Last season was another strong one for the Broncos as they went undefeated in Mountain West play and captured their fourth conference championship since 2012.
Nevertheless, Boise State lost a pair of non-conference games and missed out on a New Year’s Six bowl for the fifth straight year. Unlike nearly every other Group of Five college football program, it’s not a special season for the Broncos unless they secure a spot in one of those prestigious New Year’s Six bowls.
The Broncos are hopeful to end that skid in 2020 and the journey begins this Saturday when they welcome Utah State to Albertsons Stadium for a scheduled 5:10 p.m. kickoff. The Broncos are rebuilding a bit on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but return several talented athletes, including seven who earned all-Mountain West honors a year ago.
Should their offensive line come together, the Broncos have all the pieces needed to be explosive offensively this fall. For starters, Boise State welcomes back arguably the most talented quarterback on the league in Mountain West Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Hank Bachmeier.
Bachmeier, a highly touted 4-star recruit in high school, was the Broncos’ starter as a true freshman last year before getting sidelined with some injuries. Bachmeier completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,879 yards and nine touchdowns, vs. six interceptions, in eight games in 2019, which equated to 234.9 yards passing an outing.
Per usual, the Broncos had a lot of success running the football a year ago, and this year should be no different. That’s because tailback George Holani is back after racking up 1,014 yards on the ground as a freshman. It marked the 11th straight year BSU had had an 1,000-yard rusher — an almost unprecedented streak for a collegiate program.
“George is a great player,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said during Monday’s press conference via Zoom. “I mean, he proved that week in and week out. ... He’s talented, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s fast. I think he reads very, very well as far as getting in and out of his cuts (and) he’s got great hips. ... He had a great supporting cast last year with him and I’m sure he’ll have a great supporting cast with him this year as well.”
Holani’s primary backup is powerful 228-pound junior Andrew Van Buren, who chipped in with 265 rushing yards last season.
Holani garnered second-team all-conference accolades last fall, as did standout wide receiver Khalil Shakir, who is also back in ’20. Shakir, a junior, finished with 872 yards and six touchdowns on 63 receptions a year ago.
Two other proven commodities for the Broncos in the passing game are senior wideout CT Thomas and senior tight end John Bates, who was named to the all-MW honorable mention squad as a junior. Thomas accounted for 522 receiving yards and five TDs last season, while Bates gained 273 yards on 22 catches.
Indeed, BSU always a wealth of weapons at the skill positions. USU safety Shaq Bond is well aware of this, but is confident his team will be ready.
“It’s going to be (a) big (test),” Bond said. “This year I feel like me and (fellow safety) Troy (Lefeged) have both stepped up as field generals, just gathering pieces around us and those pieces have fit in great. You know, our corners are ready. We’ve got some speedy corners this year, so we’re ready for everything.”
Boise State only has one returning starter in the offensive trenches and that’s left tackle John Ojukwu, who is an all-conference-caliber talent. However, right guard Jake Stetz made four starts for the Broncos in ’19, while center Donte Harrington was in the starting lineup three times in 2018.
Bachmeier, Holani, Shakir, Bates and Ojukwu are the five offensive starters the Broncos brought back from their squad that averaged 429.0 yards and 34.71 points an outing last season.
The Broncos will be breaking in three new starters on the defensive line, but are loaded with experience at linebacker and in the secondary. BSU returns five starters from a defense that allowed 346.4 yards and 21.86 points per game a year ago.
A trio of Boise State defensive backs received all-conference accolades in ’19 in cornerbacks Jalen Walker (second team) and Avery Williams (honorable mention), and nickelback Kekaula Kaniho (first team), and all of them are back. Additionally, Williams was the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year last fall after returning two punts for a touchdown. The senior has brought back five punts or kickoffs to the house during his collegiate career.
Kaniho contributed with 61 tackles, including 11.0 for a loss, 3.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one INT as a junior. Walker paced the Broncos with nine passes broken up last season and had a pick-six against USU, while Williams made 39 tackles and blocked two punts.
“They play the scheme the right way,” Andersen said of BSU’s three returning all-conference performers in the secondary. “It’s hard to identify exactly what they’re doing and how they’ve got things going on the back end presnap, which is what every good defense does. ... They’re very well-coached, (it’s a) very good scheme and obviously their coach has done a great job of recruiting good athletes back there, and they’ve turned into great football players.”
The Broncos have some good linebackers, led by first-team all-Mountain West selection Riley Whimpey, who is the younger brother of former USU standout offensive linemen Kevin and Kyle Whimpey. As a junior, Whimpey accumulated a team-high 83 tackles and also chipped in with 7.0 tackles for loss and seven pass breakups.
BSU junior linebacker Ezekiel Noa tallied 28 tackles in just four games a year ago before suffering a season-ending injury against Air Force. Noa is the older brother of USU true freshman tailback Elelyon Noa. Benton Wickersham, another senior Bronco backer, finished with 63 tackles as a junior.
Boise State’s top returning pass rusher is redshirt sophomore Demetri Washington, who recorded 4.5 sacks last season in a reserve role.
The Broncos will be breaking in a new kicker in freshman Jonah Dalmas. Boise State does have a returning starter at punter in redshirt senior Joel Velazquez, who averaged 39.3 yards on 56 attempts during the ’19 campaign.
Williams and Shakir will be BSU’s primary kickoff returns in ’20, baring injuries.