Legends are a rare breed but the linebacker position for the Boise State Broncos has seen plenty of great ones over the years. This year’s group was tasked with replacing one of the all-time greats.
Leighton Vander Esch was a star of this defense in 2017, having a season that made him a first-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys. Vander Esch has been enjoying quite the rookie season through seven games. He’s started a handful, collecting 42 tackles (including a season-high 11 vs the Texans).
Replacing Vander Esch’s 141 tackles and his ability to appear everywhere on the field was never going to be an easy task. It was going to take a group effort. The results have been decent with plenty of room for improvement.
A single standout has yet to emerge, something the program has been accustomed to over the past few years. Before Vander Esch, there was Ben Weaver (108 tackles in 2016) and Tanner Vallejo (100 tackles in 2014.)
This year’s group reminds me of the 2015 season, in which the linebacker unit had depth. No player, however, emerged as a tackling machine.
The linebackers in 2018 consist majorly of sophomores and one junior, with a couple of seniors mixed in on occasion. Sophomore Riley Whimpey is tops of the bunch with 35 tackles and junior Tyson Maeva is close behind with 22.
The strength of the unit lies in the run defense and that’s where sophomore Benton Wickersham (14 tackles) usually shines. As a whole, the defense is holding opponents to 122.1 yards per game and 3.8 yards per carry.
Still, allowing gains of 40 yards or more has been a thorn in the side of the Boise State defense. Coupled with teams easily completing passes over the middle of the field, the linebacker corps is bound to get its fair share of blame.
Prepping for Air Force
Games against the Air Force Falcons are circled on the calendar every season. The Boise State Broncos have had trouble with the Falcons option-based running attack — they’ve never won at Air Force — and will once again have to contain the ground game to help secure victory.
Last year’s 44-19 victory showed how strong the Broncos run defense truly was. The Falcons ran for 181 yards but it was on 51 carries. The yards total was nearly 130 yards less than what the Falcons had averaged entering that game.
This year’s game should provide a good idea as to how far this young linebacker unit has come.
It’s likely Kekaula Kaniho (22 tackles, 1 int) and Desmond Williams (14 tackles, 3 tfl) will be used more in run support. And while the unit is taking shape, with certain players taking the majority of the snaps, there is still plenty of depth. Players like Zeke Noa, Will Heffner and Blake Whitlock (to name a few) are finding ways to contribute.
Air Force’s rushing numbers are down slightly, but still ranks 8th in the nation with 263.6 rushing yards per game. Missed tackles and big plays are frowned upon, but will be so especially difficult to swallow in this game.
This talented young group has had a few growing pains over the past few games. As they continue to improve, we will hopefully see an all-time great emerge. If not, and the unit continues to get better as a crew, well, that will be worth the wait just the same.
Individual stats can be found at broncosports.com