The Idaho Press is counting down the top 20 questions facing the Boise State football team heading into the 2019 season. The next entry in our series is question No. 19: Do the linebackers have enough talent and depth to produce?
It’s not exactly like trying to replace Leighton Vander Esch, but the Boise State football team has plenty of work to do at linebacker heading into the 2019 season.
Five of the nine players listed at linebacker on the depth chart for last year’s opener against Troy are no longer on the team, including three that surprisingly left despite having eligibility for 2019. Another linebacker, Riley Whimpey, is coming off a torn ACL and might not be ready for the start of the season.
Bruno DeRose is a walk-on and Benton Wickersham started as a walk-on before earning a scholarship. The only other linebacker listed that is back this season is Kekaula Kaniho, who is actually a nickel and used more as a defensive back.
Boise State also added junior college linebacker Josh Booker-Brown, a 6-foot-3, 238-pounder from Pearl River (Mississippi) Community College. In nine games last season he had 41 tackles and two sacks and also had three blocked kicks on special teams.
Gone from last season: Tony Lashley (graduated), Joseph Inda (graduated), Tyson Maeva (kicked off the team), Desmond Williams (transferred) and Will Heffner (transferred).
The biggest loss for the Broncos was Maeva, the middle linebacker who ranked No. 2 on the team with 61 tackles and also had 8.0 tackles-for-loss and 4.0 sacks. Williams and Heffner both were experienced, serviceable contributors as well.
One positive was that the injury to Whimpey last season paved the way for the emergence of Zeke Noa, who had 34 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and a forced fumble and started three of the last four games of the season as a redshirt freshman.
Noa and Whimpey both play the same weakside linebacker position, but it’s not crazy to think one of them could slide over to the middle linebacker spot if they are the best two so the Broncos can get them both on the field together.
Wickersham was the backup to Maeva at middle linebacker and had 19 tackles. He has started two games the past two seasons, including one last year when Maeva was suspended. He’s had a quick rise from walk-on to a key, scholarship reserve, but is he ready for a big increase in playing time and maybe even a starting spot?
DeRose had 10 tackles while appearing sparingly in 13 games last season as a reserve linebacker and on special teams. He started one game at linebacker last season.
The Broncos figure to need at least one and maybe two to emerge as capable backup from a group of four that redshirted last season — Brandon Hawkins, Phillip Mills, DJ Schramm and Roman Kafentzis.
A new linebackers coach also adds a new dynamic in 2019 after longtime linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Andy Avalos left for Oregon. Jeff Schmedding will coach the outside linebackers, while Zac Alley will coach the inside linebackers. Both are new to Boise State in 2019.
Boise State had a first round NFL Draft pick at linebacker just two years ago. They’ve had a number of other talented linebackers in recent years including Tanner Vallejo and Ben Weaver.
Whimpey and Noa have the potential to be solid, multi-year starters for the Broncos, but Boise State badly need to find some depth behind them. If either goes down with an injury, are Wickersham or DeRose ready for a bigger role? Will one of the redshirt freshmen be ready for significant playing time?
Boise State’s defense has been built around a solid group of linebackers in recent years. Will the linebackers be a strength in 2019 and do they have the depth to sustain a key injury or two? It’s a question the Broncos hope to answer in a positive way this fall.
Countdown to Camp Questions
No. 20: Can Boise State’s injured players return to form?
No. 19: Do the linebackers have enough talent and depth to produce?