When Bryan Harsin speaks of bringing Boise State back to its roots he means only on offense: Harsin wants to get the Broncos back to basics, though not back to square one, by reinstalling the tried-and-true formula behind the program's recent success.
The offense didn't change dramatically after Harsin left his post as offensive coordinator to assume the same spot at Texas. Brent Pease, his successor, maintained the play-action, run-game, downfield-passing mentality espoused for most of Chris Petersen's historic tenure.
Now back as Petersen's successor – the no-brainer hire of the offseason – Harsin speaks of his own evolution as a coach while hammering home a simple idea: Boise needs to embrace some sense of the past.
"When Pease left, things started to change here offensively away from some of the things that we had done in the past," Harsin told USA TODAY Sports after spring drills. "So I think coming back, you start to look at some things that were staples for us that weren't done anymore, and you go, 'We've got to get back to doing some of that.' Look at what they did and say, 'That was really good.'"
Of course Boise needs to embrace the past; even at one of the nation's forward-looking programs, it'd be silly to ignore or avoid what the Broncos have achieved since 2000.
During this span, Boise leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in three major categories: wins, with 155; winning percentage, at 85.6%; and scoring, at 40.24 points per game. The Broncos have lost just four games at home, as well as just four games against major-conference competition.
Change is afoot – just not wholesale change, because things unbroken don't need fixing. Boise is a "brand," Harsin said.
"That brand has grown even in that short amount of time," he said. "To me, it's not so much the difference of what I did as a coach, it's where the program's at. To me, that's more of kind of a 'wow' moment of, 'Alright, this place is still continuing, we're still growing. What you see is not what you're going to get. It's still evolving.' And that to me is where I look at it and go, that's pretty awesome."
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
It'll storm through the vast majority of its schedule, likely only facing major tests against Washington, Fresno State, Utah State, BYU and San Diego State. Is a perfect season in the cards? You must pay attention to the possibility. And what if that scenario doesn't come to pass? Oh, the Broncos will have to settle for 11 wins. This is what Boise does, and this is what Boise will do in 2013.
In a nutshell: Petersen went out with a whimper, relatively speaking. The Broncos went winless against major-conference foes, bookending the season with losses to Washington and Oregon State; dropped three games against non-conference foes, with Brigham Young joining the Pac-12 pair; failed to win its own division, disappointingly; and suffered another loss to San Diego State, the program's second in a row to the Aztecs. Altogether disappointing, clearly, and a very poor way for Petersen to end his otherwise pitch-perfect tenure. The end view demands hindsight and foresight: Petersen was and is a legend, having created the standards in place today, and he leaves for one of his chief lieutenants the foundation for continued success.
High point: Beating Utah State in October, though the head-to-head tiebreaker would be rendered useless after another loss to SDSU. Amazingly, the Broncos would beat just two bowl teams all season: USU and Colorado State.
Low point: Washington first, followed closely by Fresno State.
Tidbit: In total, Boise has lost just nine games in conference play since the start of the 2000 season. The program's conference-play winning percentage, 91.7%, leads by leaps and bounds the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. The nine losses: Rice and Louisiana Tech in 2001, Fresno State in 2005, Hawaii in 2007, Nevada in 2010, TCU in 2011, San Diego State in 2012 and Fresno State and San Diego State a season ago.
Tidbit (Harsin edition): Harsin lost just 21 games during his 11 years as a full-time FBS assistant. The majority of these defeats came during a two-year, nine-loss span as Texas' offensive coordinator from 2011-12. Thirteen of his 21 losses came in three seasons, with a four-loss finish at Boise State in 2005 joining those two seasons at Texas; otherwise, Harsin went 97-8 as an assistant coach.
Tidbit (coaching edition): Six of Harsin's assistants have some ties to Boise State, with a pair retained from Petersen's staff: Scott Huff will coach the offensive line after spending the last four seasons as the Broncos' tight ends coach, and linebackers coach Andy Avalos will shift from the defensive line. Elsewhere, defensive coordinator Marcel Yates returns after a two-year absence at Texas A&M; running backs coach and special teams coordinator Kent Riddle is back after spending 2001-5 with the Broncos; secondary coach Julius Brown, a Boise State graduate, comes over after spending last season in the same position at Arkansas State; and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, himself a graduate – and a total star on the rise – comes over from Stanford. Two former Arkansas State assistants, mustachioed defensive line coach Steve Caldwell and tight ends coach Elijah Drinkwitz, join wide receivers coach Junior Adams in rounding out a very, very impressive staff.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Kellen Moore's worst losses
1. Nevada, 2010
2. TCU, 2011
3. TCU, 2008
4. Not applicable
5. Not applicable
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Boise has the best mix of skill talent in the Mountain West – though the line has its holes to address, as we'll discuss below. One position seems set for a significant upgrade: Grant Hedrick, now a senior, prepares for his first full season as the Broncos' starter after leaping into the lineup midway through last season. He was solid – if not a touch more so – as Boise's new starter, giving the offense a running dimension, as expected, but also showing solid comfort in the pocket and great control of the football; Hedrick tossed just five interceptions in 242 attempts, a superb ratio. The most positive idea stems from a simple theory: Hedrick is only going to be better as a senior. I'll buy that idea and double down, saying Hedrick won't just be improved but be one of the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West.
The offense is going to make things simpler, which'll help. So long, dink-and-dunk routes that go east-west, not north-south. That's going to cut into Hedrick's completion percentage, but that's fine; Boise needs to get more bang for its buck in the passing game, which is why Harsin is bringing things back to basics. But Harsin won't go so far as to tailor the offense away from Hedrick's dual-threat tendencies, instead blending the senior's ability to stretch the pocket inside the existing framework of Boise's traditional attack. Again, I really think Harsin and Hedrick are going to work well together.
And if Hedrick does fail – or is injured, or whatever – the Broncos will just run the football. Boise is home to one of the nation's most unheralded, overlooked and under-covered skill players in college football: Jay Ajayi (1,425 yards and 18 touchdowns) is the nation's most productive back operating outside the national picture, where he brings ample success and equal potential to his role as the heart and soul of Boise's attempts at offensive balance. What makes Ajayi most valuable, perhaps, is his conveyer-belt production: While the Broncos had their struggles offensively, the junior rushed for at least 70 yards in every game but one, the loss to Fresno State, and averaged 6.72 yards per game and 115.88 yards per game in the team's eight wins. Link a wind-up toy, Ajayi is going to rack up yardage with consistency on a weekly basis. In reserve, the Broncos have junior Jack Fields and sophomore Devan Demas. It's very intriguing to consider the effectiveness of Boise's run game when teamed with a more effective Hedrick.
He'll have several all-conference targets in the passing game. After setting a new program record for receptions in a season, senior Matt Miller (88 receptions for 1,140 yards) aims to continue his assault on the school's record book; better yet, his production took a meaningful step forward with Hedrick's move to the permanent starting role, as the two developed a nice rapport during the close to last season. Between Miller and junior Shane Williams-Rhoades (77 for 702), Boise has the best one-two pairing in the Mountain West – but beyond this duo, the Broncos lack proven commodities. That's not a huge fear, in my mind: Troy Ware and Dallas Burroughs will be fine, if not vastly more productive; Thomas Sperbeck seems ready for an increased role; D.J. Dean, now healthy, could be a wildcard; Chaz Anderson has taken well to a move from cornerback; and tight ends Jake Hardee, Holden Huff and Chase Blakley should be productive in the intermediate game. As a whole, it's a very strong group that only needs one of the second group to step forward as the third receiver.
Defense: On paper, this looks very much like the Mountain West's best defense. Not that there aren't issues: Boise is retooling up front, for instance, and the pass rush will be viewed with a bit of skepticism until proven otherwise – but we'll have some idea as to the answer by the start of September, I suppose. What's funny about the group as a whole is that while undergoing the biggest personnel shift of any unit on the defense – all three lost starters played up front – the line is as experienced a group as you'll find in the Mountain West, with at least two options at each starting spot. The issue isn't depth, as noted: Boise just needs to find answers on third down.
The two end positions will dictate the story. The hybrid role will go to a combination of sophomores Gabe Perez and Kamalei Correa, if not a third contributor in redshirt freshman Mat Boesen, and it's easy to see this entire group – and those sophomores are very talented, if unproven – far exceeding what Kharyee Marshall brought to the position as a senior. The bigger question stands on the opposite side, where Beau Martin (21 tackles, 4.0 sacks), who has excelled in a reserve role, looks to take on Demarcus Lawrence's all-everything impact. He'll have help: Martin will be spelled by sophomore Sam McCaskill and JUCO transfer Rondell McNair, with the latter perhaps an impact performer once he grasps the system. It's the same story inside, by and large, where Boise offsets personnel departures with very impressive depth. Armand Nance –the lone returning starter – and Tyler Horn will start, but the Broncos will also rely on Justin Taimatuia, Elliot Hoyte, JUCO transfer Antoine Turner, Robert Ash and even McCaskill, who could slide inside on certain downs. There are better individual linemen in the Mountain West; no team has as much depth.
The linebacker corps has been a clear strength all offseason. It's the same story: Boise has five or six linebackers for two spots, meaning the staff can mix and tinker with personnel to match the offensive alignment. It's about four linebackers in particular: Ben Weaver (89 tackles) and Tyler Gray are duking it out on the weak side, though they're essentially co-starters, and Tanner Vallejo (51 tackles, 5.5 for loss) and Blake Renaud are doing the same in the middle. It's the same story in a second way: Weaver, Gray, Vallejo and Renaud produce in equal measure, essentially giving this defense production on the second level unmatched in the Mountain West.
In hindsight, last year's uneven performance against the pass was entirely predictable: Boise was turning over a new cast, particularly at cornerback, and clearly needed time to get on the same page across the board. One year later, the Broncos can tout not just the league's best cornerback duo – I think that's fairly clear – but the Mountain West's most impressive secondary altogether, with its blend of experience, production and young talent. The cornerback pairing is terrific: Donte Deayon (54 tackles, 6 interceptions) was a bit of a revelation as a first-year starter, setting up a bright future as he enters his junior campaign, and senior Bryan Douglas (35 tackles, 4 interceptions) began to live up to his billing after an injury-hampered start to his career.
The outside also returns senior Corey Bell (76 tackles), a hybrid-look extra defensive back who can sit in a nickel role but provide very effective support against the run. That's your top three: Deayon, Douglas and Bell. Beyond this pair, Boise seems to have increased confidence in reserves Cleshawn Page, Mercy Maston and Jonathan Moxey. The back end returns senior Jeremy Ioane (59 tackles) and junior Darian Thompson (63 tackles, 4 interceptions), with both likely headed for all-conference honors. One issue: Ioane and Thompson – and backups Dillon Lukehart, Dylan Summer-Gardner and others, with Summer-Gardner a true freshman – must do a better job keeping plays in front, forcing quarterbacks to work a little harder to move the ball down the field. In short, three items of note: one, both cornerbacks and safeties should be all-conference picks; two, this depth is very impressive; and three, this secondary is much better than at this point a season ago.
Special teams: The kicking game is better hands – or feet, rather – than at any point in recent program memory. Senior Dan Goodale has rebounded from a disastrous start to his college career to stand as one of the most reliable kickers in the Mountain West. At punter, I expect sophomore Sean Wale to do a nice job after splitting the task with Trevor Harman a season ago. The return game could be superb.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The weakest link on the roster must replace three starters and five cogs in last year's two-deep. At the same time, the two returning starters are shifting roles: Marcus Henry will move from right guard to center and Rees Odhiambo from right to left tackle – so the line will have its two steadiest hands in two vital roles, which makes sense. While the rest of the line is new, each of the three projected new faces bring at least a slight taste of starting experience to the table. The issue: Boise's three new starters are sophomores. That's a bit of a concern, in my eyes, though you can see the potential for immediate growth during the course of the regular season and beyond. The sophomores: Travis Averill at left guard, Mario Yakoo at right guard and Steven Baggett at right tackle. Averill and Baggett split time at right tackle during the second half of last fall – Averill stepping forward down the stretch – while Yakoo earned a nod at right guard to end the regular season. In a sense, these sophomores are slightly ahead of the curve. I think depth could be viewed as an issue on paper, seeing that the second tier is raw, but the Broncos are high on youngsters Eli McCulllough, Kellen Buhr and Archie Lewis.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Mississippi: Harsin's first game comes deep inside SEC country against a team with some semblance of major-bowl hopes, whether unrealistic or otherwise. If a bit unfair, Harsin will be judged by how this team's fares in his debut. But bigger games come down the stretch: Utah State for the division and Fresno State and San Diego State for revenge. The Broncos also take on Connecticut, Louisiana-Lafayette and Brigham Young.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: Let's not talk about the future, but rather today: Boise's going to have too much fun in the here and now to even consider tomorrow. When it comes to Harsin's debut, I see many of the same qualities that propelled the Broncos forward during Petersen's historic run – solid quarterback play, a concrete offensive identity, a powerful running game, depth along the front seven, depth in the backfield, aggressive play on the edges and opportunistic play from the secondary. It's a simple formula that'll work today, just as it worked yesterday – and, if the puzzle falls into place under the new staff, will continue to work tomorrow.
Boise should be extremely unsatisfied with any season that doesn't end atop the Mountain West. There are other good teams in this league – Utah State, San Diego State, Colorado State, Fresno State – but none that match all that the Broncos bring to the table; this team has immensely impressive balance on a large scale, from offense to defense, but also presents a balanced approach on each side of the ball. I really like Harsin's desire to bring things back to basics and move north-south in all areas offensively, dropping the sideline-to-sideline passing game that misfired at times a season ago. On defense, the Broncos have the league's best secondary and the league's most imposing total package – all that's missing is a proven pass rush, but I think the defensive staff will cobble together some pressure. Given an easier schedule, I'd pick Boise to get back to 10 wins and challenge for 11 victories during the postseason.
But the schedule's tough. Mississippi to start; Colorado State a week later. A trip to Connecticut on Sept. 13, followed by a home date with Louisiana-Lafayette. Nevada, Fresno State and Brigham Young to open October. San Diego State and Utah State in November. It's a perfect slate, in a sense, since it gives Boise the chance to make national noise – always one of the program's top priorities. But I do think it'll keep the Broncos at nine wins during the regular season, with three losses coming from the above group. Given the nature of the schedule and the Broncos' talent and coaching, I think a nine-win season would deserve a national ranking. It would also leave Boise challenging Marshall as the top non-major team in the country.
Dream season: Boise State goes undefeated during the regular season and fights for a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Nightmare season: The Broncos lose to Mississippi, Louisiana-Lafayette, Brigham Young, San Diego State, Fresno State and Utah State.