8 Burning Questions Heading into the Boise State Broncos Offseason

Zachary Ball@MLBDraftCntdwnAnalyst IJanuary 5, 2015

8 Burning Questions Heading into the Boise State Broncos Offseason

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    It's safe to say no one expected Boise State to bounce back this fast.

    After losing their head coach late last year, along with the majority of the coaching staff and a few recruits, it seemed as though the Broncos were destined for regression.

    Athletic director Mark Coyle and university president Bob Kustra had other ideas though, and on December 11, they inked a deal for former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin to return to take over as head coach. 

    During his press conference, Harsin made several references to the past, and in the following weeks he began to fill out his coaching staff with former Broncos, each of whom had gone on to find success elsewhere.

    He brought Mike Sanford, who was coaching quarterbacks and wide receivers at Stanford while coordinating the Cardinal recruiting effort, in to run the offense and call plays, and lured Marcel Yates, who had been co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M, back to run the defense.

    Boise State became the only program in the nation who had alumni running the offense, defense and calling the shots as the head coach.

    After a few weeks the motto for the 2014 season emerged: "Attack the Future."

    And attack they did. After getting steamrolled in the season opener against Ole Miss, the Broncos rebounded to win 12 of the next 13 games, including eight in a row to finish the season.

    They played hard, set numerous school records and sprinkled in just enough trick plays to remind everyone that this was Boise State back to its roots. They clinched an at-large berth in the Fiesta Bowl and held on to win a nail-biter against 10th-ranked Arizona, clinching the school's eighth 12-win season since 2002.

    So what does Harsin have up his sleeve for an encore?

    Believe it or not, the outlook for next year is even brighter, despite the fact that the Broncos will have to replace record-setting players at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.

    Without further ado, let's take a look at the questions that Harsin and Co. will need to find answers for before kickoff of the 2015 season.

What Will the Reception Be When Chris Petersen Comes Back to Boise?

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    It couldn't have been imagined any better.

    The Broncos' scheduled Labor Day weekend matchup with the University of Washington became a lot more interesting when longtime coach Chris Petersen bolted Boise State for the Pac-12 after a disappointing 2013 campaign that saw the Broncos lose more than four games for the first time since 1998.

    Petersen's presence only adds intrigue to a fast-developing cross-conference rivalry that has given fans some really great games over the past few years, including the incredibly rare back-to-back games from 2012-13.

    Boise State vs Washington Series History
    9/3/2015Boise, Idaho--
    12/22/2012Las Vegas (Bowl Game)Boise State 28-26

    After leading the Broncos to a ridiculous 92-12 record over eight years, Petersen will return to Albertson's Stadium for the first time as an opponent, and to make things even more nostalgic, he'll be facing off against the guy who called plays for him from 2006-2010.

    It's a classic case of the teacher versus the student.

    Undoubtedly, Petersen will likely be hailed as a king upon his return to Boise. After all, he was always forthcoming about the challenges faced by Boise State in today's landscape, and he never said never when asked if he would one day leave the Broncos for greener pastures.

    He'll have plenty to deal with on his sideline anyways, with the Huskies full of question marks heading into the offseason after an 8-6 campaign that nearly doubled Petersen's number of career losses.

How Tough Will the 2015 Schedule Be?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Boise State squared off against 10 teams that made it to bowl games in 2014, the highest number faced by any team in the country.

    That scheduling prowess, as well as the good fortune of their opponents, positioned the Broncos well for the guaranteed spot in the New Year's Six bowl game given to the highest-ranked team from outside a power conference.

    They won't be as lucky in 2015.

    Tentative Boise State 2015 Schedule
      2014 Results
    OpponentConfRecordBowlOff. PPG-RankDef. PPG-Rank
    vs Air Force FalconsMW10-3W51st43rd
    at Colorado State RamsMW10-3L32nd34th
    at Utah State AggiesMW10-4W81st21st
    vs Washington HuskiesPac 128-659th47th
    at Brigham Young CougarsInd.8-5L18th55th
    at Virginia CavaliersACC5-7N/A87th42nd
    vs New Mexico LobosMW4-8N/A76th112th
    vs Wyoming CowboysMW4-8N/A109th102nd
    vs Hawaii WarriorsMW4-9N/A110th67th
    at San Jose State SpartansMW3-9N/A116th87th
    at UNLV RebelsMW2-11N/A106th116th
    vs Idaho State BengalsFCSN/AN/AN/AN/A
    Combined Records69-73   

    While the Broncos' 2014 opponents had a combined record of 96-73, including four teams with at least 10 wins, the 2015 squad will be facing a combined opponent record of 69-73.

    Nonconference matchups with Ole Miss (9-4) and Louisiana-Lafayette (9-4) have been replaced with Washington (8-6) and Virginia (5-7). The Broncos' conference opponents in 2014 included San Diego State (7-6) and Nevada (7-6), but both are off the schedule for 2015, replaced with UNLV (2-11) and San Jose State (3-9).

    Matchups that, on the surface, appear to be enticing, such as a return trip to Colorado State, likely won't be with a new head coach taking over the Rams in 2015, while the Broncos also get two of their toughest opponents of the year (Washington and Air Force) at home.

    They'll be facing four of the lowest-scoring offenses from 2014 and three of the worst defensive units.

    What the Broncos will likely suffer from next year is what plagued Marshall this year. Despite a 13-1 record, the Thundering Herd struggled to earn votes in the polls.

    Going undefeated may be the only hope the Broncos have of reaching a New Year's Six bowl game in 2015. Even that may not be good enough.

Who Will Replace Grant Hedrick?

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    For the first time in a very long time, the Broncos head into an offseason with absolutely no idea who their starting quarterback for the following season will be.

    After the reign of Kellen Moore, during which the team went a combined 50-3, quarterbacking responsibilities fell onto the shoulders of Joe Southwick and Grant Hedrick.

    Win-Loss Record of BSU Quarterbacks Since 2001
    Kellen Moore2008-1153503.943
    Jared Zabranksy2004-0638335.868
    Ryan Dinwiddie2001-0339336.846
    Joe Southwick2012-1321174.810
    Taylor Tharp200713103.769
    Grant Hedrick2013-1419145.737

    Southwick's tenure was widely regarded as a failure and ended in ignominy, but as you can see, he only lost four games that he started, resulting in an 81 percent win rate. In fact, the more widely celebrated Grant Hedrick has a worse winning percentage than his predecessor.

    Some of that probably has to do with his bounce-back performance in the most recent season, which culminated in a Fiesta Bowl victory. Southwick himself lost his only bowl game.

    So, let's take a look at the competition for next year's starting position

    For the record, the only QB on the roster who has taken snaps in an actual game is soon-to-be-sophomore Finley, who relieved Hedrick of his duties in the Air Force game earlier this year and later appeared in three other contests in mop-up duty. He completed 12 of 27 passes for 161 yards for two touchdowns and one interception. He also carried the ball seven times for 31 yards.

    Quarterbacks on the Boise State Roster (including incoming freshman)
    PlayerClass (in 2015)HeightWeightHometown
    Ryan FinleyRS Sophomore6-4190Phoenix
    Alex OgleSophomore6-3203Palm City, Fla.
    Tommy StuartJunior5-11193Baltimore
    Anthony UpshawSophomore6-0190Moorpark, Calif.
    Brett RypienFreshman6-2195Spokane, Wash.

    The wild card in this whole mix is Rypien. The nephew of Super Bowl winning QB Mark Rypien, Brett is set to enroll this spring at BSU, giving him a chance to get in some extra reps before the start of the 2015 season.

    Following in the footsteps of another high school gunslinger (Kellen Moore) from Washington, Rypien accumulated over 13,000 passing yards and more than 100 touchdowns during his career at Spokane High School.

    Scout.com ranks Rypien as the 14th-ranked player at his position, while ESPN has him as its No. 15 quarterback prospect.

    Built similarly to Moore but infinitely more agile, Rypien could take the QB position and run with it if he shows a good grasp of the playbook, which should be more reliant on the pass with Jay Ajayi forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft and a handful of receivers and tight ends returning.

    The safe choice would probably be to go with Finley, although if that is the decision, then the job would be his to lose for the next three years, which might cause Rypien to transfer.

    History seems to be in Boise State's favor, however, as Zabransky (11-1), Tharp (10-3), Moore (12-1), Southwick (11-2) and Hedrick (12-2) all excelled in their first year as the starter. 

Who Will Replace Jay Ajayi?

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    Quick answer? No one.

    It's going to be near-impossible for the Broncos to replace the production they got in the running game last year.

    Boise State Rushing Leaders 2014
    Jay AjayiGrad34759%182360%2872%
    Grant HedrickGrad15526%59219%821%
    Shane Williams-RhodesSR153%1796%00%
    Devan DemasJR254%1736%25%
    Jeremy McNicholsSO173%1595%13%
    Ryan FinleySO71%311%00%
    Jack FieldsSR112%311%00%
    Chris SantiniJR10%241%00%
    Charles BertoliJR92%241%00%
    Thomas SperbeckJR20%110%00%
    Total Not Returning in 201550285%241579%3692%
    Total Returning in 20158715%63221%38%

    In addition to Jay Ajayi's record-setting campaign, the Broncos also got nearly 600 yards and eight scores on the ground from departing quarterback Grant Hedrick.

    Together, the two combined for 85 percent of the team's rushing attempts, 79 percent of the team's rushing yards and 92 percent of the team's rushing touchdowns.

    And while the 2015 squad will have three exciting players in Williams-Rhodes (5'6", 158 lbs), Demas (5'8", 174 lbs) and McNichols (5'9", 195 lbs), it'll be lacking a bruising back who can chew up clock.

    Demas and McNichols figure to get the majority of the carries, and they'll no doubt try to toss some at Fields, who was a highly recruited prospect coming out of high-school (54th-ranked RB), and like Ajayi hails from Texas.

    On the recruiting front, the Broncos won't get much in the way of immediate help. They have only one RB commit, 3-star Raymond Sheard, also from Texas.

Can Thomas Sperbeck Keep This Up?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Boise State has a tradition of mass-producing excellent college receivers who go on to have little to no success at the next level.

    Over the years, the blue turf has been home to Tim Gilligan, T.J. Acree, Jeremy Childs, Austin Pettis, Titus Young and outgoing senior Matt Miller. Each player has rewritten portions of the BSU record books only to be outdone by his successor.

    Enter Thomas Sperbeck.

    vs Mississippi000.00
    vs Colorado State000.00
    at Connecticut000.00
    vs Louisiana-Lafayette000.00
    at Air Force67913.20
    at Nevada35117.00
    vs Fresno State22111.50
    vs Brigham Young614824.71
    at New Mexico916418.20
    vs San Diego State68213.71
    at Wyoming25427.00
    vs Utah State45914.81
    vs Fresno State12020.00
    vs Arizona (Fiesta Bowl)1219916.60

    It's been well-documented that Sperbeck had a tremendous sophomore campaign, hauling in 51 catches for 877 yards and three touchdowns. The numbers appear even more impressive when you take into account that he didn't play in two of Boise State's first four games, and he played sparingly in the other two. 

    When Matt Miller was ruled out for the season with an ankle injury, Sperbeck took over. He caught six passes for 79 yards in his first meaningful playing time and earned his first career start the next week against Nevada. Coincidentally, the Broncos didn't lose with him in the starting 11.

    Sperbeck's breakthrough year culminated in a dominating performance in the Fiesta Bowl. He caught 12 passes for 199 yards, fought through numerous tough hits and took home offensive MVP honors.

    Count me among those excited to see what he can do over the course of a full season.

    At the very least, he'll be a reassuring presence for whoever is throwing him the ball.

How Good Can the Defense Be?

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The Broncos didn't rank among the nation's best in many defensive metrics in 2014, but they proved to be one of the more opportunistic units in all of college football, ranking in the top five in both sacks and interceptions. They also finished tied for first with five interceptions returned for scores.

    Broncos Defensive Rankings 2014
    Yards Per Game366.040th4th
    Passing Yards Per Game225.063rd3rd
    Rushing Yards Per Game141.536th3rd
    Points Per Game26.565th5th
    Passes Defended5414th2nd
    Interceptions Returned for TD51st1st

    In 2015, Marcel Yates' bunch should be even better.

    For starters, he's only losing 10 players from that side of the ball, and of those 10 only three made more than three starts.

    Defensive Losses Heading into 2015
    Corey BellDB1411553.01.004000
    Blake RenaudLB1310396.52.000010
    Beau MartinDE14143612.05.513110
    Cleshawn PageCB113251.00.019100
    Jeremy IoaneS63110.00.023000
    Bryan DouglasCB9180.00.001000
    Tyler HornDT1141.01.000000
    Travis SaxtonLB5030.00.000000
    Justin TaimatuiaDT0000.00.000000
    Mercy MastonCB0000.00.000000

    Losing Beau Martin should open up more playing time for Gabe Perez, who logged 3.5 sacks among his 7.5 tackles for loss. He'll team with rising junior Kamalei Correa, who notched 12 sacks of his own, to form one of the most devastating pass rushes in the nation.

    On the line the Broncos also return defensive tackles Armand Nance (14 starts) and Sam McCaskill (13 starts), as well as DT Robert Ash, who saw playing time in 12 games in 2014.

    The linebacking corps should be another strength for Boise State, with leading tackler Tanner Vallejo returning alongside fellow rising junior Ben Weaver. In 2014, the two combined for 162 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.

    They'll be bolstered by great depth led by Joey Martarano (42 tackles), assuming he doesn't leave for good after signing a contract to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs, and Tyler Gray, who finished fourth on the team in tackles, despite making just two starts.

    As good as the D-line and linebackers should be, the secondary will be even better, assuming safety Darian Thompson and cornerback Donte Deayon don't declare for the 2015 NFL draft. If they do return for their senior seasons, they'll be bringing back 13 of the Broncos' 22 interceptions. 

    Their presence is also bolstered by a couple of players who could really break out in safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner and cornerback Jonathan Moxey.

    Broncos Projected Defensive Starters in 2015
    DESam McCaskillRS-JRDEKamalei CorreaJR
    DTArmand NanceSRDTElliot HoyteRS JR
    LBTanner VallejoJRLBBen WeaverRS JR
    LBTyler GraySRCBDonte DeayonSR
    CBJonathan MoxeyJRSDarian ThompsonRS SR
    SDylan Sumner-GardnerSO   

Can the O-Line Maintain Its Level of Play into 2015?

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    In case you hadn't noticed, the Broncos offensive line is going to be stacked next year.

    Not only are the Broncos returning all five starters, including anchor Marcus Henry at center, but five backups as well.

    Projected Starters on O-Line with Career Starts
    LTRees Odhiambo (2nd-Team All-MW)RS-SR9-10Eli McCulloughRS-SO1-7
    LGTravis Averill RS-JR14-14Kellen BuhrRS-JR0-12
    CMarcus Henry (1st-Team All-MW)RS-SR14-14Mason HamptonRS-SO0-14
    RGMario YakooRS-JR14-14Archie LewisRS-SO5-11
    RTSteven BaggettRS-JR13-13Jerhen ErtelRS-SR0-1

    After a shaky start to the season, the line really started to jell around the Nevada game, and by the end of the year, it was as good as any unit in the Mountain West and quite possibly the country. 

    vs MississippiL13-35371353.60364875.0264143
    vs Colorado StateW37-24563245.83223366.7352212
    at ConnecticutW38-2127521.90202969.0240301
    vs Louisiana-LafayetteW34-9482625.54243177.4237003
    at Air ForceL14-2829973.30305851.7370252
    at NevadaW51-46482244.74263183.9346212
    vs Fresno StateW37-27512645.22223268.8228202
    vs Brigham YoungW55-30482274.73243177.4410412
    at New MexicoW60-49482916.14213265.6367401
    vs San Diego StateW38-29472124.54192867.9187121
    at WyomingW63-14493126.44131968.4246302
    vs Utah StateW50-19542835.25192867.9215205
    vs Fresno StateW28-14331494.5391656.3155001
    vs ArizonaW38-30341624.83243568.6309111

    The Broncos had a midseason stretch where they gained at least 212 yards on the ground in seven consecutive games. During that stretch they also averaged close to four touchdowns per game on the ground.

    For the season, the Broncos finished 31st in the nation with 213.9 rushing yards per game, 34th in yards per attempt at 4.9 and 10th with 39 rushing touchdowns.

    The 28 sacks surrendered ranked them 74th in the nation.

    All of this bodes incredibly well for a team that will not only be replacing its running back, but also its quarterback.

Can Jake Roh Take the Next Step?

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    While tight ends have always been an invaluable part of Boise State tradition—think Derek Schouman catching the game-tying TD in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl or Kyle Efaw catching the game-changing fake punt in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl—the Broncos have never really had a true impact player at the position.

    Receptions by Tight End Position (2004-14)

    Clearly, tight ends were very much a part of the Broncos game plan during the Kellen Moore area, catching 200 passes for 2,365 yards and 33 touchdowns. Even during that time period (2008-11), no individual player caught more than 31 passes. This shouldn't really surprise, seeing as how only four tight ends have caught more than 25 passes in any given season since 2004.

    Most Receptions by a Tight-End (2004-14)
    Jake Roh2014354082
    Kyle Efaw2009314441
    Derek Schouman2006292764
    Julian Hawkins2008263223

    As noted in the table above, the Broncos may have finally found their man in rising sophomore Jake Roh. Not only did Roh have a terrific season, but he became one of Grant Hedrick's go-to guys on third down and in the red zone. He logged three or more receptions in eight of the team's 14 games and peaked with a four catch, 74-yard effort in the division-clinching victory against Utah State.

    As anyone who's seen him on TV can attest, Roh is more of a receiving tight end than a blocker, but as long as he gets open and makes himself a target he should see plenty of balls coming his way next year. 

    He'll have to keep his intensity level high, though, because the Broncos also return five other tight ends, including Jake Hardee, Holden Huff and Mat Boesen.

    Statistics courtesy of ESPN.com and Broncosports.com unless otherwise noted/linked.