Boise State's winning ways hinge on young players
When Boise State coach Chris Petersen pauses during practice and takes a private moment to look closely at the 2012 version of his football team, he sees young, fresh and inexperienced faces all around.
Gone are familiar and reliable names like Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and Shea McClellin, the kind of savvy veterans who were not only instrumental in Boise State's rise to national prominence but known commodities in big games and leaders on and off the field.
This year, the youth movement for No. 24 Boise State will be evident in every phase of the game.
There are just seven starters returning on offense and defense from a team that finished 12-1 a year ago. Three weeks into fall camp, Petersen has yet to anoint a successor for Moore, who during his career won more games than any other quarterback in the history of college football.
For the second straight year, Petersen and his staff are adjusting to a new offensive coordinator.
''We have so many guys playing, or competing to play, that we've never seen play in game situations before,'' said Petersen, who signed a new five-year, $11.7 million contract during the offseason and brings a 73-6 record into his seventh season at Boise State.
''In the past, we've gone through fall camp, and guys you know might not look great one day, but you've seen them play for extended periods in the past and you don't really worry about much with them,'' he said. ''Now there are so many new guys you worry about how they are practicing every single day. And really, you don't know what anything is going to look like until you go for real.''
The first big test for the Broncos comes Aug. 31 in the season opener against No. 12 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. After that, Boise State plays at home against Miami (Ohio) and BYU before traveling to New Mexico State and Southern Mississippi before league play kicks in.
Even with the questions at quarterback and uncertainty in other key areas, Boise State is favored to win the Mountain West Conference in the school's final year in the league. Next year, Boise State will begin playing the Big East Conference, one of several newcomers league officials hope will reinforce a league struggling to deal with defections of schools like Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia.
''I think we've got a pretty hard schedule, and it's going to be a tough test for this team all season long,'' Petersen said. ''Michigan State, even at No. 12, I think is totally underrated. And we've got some tough places to play away from home.''
Much of the team's success this season undoubtedly depends on who wins the job at quarterback.
Going into fall camp, Petersen made clear it was an open competition with no clear favorite. Redshirt junior Joe Southwick got all the first-team snaps at the team's final scrimmage a week ago, and his experience and knowledge of the offense appears to give him the edge heading into next week's opener.
Southwick, a 6-foot-1, 187-pounder from Danville, Calif., was Moore's backup a year ago, mostly seeing action in fourth-quarter mop-up duty. In eight games, he was 23 of 30 for 198 yards and one TD and one interception.
But the coaching staff is also gauging the development of sophomore Grant Hedrick, redshirt freshman Jimmy Laughrea and true freshman Nick Patti.
''Things are becoming more clear on who will be our starter,'' Petersen said. ''But it's still very much a work in progress. I could make a case for every single guy. Whoever it is, they're going to have to produce.''
They will also have to adjust to a new offensive play caller. Brent Pease, who engineered an offense that averaged 44.2 points and 481 yards per game a year ago, left in January to become the offensive coordinator at Florida. Petersen immediately filled the vacancy with Robert Prince, who served as wide receivers coach and passing coordinator last year.
With a new quarterback and play caller, Petersen said he expects subtle changes in the offense, especially early in the season. But don't expect a fundamental shift from the fast paced, wide-open passing game that has come to signify the Boise State offense for more than a decade.
''Especially since we're pretty solid at receiver,'' he said.
Returning wideouts include Matt Miller, Kirby Moore and Mitch Burroughs, a group that combined for 123 catches and 11 TDs a year ago. Miller, a sophomore who tied for a team-high 62 catches last year, is a preseason all-conference favorite.
The offensive line suffered a blow this summer when senior center Cory Yriarte suffered a career-ending knee injury. The job now falls on junior Matt Paradis, a former walk-on who came to Boise hoping to play defense. Paradis joins returning starters Joe Kellogg and Charles Leno on the front line.
The Broncos' offense also gets another year from senior running back D.J. Harper, who is entering his sixth year after getting medical redshirts due to consecutive seasons with torn ACLs. Last year, Harper had 568 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
But the biggest mystery for the Broncos is the front seven on defense. All four starters on the defensive line are gone, as are the three best linebackers from a year ago.
The secondary, a weakness due to injury a year ago, may be the strong suit this year, with cornerbacks Jarrell Gavins and Jamar Taylor returning and Lee Hightower emerging as the leader among the group of safeties.
''The challenge for us on defense is figuring out how not to overload the guys, paralyzing them with too much information and not letting them play fast,'' Petersen said. ''We've got guys we think can get the job done, but the key is for us to stay healthy.''