Boise State football spring preview: Impressive depth at linebacker

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

Through the spring, I have previewed each position on the Boise State football team. I’ll wrap it up with special teams on Monday.

Today: Linebackers.

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

EXPERIENCE CREATES DEPTH AT LINEBACKER

The Broncos return four linebackers who started at least six games last season — junior Tyler Gray with seven starts and sophomore Tanner Vallejo, senior Blake Renaud and sophomore Ben Weaver with six each. Plus, sophomores Darren Lee and Chris Santini received some quality playing time.

Weaver led the team with 89 tackles despite an injury that hampered him late in the year and has kept him out of spring ball. Vallejo tied for eighth with 51 despite starting the season as a redshirt and easing into the rotation. Gray was 13th with 43 and Renaud, who missed three games, was 18th with 25.

“There’s some depth that I’ve never seen at Boise State before,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said. “We may have been better as far as the guys who are actually starters, but you look at the guys behind them and I don’t know if we’ve had as much depth. We’ve got some guys who can play.”

Not surprisingly, the linebackers have won the position group of the day award three times this spring — the most on the team.

“There is a lot of competition at the position, which creates a lot of energy at practice,” linebackers coach Andy Avalos said. “Guys have got to be on top of their game every day because they all want to play. We’ll find ways to get them all on the field. Unfortunately, obviously, some will have bigger roles than others, but as long as they’re competing and they’re working hard and preparing — they deserve to be on the field — we’ll find a way to get them out there.”

Said Gray: “It’s good. Everyone is fighting every day. No one wants to stay at a lower position on the depth chart, so if you’re not doing your best out there you’re going to get bumped down.”

Vallejo and Renaud are competing for the starting job at middle linebacker. Vallejo was with the first team to begin last week’s scrimmage.

“(Vallejo) is a very smart football player and is having a really good spring,” Avalos said. “He’s building off the things he learned from last year. I feel really good about our (middle) linebackers. Our two guys that have had game experience, they’re doing a great job out there.”

The competition on the weak side won’t play out until fall camp. Gray has done a good job this spring but Weaver, who was one of the team’s best defensive players when healthy last year, is in a walking boot and unable to practice.

“We know what (Weaver) is capable of doing,” Avalos said. “All you have to do is turn on the film and watch it from last year. The thing I’m most fired up about with him is even though he hasn’t gotten to participate, he is into it 100 percent mentally. He might be into it mentally better than any other linebacker in that room, and that shows his maturity and being able to handle the situation and still get himself better. He’s on point in those meetings, he’s asking questions and out there on the field he knows when someone messes up. The same with Travis Saxton, who’s out and unable to participate right now.”

PERSONNEL AT A GLANCE

Roster
45 Travis Saxton, 6-1, 233, R-Sr.
13 Blake Renaud, 6-2, 247, Sr.
36 Tyler Gray, 6-4, 224, Jr.
31 Andrew Pint, 6-1, 232, R-So.
51 Ben Weaver, 6-0, 240, R-So.
25 Chris Santini, 6-0, 215, R-So.
44 Darren Lee, 6-1, 226, So.
20 Tanner Vallejo, 6-1, 227, So.
7 Joe Martarano, 6-3, 241, R-Fr.

Returning starters (2 of 2): Gray and Weaver on the weak side and Vallejo and Renaud in the middle split the jobs about evenly last year.

Key losses: None.

Key returners: In addition to the four guys who started games, Lee and Santini received some quality playing time last year. Strong-side linebacker Corey Bell, who finished second on the team with 76 tackles last year, is back, too, but his job has been moved to the secondary.

Projected starters: Vallejo, Weaver

Other players to watch: It likely will take an injury or two for him to get on the field on defense this year, but redshirt freshman Joe Martarano of Fruitland High should be a factor on special teams. And Eagle High’s Travis Saxton, a former walk-on who earned a spot in the rotation and a scholarship last year, returns from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that cost him most of the 2013 season.

Out for spring: Weaver, Saxton

Incoming signees: None. With the depth the Broncos have, they didn’t feel a need to recruit a linebacker.

Notes/quotes:

— Gray said Avalos has emphasized having a broader view of the defense to the linebackers. “He’s made us look at the whole game from a different perspective, which I really think has helped us as linebackers play better,” Gray said. “… Last year, it was more just know what you have to do and do it. This year, we still have to know what we have to do and do it, but knowing what everyone else around us is doing helps you do your job better.” Said Avalos: “Part of that is knowing where your help is so you can play fast or know you need to play a little slower. Playing defense is always knowing where your help is, so you know where to leverage the ball or where you’re dropping to. If they can understand the big picture, it’s going to help them understand the details of their position and what their responsibilities are.”

— Avalos on Martarano: “Joey’s made a huge leap in terms of understanding the defense. He was on scout team last year. He really got a chance to develop his body as a redshirt. Now it’s the mental aspect that he’s done a lot better job at. He’s playing (middle) linebacker. He’s got to run the show when he’s in there.”

— Gray on being a veteran now: “Sometimes guys will come up and ask, ‘What do I do on this play?’ and ask for some tips.”

— Gray on the linebackers’ role: “The linebackers should be the leaders on the defense. We know everything that’s going on and we need to show that.”

•••

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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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