Boise State spring football preview: Secondary hopes to spark defensive revival

By Chadd Cripe
ccripe@idahostatesman.com
© 2014 Idaho Statesman

Through the spring, I’ll preview each position.

Today: Defensive backs.

Previously: Offensive line, quarterbacks, defensive line, tight ends, running backs, wide receivers

CORNERBACK COMPETITION ROLLS ON

The Broncos ranked 88th in the nation in passing yards allowed (249.2 per game) and 73rd in pass-efficiency defense (129.73 rating, 17 TDs, 16 interceptions) last season.

They had finished in the top 15 in pass-efficiency defense in four of the previous five seasons, including the top five three times.

“We’ve got to get better,” first-year coach Bryan Harsin said. “We need to get better in pass defense. That group naturally has been challenged, just based off of last year.”

Four of the returning starters seem safe. Senior safety Jeremy Ioane (59 tackles; All-Mountain West second-teamer), junior safety Darian Thompson (63 tackles, four interceptions) and senior nickel Corey Bell (76 tackles) bring veteran savvy to the defense and have performed like starters this spring. And junior cornerback Donte Deayon, an All-Mountain West second-teamer who led the team with six interceptions, is one of the top returning defenders in the league.

That leaves a massive competition for the second cornerback spot — a scrap that began in August of last year and will continue at least through August of this year.

“Competition brings out the best in everybody,” senior Bryan Douglas said. “It’s neck and neck right now. … It’s definitely hard, but it all comes back down to the details and who’s going to be more consistent.”

The contenders include Douglas, who started the first 10 games last season; senior Mercy Maston, who started the last three games in place of Douglas and one other as the nickel; sophomore Jonathan Moxey, who started one game as a true freshman; senior Cleshawn Page, who recorded an interception and three pass breakups in Saturday’s scrimmage; and sophomore Chaz Anderson, who has surprised this spring.

Maston also plays nickel, where he could spell Bell in certain situations. Defensive backs coach Julius Brown said he could play as many as seven defensive backs in certain situations.

“We have a really athletic group,” Brown said. “I think we’re pretty deep and we’re talented. The main thing for me is there is a lot of competition at a lot of different spots and those kids know that. The depth chart can change weekly. And they’re seeing it.”

PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE

Roster
CORNERBACK
1 Bryan Douglas, 5-9, 176, R-Sr.
3 Cleshawn Page, 5-9, 174, Sr.
19 Mercy Maston, 5-11, 195, Sr. (nickel)
34 Promise Amadi, 5-10, 190, R-Jr.
5 Donte Deayon, 5-9, 152, Jr.
6 Chaz Anderson, 5-10, 176, R-So.
30 Jonathan Moxey, 5-9, 179, So.
16 Dionza Blue, 5-11, 191, R-Fr. (nickel)
21 Cameron Hartsfield, 5-10, 181, R-Fr.

Signee:
Zavior Hoxie, 5-11, 190, Fr.

SAFETY
10 Jeremy Ioane, 5-10, 192, R-Sr.
38 Corey Bell, 5-11, 208, Sr. (nickel)
24 Taylor Loffler, 6-3, 211, R-Jr.
4 Darian Thompson, 6-2, 205, R-Jr.
28 Dillon Lukehart, 6-1, 207, R-Jr.
22 Chanceller James, 6-2, 211, R-So.
47 Brandon Brown, 5-11, 200, R-Fr.
29 Dylan Sumner-Gardner, 6-1, 201, Fr.

Signee:
Kekoa Nawahine, 6-3, 190, Fr. (expected to go on a mission)

Returning starters (5 of 5): Deayon was named to the All-Mountain West second team last season. He finished sixth on the team with 54 tackles, first with six interceptions and first with nine pass breakups. Safeties Thompson (63 tackles, four interceptions) and Ioane (59 tackles, second-team All-Mountain West) provide experience and reliability in the back end. Bell, who finished second on the team with 76 tackles last season, will play more pass coverage in the new defensive scheme but has fit in that role well in spring ball. The other returning starter technically is Douglas, who lost his job to Maston late last season. Douglas tied for second on the team with four interceptions.

Key losses: None.

Key returners: In addition to the returning starters, Maston (44 tackles) and Lukehart (46) played extensively last season and will challenge for time this season.

Projected starters: Deayon, Moxey (a wild guess), Ioane, Thompson, Bell

Other players to watch: Moxey played sparingly as a true freshman but the talent and maturity that got him on the field last fall should help him push for a bigger role in 2014. True freshman safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner has impressed in his first spring with the Broncos and likely will improve rapidly throughout the year as he gets more comfortable. Page recorded an interception and three pass breakups in last week’s scrimmage. And sophomore Chaz Anderson recently has pushed his way into the conversation at cornerback.

Out for spring: Hartsfield, James

Incoming signees: Hoxie is the only scholarship defensive back set to join the team this summer. He could be a factor at nickel if he impresses in fall camp.

Notes/quotes:

— Defensive backs coach Julius Brown said the cornerbacks have shown improvement since they returned from spring break. “We’re changing up things technique-wise and the way we’re playing some things, so it was an adjustment for them early and now they’re starting to play faster. I’ve been really encouraged over the past two weeks.”

— Brown: “We have a really athletic group. I think we’re pretty deep and we’re talented. The main thing for me is there is a lot of competition at a lot of different spots and those kids know that. The depth chart can change weekly. And they’re seeing it.”

— Brown on the cornerback depth chart: “It changes practice to practice. We’ve had about four different guys run with the ones at corner. So those kids are battling. We’ll see how it plays out here in the fall.”

— The defensive backs line up on the field or boundary sides. However, against up-tempo offense — and sometimes just for variety — they will switch to right and left assignments.

— The nickels are Bell, Maston and Blue.

— Brown on Sumner-Gardner: “No. 1 is he’s a great kid. To be that highly recruited, to have that many people calling you all the time, he’s really humble. He’s in the office all the time. He doesn’t ask for anything. He works hard. So I’ve been really encouraged. For him, he just has to keep working, which he is. He’s doing a great job fitting in with his teammates. They all love him.”

— Thompson and Ioane are the top safeties still. Lukehart and Sumner-Gardner are the twos. “They’re pushing those guys,” Brown said of the backups. “(Thompson and Ioane) bring something to the table in terms of leadership. They’ve been through a lot of things. They’ve played a lot of football.”

— Brown on the corner competition: “You have guys moving from third team all the way to first team and you’ve got guys who are chipping away week by week.”

— Brown on the defense: “I do think we have some depth. For us, we have some kids who have played and played when they were young and now they’re starting to mature a little bit.”

— Brown on Bell: “I’ve been really pleased with Corey. … He’s being trained as a DB now, which was different for him, but he’s answered the bell. So he’s been a surprise to me, being gone and coming back and just seeing how much he’s changed in the last two years. He can definitely handle it.”

— Douglas on the corner competition: “Competition brings out the best in everybody. It’s neck and neck right now. … It’s definitely hard, but it all comes back down to the details and who’s going to be more consistent.”

— Douglas said he had some minor issues with his surgically repaired knee last season. “I definitely went into the season with high expectations,” he said. “… It was kind of hard because I’ve been here so long. You think you’ve put in the work and you’re supposed to be on the field.”

— Douglas on 2014: “This is my last season. I want to give this team all I’ve got. I’m putting everything on the line for my teammates. I want to make big plays for them and I’m trying to step up and do that.”

— Douglas on the 2013 defense: “As a whole defense, we didn’t play with that Bleed Blue mentality and the enthusiasm that past teams have, that I’ve seen with my own eyes. That’s what coaches are trying to emphasize from now throughout the fall. … I don’t think it was the youth. I got tired of hearing that, because it’s football at the end of the day and you’ve got to be ready to play. I don’t think it was an experience thing. It was just the willingness to play with enthusiasm and being happy for other players when somebody else makes a play. Last year, nobody would get as excited. … It all shows up on film. When the guy way on the other side of the field is rooting for you, it makes you feel so much more comfortable and makes you want to play harder.”

— Douglas on criticism last year from former players: “It made us mad, actually, that we weren’t where we want to be and we’re working twice as hard to get back. … It was pretty fair. We all made mistakes. We all gave up plays. We’re trying not to let that happen this year.”

— Moxey on playing as a true freshman: “It was exciting to get out there, playing vs. UW. It was nerve-racking. It was great to play, though, and see how the game went at the Division I level. … I was determined to play. I didn’t want to redshirt. ”

— Moxey on spring: “I’m just out there trying to get better, trying to position myself to play more this season.”

— Moxey on competition: “Now I feel like I’m getting older and the game is starting to slow down. The new coaching staff, it’s helped me out so much. Competing with three seniors and a junior, it pushes me every day.”

— Moxey on 2013 vs. 2014: “When you think about Boise State … we want (people) to think about the defense being the strong point of the team. We’ve taken that on ourselves to get better every day.”

— Coach Bryan Harsin on the secondary: “We’ve got to get better. We need to get better in pass defense. That group naturally has been challenged, just based off of last year.”

— The Broncos have played a lot of man coverage this spring but that won’t necessarily carry into the season. “The best way to evaluate who your cover guys are going to be is to put them in coverage,” Harsin said. “Sitting them in zone, I don’t think is fair to us to see what skills they have. Are we going to do that when we get into a game? Not necessarily. We’ll be smarter. But right now, in spring, we want to see guys compete and see them put on an island.”

— Deayon on 2013: “Last year I feel like we really just didn’t put our foot on the gas. Everyone was just kind of floating around trying to get a feel for this or that.”

•••

Harsin has tried a little politics-inspired marketing to work toward his goal of attracting 20,000 fans to the Spring Game on Saturday.

Recorded phone messages from Harsin encouraging fans to attend went out to season-ticket holders Monday evening. Messages will be distributed to single-game ticket purchasers Tuesday evening. (Listen to a Harsin call here.)

Here are details on the Spring Game:

— It technically begins at 5 p.m. Players will take the field about 4:45 p.m. and the scrimmage will begin at about 5:20 p.m.

— The Boise State team will include the No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense and drive toward the north end zone. The Broncos team will feature the No. 2 offense and No. 2 defense and drive toward the south end zone. In the second half, third-teamers will mix with the second team and fourth-teamers will mix with the first team.

— The offense will wear blue jerseys and the defense will wear orange.

— The game will include 10-minute running quarters. Those could be reduced to 8 minutes in the second half. There will be a 10-minute halftime.

— Other activities include Optimist Youth Football and Cheerleading signups from 1 to 5 p.m. in the Caven-Williams Sports Complex; a Youth Experience for Optimist players from 1 to 2:20 p.m. on The Blue; and the Bronco Family Fest from 3 to 5 p.m. on the Allen Noble Hall of Fame Plaza (kids 12 and under can complete the Bronco Fit program and earn a free ticket to the scrimmage, participate in drills with former players and meet Buster Bronco, the cheerleaders and Kristin Armstrong).

— The first 5,000 fans will receive a 2014 schedule poster.

— The Spring Game will air on KBOI (670 AM).

— Tickets cost $10. They were included with last year’s season-ticket packages. Gates open at 4 p.m. Seating will be available in the lower east and west sides and the south end zone. The A, B, D and N entrances will be open.

•••

The media finally get to take a tour of the Bleymaier Football Center on Wednesday. We’ll have photos, video and notes in the Bronco Beat blog in the afternoon.

•••

The sixth installment of Bronco All Access came out today. You can watch it, and the previous episodes, here.


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Chadd Cripe has spent the past 12 years as the Boise State football beat writer. You can follow him on Twitter @IDS_BroncoBeat.

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