The Broncos boast a surplus of experience, returning the majority of their starters on both sides of the ball. However, among the few players that left this offseason are star tailback Jay Ajayi and fifth year senior and starting quarterback Grant Hedrick. Ajayi finished second in the nation in rushing touchdowns with 28, and Hedrick led the nation in completion percentage at 70.8 percent.
Among the returning starters is Kamalei Correa, a junior linebacker who finished with 12 sacks a year ago, good for seventh in all of college football and first in the Mountain West Conference.
The Broncos are entering their second season under head coach Bryan Harsin, who led the Broncos to 12 wins in 2014. Boise State is looking for another successful year in 2015 and is anxious to start their season strong against the Washington Huskies and their former head coach Chris Petersen.
Here is an in-depth look at Boise State Bronco team that will be hosting the Huskies to kickoff the 2015 season.
The game is at 7:15 pm Pacific Time on Friday, September 4 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. The game will be shown nationally on ESPN.
Players to watch
#82 JR 6’0” 175-pound WR Thomas Sperbeck
2014 stats: 51 receptions, 877 yards, 17.2 ypc, 78 long, 3 TD
Sneak Peak: Sperbeck had a rough start to the 2014 campaign without recording a single reception in the first four games. However, when senior standout Matt Miller went down with an ankle injury against Air Force, Sperbeck got an opportunity to roll with the first team offense. He did not disappoint, gaining 79 yards through the air on six receptions. After solidifying his spot as Miller’s replacement in the starting receiving corps, Sperbeck established himself as the Broncos huge contributor to the Broncos aerial offense last season, as he finished the season as the team leader in receiving yards. There is nothing that jumps out at you physically with Thomas Sperbeck. A 6-foot, 175-pound receiver, he isn’t a huge target. He also doesn’t boast top-end speed that leaves defensive backs in the dust. However, Sperbeck has reliable hands and finds a way to get open. His ability to create separation helped Sperbeck bust a few big plays, as he tallied a reception of 20 yards or more in 8 of his 14 games, including the Broncos’ longest play from scrimmage in the 2014 season with a 78-yard touchdown grab. After not recording a catch in the first four games, Sperbeck was able to haul in 51 over the next 10 games. If it's third down and the Broncos need to move the chains to keep a long drive going, the Huskies better have an eye on Thomas Sperbeck.
Husky Comparison: Dante Pettis
#1 5’6” 173-pound WR Shane Rhodes
2014 stats: 68 receptions, 585 yard, 8.6 YPC, 50 long, 7 TD, 15 carries, 179 yards, 11.9 YPC, 49 long, 0 TD
Sneak Peak: Shane Williams-Rhodes has been a durable and reliable asset for the Broncos over the past few seasons, racking up 170 touches in 2013 and 2014. His reliability is paired with excellent speed and elusiveness. His lack of size may actually play to his advantage, as he is a smaller target for defenders to hit and he can hide behind blockers on screen passes and hand-offs. He led Boise State in receptions in 2014, and he even tallied 15 carries for the Broncos. Williams-Rhodes has also returned 34 punts and 19 kickoffs during his college career. Williams-Rhodes can hurt you in a number of ways and is a threat at receiver, in the backfield, and as a returner.
Husky Comparison: Jaydon Mickens
#13 5’9” 205-pound RB Jeremy McNichols
2014 stats: 17 carries, 159 yards, 9.4 YPC, 28 long, 1 TD, 15 receptions, 155 yards, 10.3 YPC, 41 long, 1 TD
Sneak Peak: Although McNichols did not have a high volume of touches, which can happen when you’re behind Jay Ajayi on the depth chart, he is the favorite to lead the Broncos in carries during the 2015 season. McNichols also will handle kick return duties for Boise State. What we can tell from his 17 carries and 15 receptions is that McNichols is explosive, accumulating 314 total yards in those 32 touches, including plays of 41 and 28 yards. McNichols is also well built, weighing in on the heavier side of 200 pounds. He also has good speed and he can make defenders miss with his shiftiness. McNichols is a well-rounded back with a healthy balance of traits that can make him successful. Nicknamed “The Weapon,” McNichols has the potential to surpass the 1,000-yard mark like every Boise State featured back has done since 2009. It’s hard to replace a back as talented as Jay Ajayi, but his absence leaves a lot of touches up for grabs. While it would be incredibly difficult for McNichols to garner the numbers as Ajayi did a season ago, the availability of carries should allow McNichols plenty of opportunities to rush for over 1,000 yards.
Husky Comparison: Myles Gaskin
#15 SO 6’4” 200-pound QB Ryan Finley
2014 stats: 12-27 for 161 yards, 44.4 completion percentage, 5.96, 2 TD, 1 INT, 11.6 RAT, 7 carries, 31 yards, 4.4 YPC, 38 long, 0 TD
Sneak Peak: Finley entered fall camp as the favorite to win the quarterback position battle. After the first couple weeks of camp, he was able to emerge victorious over the likes of JUCO transfer Thomas Stuart, redshirt freshman Alex Ogle, and true freshman Brett Rypien. Finley has little experience as a Bronco, but he played for the second half against Air Force, completing 12 of his 25 passes for 161 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception. While Finley’s sample size is small and his completion percentage is low, Finley was able to throw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter while trailing at Air Force, the only Bronco scores in a 28-14 losing effort. Finley boasts a lively arm and a willingness to run. All of Bronco Nation will rally behind the redshirt sophomore, and he will be ready to test his talent against a solid Washington secondary.
Husky Comparison: K.J. Carta-Samuels
#8 JR 6’3” 248-pound LB/DL Kamalei Correa
2014 stats: 59 total tackles, 19.0 TFL, 12.0 sacks, 0 INT, 2 FF
Sneak Peak: Kamalei Correa guys demands and deserves the respect of opposing offenses. After racking up 12 sacks, tied for seventh in the nation last season, Correa earned first team All-MWC honors. Entering his junior season, Correa is undoubtedly the leader and most feared member of the Broncos defense. Correa measures up with former Husky and current New Orleans Saint Hau’oli Kikaha. He will be tasked with wreaking havoc on Washington's inexperienced offensive line and will most certainly be a crucial player for UW tackles Coleman Shelton and Matt James to keep away from whoever starts at quarterback for Washington. Even if the Huskies are able to prevent him from recording any sacks, the talented and physical linebacker was also able to rack up 19 tackles for a loss last year. Whether it’s getting after the quarterback or stuffing the run game, Correa makes his name in the backfield. Containing him will be a tall order.
Husky Comparison: Joe Mathis, if he played linebacker
More accurate Ex-Husky Comparison: Hau’oli Kikaha
#20 JR 6’1” 230-pound LB Tanner Vallejo
2014 stats: 100 total tackles, 16.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 INT (for a touchdown), 0 FF
Sneak Peak: The man in the middle, Tanner Vallejo, is a tackling machine. The 230-pound junior-to-be led the Broncos in tackles last season, while finishing second in tackles for a loss. He also was a presence in the passing game, knocking down four passes recording an interception. While Vallejo is a solid and consistent contributor, he also possesses big play ability, recovering three fumbles, taking one the distance for a 31 yard touchdown, and taking his only interception 63 yards to pay dirt, making him one of only four Broncos defensive players to score a touchdown. Vallejo rose to the occasion for the Mountain West Conference Championship game as well as the Fiesta Bowl, recording double-digit tackles in both games. He was named the Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP. Now with 20 starts under his belt, Vallejo is ready to be a leader for his linebacker corps as well as the rest of the Broncos defensive unit this season. As a great run stuffer, leader, and playmaker, Tanner Vallejo will make his presence known.
Husky Comparison: Keishawn Bierrea
#5 SR CB 5’9” 155-pound CB Donte Deayon
2014 stats: 33 total tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 6 INT, 2 TD, 9 PD, 1 FF
Sneak Peak: Donte Deayon has been able to rise to incredible heights for a cornerback of his size. While he is smaller than the majority of receivers he faces, he is still able to lock them down. On top of his ability to break up passes, he is a big playmaker. Deayon forced seven turnovers in total last season, and he turned two of them into touchdowns. While his size may make him easy to, literally, overlook, Deayon makes it up with his play making ability. His speed allows him to stick to receivers like glue. After being named second team all-Mountain West for consecutive seasons, Deayon has high hopes for his senior season in blue.
Husky Comparison: A shorter Sidney Jones
#40 6’0” SR 306-pound NT Armand Nance
2014 stats: 36 total tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 0 INT, 1 FF
Sneak Peak: Kamalei Correa was the premier pass rusher for the Broncos in 2014, and Tanner Vallejo joined Correa as the primary run stuffers. While those two enjoyed a lot of success last season, their jobs were made easier by nose tackle Armand Nance, who helped clear space for the defensive playmakers. Nance is relatively small for a true nose tackle at barely 300 pounds. However, Nance has no trouble creating pressure. His ability to get in the backfield helped him accumulate six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The pressure he applied in the middle also helped other players on the Boise defense get to the quarterback or stuff runs in the backfield. Like most nose tackles, Nance’s numbers aren’t overwhelming, but his contributions go far beyond his individual stats. As a senior leader for this defensive line, Nance makes the players around him better. Washington center Sifa Tufunga and guards Jake Eldrenkamp and Shane Brostek will get to know Mr. Nance well by the time the season opener comes to an end. Nance has racked up 22 starts during his three years at Boise State, 14 more than Eldrenkamp, Tufunga, and Brostek combined. His game experience will be a big factor in the season opener against Washington.
Husky Comparison: Elijah Qualls
What Boise State's offense looks like
The Broncos returns the majority of their starters on the offensive side of the ball, boasting 91 collective starts along the offensive line alone. However, they did lose a few players who were crucial to the Broncos’ success in 2014. Running back Jay Ajayi ran 347 times for 1823 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also contributed to the passing game, hauling in 50 catches for 535 yards and four touchdowns. It is nearly impossible to replace that kind of production. The Broncos also lost quarterback Grant Hedrick, whose 70.8 percent completion rate topped all quarterbacks who qualified in the 2014 season.
This offense still demands respect. The experienced offensive line won’t only help Ryan Finley buy time in his first career start, but it also will provide a solid wall for Jeremy McNichols to run behind. It is hard to imagine McNichols accumulating 32 touchdowns like Ajayi did in 2014, however he is running behind a line that was a factor in Ajayi’s success. Last season the Broncos ran the ball 11.3 more times per game than they threw the ball. This year’s offense will also prioritize running the ball.
Ryan Finley has little experience, but he has some experienced and talented targets to throw to. The dependability of Thomas Sperbeck and the versatility of Shane Williams-Rhodes will make Finley’s job easier with their ability to get open and make plays. In the little game experience Finley had last season he was able to connect with tight end Jake Roh for 43 yards against Air Force and may have developed some chemistry with the sophomore tight end.
All in all, Boise State will have a pretty balanced offense established by a strong offensive line heading into the season opener against the Huskies.
What Boise State's defense looks like
The 2014 Broncos defense featured three players who recorded double-digit tackles for loss last season. Two of those three return this year in Junior linebackers Kalamei Correa and Tanner Vallejo. Correa serves more as a pass rusher and edge setter, as he led the team in tackles for loss and sacks last season, recording 19 and 12 respectively. Vallejo, on the other hand, is a true middle linebacker, establishing the second level of the Bronco defense. Both Vallejo and Correa are playmakers as they were a part of 6 turnovers last season, two of which Vallejo returned for a touchdown.
A strong and experienced defensive line supports these two standouts. The d-line rotation features six seniors, and is led by nose tackle Armand Nance, who has started 22 games for the Broncos during his college football career. The depth of the Broncos line might give the Huskies trouble, as Nance has started more games in his career than the entire Washington offensive lineman combined. This group will feed off of the electric energy of Bronco Nation and will come ready to play on September 4th.
The secondary features two safeties, two corners, and a nickel back in Boise State’s 3-3-5 base defense. Donte Deayon is the biggest playmaker for the Broncos’ secondary, as he intercepted 6 passes, returning two for touchdowns. The Broncos return two starters from the 2015 season in seniors Donte Deayon and Darian Thompson. Although they are the least experienced group of the group, the secondary has three seniors, and are led by playmaker Donte Deayon. The leadership of Deayon and Thompson, as well as the extra defensive back in the nickel set, will make it tough for the Huskies to garner a lot of success through the air.
Keys to the Game
- Throw the first punch – It is never easy to play on the blue turf. Add the fact that this is Chris Petersen’s return to Boise, and there is no doubt that Bronco Nation will be electric. Boise State will seem to have the momentum before the opening kickoff, and if the Huskies don’t get on the board first, it will be hard for Washington to ever get any momentum. An early score for the Huskies will help shake the nerves and steal some energy from the Bronco fans.
- Establish the run - Dwayne Washington logged 100 yards or more in three of the Huskies' final four games of the 2014 season. Now that Dwayne finds himself as the feature back for the upcoming year, it will be essential for him to pick up where he left off last season. His ability to run effectively against the Broncos will ease the burden on Jeff Lindquist in just his second start as in his career if he is named starter. On top of that, running the ball efficiently will allow Washington to slow the game down and operate at a comfortable pace that should take some energy from the Broncos fans.
- Keep Kalamei Correa out of the backfield – The Huskies offensive line is inexperienced and unproven. A player as talented as Correa can make the season opener a forgettable one for Husky fans if he is able to get in the backfield at will. If Correa can be contained, the Huskies might be able to string a few solid drives together and start to accumulate some momentum.
- Strike early, strike often – This may seem obvious, but with the hype surrounding this game and what is sure to be an electric atmosphere in Boise, the Broncos have an opportunity to end this one before it really starts. It’s hard to imagine the Huskies coming back from down big early in the contest. If the Broncos can build on the momentum that they will have before the opening kickoff, it could be a long night for the Huskies
- Take care of the ball – The Broncos will have plenty of momentum before the game even starts. Nothing kills momentum like a turnover. If the Broncos can take care of the football, and not give the Huskies any chance to take some wind out of the Broncos’ sails, all the pressure will be on the young and inexperienced Huskies to make things happen on their own.
- Get in the backfield – With the retirement of Dexter Charles, the Huskies have zero returning regular starters on their offensive line. A lot of fall camp was spent mixing and matching, trying different players at different positions. With little experience across the board on the offensive line, and almost no work together as a unit, the Husky line will be vulnerable to seasoned veterans like Kamalei Correa. Getting into the backfield and causing chaos on the offensive line of the Huskies will throw Washington off their rhythm and make it incredibly difficult for the Huskies to operate.