowed a total of 101 sacks (28, 32, 27, 14) over three and a half seasons (counting 2020 as half a season due to the smaller number of games played), and often, it seemed like more.
While the team had stretches of average or even good play, it was never longer than a few games. Having quarterbacks who weren’t known for their mobility certainly didn’t help matters, but the fact that they constantly seemed to be under duress remains. Poor o-line play led directly to several quarterback concussions and other injuries. It also strongly contributed to keeping BSU from a conference championship or two and arguably one NY6 Bowl.
Though Bedell left following the 2020 season, his legacy was still felt over parts of the past two seasons as players brought in or coached by him seem to still be unlearning some bad habits, or else the team is moving on from the player’s ineffectiveness (27 sacks allowed in 2021, right in line with their average since 2017). Only in the second half of the 2022 season did the unit resemble something close to a net positive (14 sacks allowed for the year). In 2023, they may even be considered a strength.
Vanilla Offense (2021-present)
Most people should be familiar with this category, as it was the most recent one on the list. Once again, Boise State brought in an offensive coordinator who ran a specific type of offense that did not fit the player personnel they had. Often when this happens, either the team will play the players who fit the best, even if they aren’t the best players, or the coach adapts to the players he has. The Broncos did neither option, which made the offense stale and ineffective.
Hank Bachmeier was a pocket-passer in an RPO system and couldn’t escape pressure when the offensive line broke down. The OL struggled to pick up blitzes or hold the pocket for more than a few seconds. The wide receivers had talent but struggled to gain separation or pick up yards after the catch (both of which are necessities in the West Coast offense). The running game showed promise, but not when defenses loaded the box to shut it down. Perhaps the biggest critique of the offense was there was seldom a Plan B for when Plan A wasn’t working.
This was the final fall for Boise State as they hit rock bottom on September 23rd, 2022. The Broncos were lifeless in a loss to UTEP, only able to muster 177 total yards and a measly 10 points. With the state of the program looking as bleak as anyone could remember, two significant changes occurred immediately after hitting rock bottom. The first was Coach Avalos firing Coach Plough, the offensive coordinator. And the second followed soon after as starting quarterback Hank Bachmeier left the team. At the time, those changes demonstrated the severity of the situation, but they ended up being the start of the climb back upward.
Rebuilding the Foundation
Hiring Jeramiah Dickey as AD (2021-present)
In October 2020, Athletic Director Curt Apsey decided to (or was forced to) step down from his position, ending the lackluster era that defined his tenure. After a search process that lasted a few months, Jeramiah Dickey was hired and immediately became a revelation.
He has expanded the athletic department staff, backed up big dreams with big execution, and prioritized fundraising, bringing in millions of dollars in his two short years. But his first order of business was to make an important hire at head football coach.
Hiring Andy Avalos (Late 2020-present)
There was a lot of speculation about who would be brought in to replace Bryan Harsin, and in the end, heralded player and assistant coach Andy Avalos was announced as the new coach. Through two seasons, he has had to endure some growing pains in his first shot as head coach and has some areas to grow in, most notably managing his time outs towards the end of each half. However, he increased the win total from year one to year two and emphasized the blue-collar culture that he played under. Not only has he worked to re-establish the program’s culture, but he has been intentional in recruiting specific types of players at each position while simultaneously doing well in the industry recruiting rankings. At least through two seasons, Coach Avalos appears to be the right person for the job.
Increasing the Assistant Salary Pool (2021-present)
Unfortunately, losing key assistant coaches has been a hallmark of the Petersen and Avalos era. It is no surprise that Dickey and Avalos are seeking to slow down this trend in the present day. The Boise State football program is attempting to find the money to keep assistants longer and also be an attractive destination for new ones when the inevitable openings do happen. When Coach Avalos was hired, his salary pool for assistants totaled $2.1 million divided up between ten assistants. That figure is pretty good overall. However, the important part of the contract is that the salary pool increases by $50,000 every year, leading to more money in hopes of keeping assistants.
This has led to significant increases for coordinators this past offseason. DC Spencer Danielson got a two-year contract worth a total of $875,000. The new OC hire, Bush Hamdan, will make $825,000 on his two-year contract. The Broncos have never dished out that kind of money to coordinators before.
Assistant coaches will always leave. That happens at big universities too. But more money will help make a difference. It likely keeps assistants a year or two longer, as evidenced by Danielson staying after getting a big pay bump. Also, it will help hire qualified replacements when coaches do leave, as evidenced by bringing in coaches like Keith Bhonapha and Erik Chinander over the past two offseasons.
Taylen Green at QB (2022-present)
Back in September, things seemed dire, and the Broncos had no choice but to kickstart their future by turning to Taylen Green at quarterback. In the first half of his first career start, he looked overmatched and was even replaced for a bit. However, things fell into place in the second half and every game after that. Green progressed every week, especially as a passer, and wound up winning the Mountain West Freshman of the Year award.
With Green leading the offense, Boise State finally has a quarterback who is a running threat and can strike fear into opposing defenses. He has the highest potential of any player currently on the roster and will only get better over the next few years. Also, Green can neutralize any shortcomings on the offensive line with his ability to evade pressure with his legs. The future is bright at quarterback with Taylen Green.
Hiring Bush Hamdan as Offensive Coordinator (2023-present)
The rumors are that Hamdan was Coach Avalos’ first choice for offensive coordinator two years ago. Now, Hamdan is in the fold and will be responsible for leading the offense, calling the plays, and developing Taylen Green. The Broncos currently have a wealth of talent on offense at the skill positions, and Hamdan seems to be the right man for the job. Although interviews rarely go into specific details, the whispers make it seem that Hamdan is determined to build the scheme around the strength of the personnel rather than the other way around. This clip with Avalos is an example of alluding to the idea of building plays around the talent at hand (6:15 mark).
People on social media constantly say, “this isn’t the Boise State offense,” when the offense is struggling and point to tight ends or motions, or multiple packages are possible solutions. However, the vintage Boise State offense is two-fold. One, they are constantly at the brink of creativity rather than trying to emulate what everyone else is doing. And secondly, they maximize the potential of their personnel by putting them in the best opportunities to succeed.
If Bush Hamdan can identify ways to get the ball into the hands of his numerous offensive playmakers, the sky is the limit for that side of the ball, and Boise State could be primed for a special season or two.
Thirteen years ago, Boise State was in its golden age and was the premiere Group of 5 program. Since that time, the program has gone from a team in the middle of the rankings to a team in the back of the rankings to a team that has not been ranked. The Broncos have become a good but not great team over the past few seasons. Some of the potential reasons for this are outlined above. It is important to remember that nearly every program goes through highs and lows. Some things were out of their control, while others seemed like good ideas at the time but didn’t work out. Regardless, it appears that in the last few years, the athletic department and football program have been taking steps to correct their missteps and push back against the drawbacks of being a Group of 5 program. The future appears bright for Boise State, and the next few years could be a defining time for the program.