With a new Head Coach, UCF is set to begin the Gus Malzahn Era with a quality opponent. Boise State comes to Orlando to play UCF in week one, and there are a few players that stand out for the Broncos that UCF fans should know about. Additionally, a change at the head coaching position should provide some other Boise State players and position groups a chance to rise up and make an impact for the Broncos after they went 5-2 during a shortened 2020 season.
It can be difficult to project a team when there’s a head coaching change. How aggressive will the play calling be, offensively and defensively, during game one of a coaching tenure? That question alone could be a series of questions and articles alike.
Boise State hired its former Defensive Coordinator (2016-2018), Andy Avalos, to come back and be the leader of the Broncos after coming over from Oregon as the Defensive Coordinator (2019-2020). He inherits arguably the best roster in the Mountain West Conference, but there’s still work to be done to help bring the Boise State program back to the levels of success it once enjoyed. There is one player that Coach Avalos can certainly count upon, and that’s where any preview of Boise State should begin.
With 52 receptions, 719 yards and six touchdown receptions last fall, Khalil Shakir is the definitive leader of the Boise State wide receiver core and the face of the program. The now senior from Murrieta, Calif. will be a focal point to slow down for UCF and every defense he goes against the rest of the 2021 season.
At 6’0”, 190-pounds, Shakir rarely allows the first defender to bring him down whether it’s a jet sweep, wide receiver screen, crossing route, or even a simple five yard hitch route. What’s really interesting would be Shakir's ability to play physical; he’s much like a running back when taking a handoff for a jet sweep. That type of attitude and effort leads a Broncos offensive unit that averaged 33.9 points per game.
Finding creative ways to provide Shakir a chance to make plays will be a priority for the Boise State coaches and the starting quarterback. That's an interesting situation for this next season.
The Man Behind Center
Of course, for Shakir and every Boise State wide receiver to find a way to catch the football, that’s where the quarterback position must excel. Last season, quarterback Hank Bachmeier passed for 1,150 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions. The most important statistic, however, would be from the outside-looking-in viewpoint of a mediocre 7.4 yards per attempt average. There’s a complexity of reasons for that statistic, and it will be addressed below with the running game.
Will the now junior signal caller keep his job? Will Bachmeier rotate with second-year Southern California quarterback transfer Jack Sears? Keep in mind, with Coach Avalos now being the leader of the Broncos, opinions and schemes will possibly shift. Sears only attempted 27 passes, but completed 23 of them for 332 yards and three touchdowns. There could be a brewing quarterback competition for the Broncos.
To that end, the Broncos need to pass the football much better with regards to creating big plays. To do that, the players up front need to perform better as well, and that starts with the running game to help open up play-action passing opportunities.
Running Game Must Return to Former Performance Levels
With a paltry 107.1 yards per game rushing last season, Boise State will return a very talented running back with George Holani. He ran for 1,014 yards and seven touchdowns and seven touchdowns as a freshman, but injury kept him out of the lineup for much of the 2020 season.
With Holani back in the lineup, perhaps the offensive line -- which returns four starters -- will blossom and help to create more plays for the Broncos running game. Whether it’s Holani or any other running back, there’s no question that significantly improving the running game will be an emphasis for Coach Avalos and the Broncos offensive coaching staff.
Going against UCF”s athletic front seven during game one and on the road to boot, will present a challenge for the Broncos. If the Boise State offensive line does not create much room for Holani and the rushing attack, which quarterback starts and/or plays the most for Boise State may not matter. Boise State needs play-action passing opportunities, and that begins with running the football much better than last season.
The Broncos simply must be more balanced this upcoming season as compared to last season. Moving to defense, there’s one particular player that UCF signal caller Dillon Gabriel should know where he’s at before each snap of the football.
Broncos Pass Rusher
Coming off the edge from his defensive end position, senior Shane Irwin accounted for six sacks last fall. That’s almost one sack per game considering the Broncos played a total of seven games. During the upcoming season the 6’3”, 255-pound senior could see many double teams, as well as tight ends and running backs chipping him as they begin their respective routes.
If the Knights offense moves the football well, one can be assured a big reason why will be due to UCF finding ways to keep Irwin away from Gabriel and out of the backfield overall. One could argue that Irwin is the most important player on the field for this game overall. If he and the other Broncos defensive linemen do not disrupt Gabriel and the Knights’ offensive flow, the Broncos’ secondary will have to cover a talented UCF wide receiver core without much help.
Stepping up at Cornerback and Safety
After losing both cornerbacks from the 2020 team, Boise State will need new players to make an impact at a critical position. While the linebackers and defensive line possess some experience and talented players like Irwin, the cornerback position is a bit of an unknown.
Combined with the new defensive scheme, there will need to be three or four cornerbacks that will be ready to take on the likes of UCF wide receivers Jaylon Robinson and Ryan O’Keefe, and probably the best wide receiver transfer in all of the American Athletic Conference in Jordan Johnson, as he came over to UCF from Notre Dame.
That’s a tall order for a cornerback group that picked off just two passes last season, and both of those interceptions belonged to players that no longer will wear a Broncos uniform. At safety, the Broncos do return junior JL Skinner, a rangy 6’4”, 216-pound player that recorded one interception, 37 total tackles, and two pass breakups.
Placing Skinner in different positions to maximize his productivity could be something Coach Avalos does to keep the Knights off balance. Skinner will need to be a playmaker for the Broncos regardless of where he lines up.