WAC Conference Preview

Boise State goes for six straight but Hawai'i picked No. 1

Aug. 3, 2007

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By Tom Wiedeman

Special to CSTV.com



Tom Wiedeman

Tom Wiedeman contributes to CSTV.com
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For the first time in its history, the Western Athletic Conference put together a spring prospectus in April to update the media on its teams. On the heels of Boise State's miraculous win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl - aka "The Game of the Century" - and with two legitimate Heisman candidates and the possibility of another BCS bowl game, the league finally has the on-field product to market.

 

And market it has.

 

The Heisman glow around the conference is unmistakable. Record-setting Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan seems the likeliest candidate - if you're not sold, check out Hawaii's official Heisman campaign DVD, "A Colt Following" - to become the conference's only Heisman winner besides Ty Detmer, who won in 1990 when BYU was still part of the conference. Boise running back Ian Johnson may be a bit of a dark horse, but he's the type of story the media can't get enough of.


 

 

 

The country is starting to pick up on the rising WAC and realize there's more to it than Boise State and its blue turf. Here's a run down of the country's most pass-happy conference.

 

 

Hawai'i - 2006: 11-3 Overall, 7-1 WAC

Offense

Though some point to the pass-happy Hawai'i system and weak competition to explain Hawai'i quarterback Colt Brennan's mind-boggling numbers, they are impressive: 5,549 yards, 58 touchdowns, and just 12 interceptions last season landed him sixth in the Heisman balloting, and he will likely smash Ty Detmer's career record of 121 touchdowns with just 29 to go. But Brennan isn't a one-man team, and he'll have plenty of help from a receiving corps head coach June Jones said "may be the best receivers that I've ever had. And that includes some of my pro teams." Davone Bess and Jason Rivers both produced over 1,100 yards last season, and Ryan Grice-Mullen would have topped 1,000 if he hadn't missed four games. The offensive line only has two returning starters, losing three players to the NFL, but there are several younger players ready to step up from Hawaii's recruiting central: American Samoa. The big question is the running game, where the Warriors will have to replace the WAC's most efficient runner, Nate Ilaoa, who ran for 7.6 yards a carry last season. There is a committee of young players looking to take over, with redshirt freshmen Kealoha Pilares and Nebraska transfer Leon Wright-Jackson looking like the most likely candidates.

 

Defense

With Brennan and Co. routinely scoring 40 points - twice they hit 68 last season - defense has been an after-thought. But Jones has made an effort to improve the squad this season, particularly with the addition of defensive coordinator Greg McMackin, who plans to switch back to a 4-3 defense. The line is a question mark, where Michael Lafaele is the only returning starter while the Warriors have to replace NFL prospects Ikaika Alama-Francis and Melila Purcell. Jones expects eight or nine players to compete for the other three spots. A veteran linebacking corps is the heart of the defense this year, with All-WAC selections Solomon Elimimian and Adam Leonard leading the charge along with several backups who have starting experience in last year's 3-4 scheme. The coaches are particularly high on sophomore Blaze Soares, who they expect to step up into a starting role. A young secondary struggled last year, but the coaches are hoping a year of taking their lumps means this year will be an improvement.

 

The Skinny

A non-conference schedule that typically includes teams like Alabama, Purdue, and Oregon State has been replaced with Northern Colorado and Charleston Southern, so a loss for Hawaii in its first eight games would be a shock. A difficult final stretch is another story. Wins against Fresno State and at Nevada should come, but then five-time conference champs Boise State come to Honolulu for what should be a matchup between two undefeated teams - and possibly with a BCS bowl bid on the line. There's little doubt that Brennan will put up Heisman-worthy numbers, but if he hopes to be invited to New York, an undefeated season is all but required. Most of the national media is obsessed with the trick plays and marriage proposals - not to ignore the good football - at Boise State, but the local writers picked Hawaii to win, and if Hawaii can beat the Broncos for the first time since both teams joined the WAC, the Warriors could be this year's Boise.


Boise State - 2006: 13-0 Overall, 8-0 WAC

Offense

The team with the best record in the country since 1999 has to answer a big question for the first time in three years: who will replace starting quarterback Jared Zabransky? Coach Chris Petersen has four quarterbacks looking to keep up Zabransky's 33-5 record as a starter, and the coach claims he doesn't know which one will be starting yet - never a good sign. The likely candidates are Zabransky's backup Taylor Tharp, the experienced candidate, or junior Bush Hamdan, who has the better arm and more mobility. Thankfully for whoever steps in to Zabransky's shoes, Fiesta Bowl hero Ian Johnson is a dark horse Heisman candidate after finishing 8th in the voting last year and may be the country's best running back not named Slaton or McFadden. If the Broncos are to get back to a BCS bowl, Johnson will have to repeat last season's performance when he led the nation with 25 touchdowns and was second in yards per game. He'll be running behind four returning offensive linemen, led by All-American stud tackle Ryan Clady, who started all 13 games for the Broncos last season. The wide receiving corps is deep but young and without a true star, so the big question mark will be seeing how the new quarterback meshes with equally fresh targets.

 

Defense

Though the Boise State defense was glossed over in the coverage of last year's Fiesta Bowl - you can't run hook-and-ladders and the Statue of Liberty on defense, after all - the Bronco defense was actually the team's stronger unit and tops in the conference. Unfortunately, there were considerable losses from the nation's 8th best run defense. Losing WAC Defensive Player of the Year Korey Hall leaves a gaping hole in the linebacking corps, but thankfully this is also the team's deepest position. The secondary returns three of four starters, led by hard-hitting safety Marty Tadman, but the toughest replacement may be defensive tackle Andrew Browning - the guy Peterson says is the graduated senior he would want back most, even over Zabransky. Boise has a history of tough defenses, and the young players stepping up have a full season to get ready for Brennan and Hawaii in the season's final game.

 

The Skinny

"Alright, who's got non-Fiesta Bowl questions?" Petersen asked reporters last week, hoping to move on from the story line that has defined his team since January. And you can't blame him for trying to escape an unenviable position: having to outdo winning possibly the greatest bowl game of all time. And after losing 23 seniors, including 11 who ended up in NFL camps, it isn't a foregone conclusion that Boise will repeat the performance. But a defense that isn't going to give up many points and a running attack led by Johnson will make the new quarterback's transition that much easier. The Broncos are playing an odd schedule, with two games each on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, and an October span of 3 games in 13 days. If they can get by that, a Thanksgiving weekend match-up in Honolulu should decide if Boise State gets a sixth straight WAC title - and a shot at topping last year's bowl memory.

 

San Jose State - 2006: 9-4 Overall, 5-3 WAC

Offense

Hawaii has the best passing game in the conference, Ian Johnson gives Boise the top ground attack, but who has the best overall offense? It might be San Jose State. Quarterback Adam Tafralis would be a shoe-in for All-WAC honors if some guy named Brennan had leapt to the NFL, but as it stands he'll have to settle for having the 11th best passer rating in the country last season. With an 11-4 record as a starter, the big challenge for Tafralis will be finding new targets after the loss of top receivers James Jones and John Broussard. The receivers are young and inexperienced, with tight end Jeff Clark the leading returning receiver. But what Tafralis has that Brennan doesn't is two-time All-WAC selection Yonus Davis in the backfield. The first Spartan since 2000 to rush for more than 1,000 yards, the lightning-quick Davis averaged 6.2 yards a carry and gives SJSU the WAC's most balanced attack. Up front all five linemen will be upperclassmen, led by junior center Justin Paysinger. The Spartans also return two all-WAC performers in punter Waylon Prather and kicker Jared Strubeck.

 

Defense

The lynchpin of the defense is pretty obvious: All-American cornerback Dwight Lowery, who finished second nationally in interceptions last season, with nine. The comparison made by head coach Dick Tomey is also an easy one: former Spartan, and current Baltimore Raven, Chris McAlister. "The best thing about Dwight Lowery has nothing to do with his interceptions, or his performance on the field. He's as serious as a heart attack these days." Lowery broke his jaw in the spring and had his mouth wired shut for about seven weeks but didn't lose a pound and should see no after effects. It's because of Lowery and fellow cornerback Christopher Owens, who locks down opposing receivers, that Tomey can institute a new form of the "Desert Swarm" attacking defense he made famous as head coach at Arizona in the early 90s. And though Lowery is the star of the defense, the heart is all 5-10, 230 pounds of linebacker Matt Castelo: the nation's No. 2 returning tackler, having compiled 256 tackles the past two seasons and 18 tackles in the New Mexico Bowl win. The defensive line should be much improved, after using eight freshmen at different times last year, but the secondary and linebackers that will make or break the Spartans' defense.

 

The Skinny

The improvement for SJSU in recent years has been startling, and along with a 300 percent improvement in fan attendance in the past two years, the Spartans should go bowling in back-to-back years for the first time since 1987. A rough early schedule at Arizona State, Kansas State, and Stanford could trip up the Spartans, but this team is built for WAC play. With the best secondary in a pass-happy conference, the Spartans may have the best chance at upsetting Hawaii if the defensive line can get enough pressure on Brennan to allow Lowery and Owens to shut down the receivers. Back-to-back games at Fresno State and Boise State could decide where the Spartans land in the top half of the conference, but with good experience at key positions, Coach Tomey says this will be his best squad.

 

Nevada - 2006: 8-5 Overall, 5-3 WAC

Offense

Nevada's modified shotgun formation, or "pistol" offense, will be under new leadership after the loss of three-year starter and NFL draft choice Jeff Rowe. Though a lot of Wolf Pack faithful are putting their hopes in redshirt freshmen Colin Kaepernick, a 6-6 rocket-armed quarterback who fits the Nevada offense, the snaps early in the season will likely go to Nick Graziano, who is surprisingly mobile for his 6-1, 210-pound frame, and was near perfect in the spring game. "Both of these kids have very strong arms, both can run the ball, both can get the ball downfield, but I'm anxious to see them in competition because I'm looking for a quarterback that can manage our offense," says head coach Chris Ault. That quarterback will have to play behind an offensive line that is strong inside, but weak and inexperienced in the tackle spots. The running game lost leading rusher Robert Hubbard, but Luke Lippincott started five games for the Wolf Pack and is expected to be the every-down back, though he'll share time with sophomore Brandon Fragger and speedy, converted-receiver Dwayne Sanders. The receiving corps may be the deepest, and perhaps best group on the team. Ault loves the speed this group has, and expects them to be a big part of helping the new quarterback.

 

Defense

Eight starters return from the WAC's second-best defense last season, and Ault's most experienced group may be the best defensive squad in the conference this year. The linebackers in the Wolf Pack's 3-4 scheme are the key to the defense, particularly the outside duo of Ezra Butler and Jeremy Engstrom. Butler, with 17.5 tackles for loss last season and sub-4.5 speed, gets most of the attention as a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but Ault expects Engstrom to be the team's biggest surprise in his second year as a starter. Josh Mauga moved to middle linebacker to make room for Engstrom and Butler, and is the lynchpin of the defense behind an experienced front line whose primary job is to allow the second-line to make stops. Competition in the secondary should be fierce, with several freshmen getting a chance to play, along with some experienced players, particularly hard-hitting safety Jonathon Amaya. "The defense has gotta be the difference in trying to compete for a championship," says Ault.

 

The Skinny

With around 2/3 of the squad freshmen or sophomores, week one could be rough introduction for the young team: a date with Nebraska in Lincoln. But there is enough talent on the team to make a run at a third straight bowl game, and possibly challenge for the top spot in the conference. Whether or not the Wolf Pack can push Hawaii or Boise, let alone San Jose State, may depend on how well the new quarterback adjusts. The defense should be good enough to control the stellar offenses at the top of the conference, but it's the Wolf Pack's own offense that will need to play better if the program is going to take another big step. This team should improve as the season goes along, so a November upset of Hawaii at home - a week before the Warriors face Boise - isn't out of the question.

 

Fresno State - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 4-4 WAC

Offense

Whither David Carr? The days of the Heisman Trophy candidate giving defensive coordinators nightmares in Bulldog Stadium seem ages ago after the Bulldogs finished 101st in passing offense last season. Junior quarterback Tom Brandstater had a rough debut season, throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, and head coach Pat Hill brought in his third offensive coordinator in three seasons, Jim McElwain, to revamp a defunct offensive machine. Leading receiver Chastin West will be back, but even he grabbed just 365 yards last season. The backfield has equally tough shoes to fill, tasked with replacing 1,400-yard rusher Dwayne Wright, with the duty likely to fall by committee to sophomores Lonyae Miller and Anthony Harding. Both runners will have four athletic returning starters to help them on the offensive line, anchored in the middle by center Ryan Wendell and guard Cole Popovich. Ask any coach in the WAC, and they will insist that legendary coach Hill will have his offense back on top soon. The skill players are there to make improvement, and a Week 2 match up with Texas A&M will test the progress quickly.

 

Defense

Six starters return for the defense, but there are even more question marks all over the field. Jason Shirley anchors the defensive line, but the defensive ends and linebackers are largely untested. Transfers Jason Roberts and Chris Lewis, from Washington State and Miami, respectively, will compete to give the team a pass rushing presence off the edge. The linebacking corps will be aided by the return of Marcus Riley from a knee injury in 2005, but only middle linebacker Ahijah Lane has any starting experience. The biggest questions are in the secondary. Three starters will likely be sophomores, and Damon Jenkins led the secondary with a paltry three interceptions. Free safety Marvin Haynes was one of only a few bright spots last season as a freshman, and his development could be crucial in helping the young secondary progress.

 

The Skinny

Don't ask head coach Pat Hill about 2006. There wasn't much worth saying about the 1-7 start for a team that just six years ago was 11-3 and the pride of the mid-major conferences. This year will likely be rebuilding for the Bulldogs as some younger players find their roles, but the potential for a run at a bowl game is there. For one thing, after a rough start at Texas A&M and Oregon, the schedule is fairly forgiving for the Bulldogs. Fresno has more balance than most of the teams in the top half of the conference, but they also lack the one true weapon that might allow them to make a run at the title. If the team doesn't break .500 - a possibility - the WAC's highest paid coach, Hill, could be on the hot seat after not winning a conference title since 1999.

 

New Mexico State - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 2-6 WAC

Offense

Calling the New Mexico State offense unbalanced would be unfair. It's a matter of the scale. The Aggies' "Air Raid" offense throws the ball twice as often as they run, and it shows: the Aggies had the second best passing game in the country, and the nation's sixth worst running game. Colt Brennan may get all the Heisman attention, but Chase Holbrook fell just behind Brennan in most national statistical categories. Holbrook will have all of his top seven receivers from last year, including the 1,425 yards from speedy Chris Williams. Running back Justine Buries returns from a season-ending knee injury last season and improvement from him will be needed to provide some sort of a diversified attack. Both the running and passing attack will benefit from an offensive line that returns four starters, losing right guard Maveu Hemuli to a Mormon mission. If Buries can provide some sort of offense, the NMSU attack could be among the most potent in the conference, and even the country. They'll need to put the ball in the end zone, though: Aggie kickers combined to go just 4 of 10 on field goals, missing seven PAT's as well.

 

Defense

As good as the Aggies are at throwing the ball, they're just as bad at stopping other teams through the air, ranking 98th in pass defense. Head coach Hal Mumme will need to find two serviceable corners quickly if he hopes to keep the WAC's high-flying offenses under 40 points a game. Three starters are back from last season's secondary, including leading tackler Derrick Richardson, but it's pass coverage, not tackling, that has Mumme worried. All three starters return on the front line of Mumme's 3-4 defense, but will need to do better than last year's total of 12 sacks to ease the pressure on New Mexico State's weak secondary. The linebacking crew will have new faces, but also one of the team's more promising players on the defensive side in Dante Floyd. The defense won't be dominant, and probably not even above-average, but it doesn't have to be. Holding opponents under 30, or even 40, may be good enough for Holbrook and company.

 

The Skinny

If any team in the bottom half of the conference has a chance to make a surprise bowl run, the Aggies might it - but it all hinges on the arm of Chase Holbrook. If nothing else, anything less than 100 points combined in the Oct. 27 match up with Brennan in Honolulu would be a disappointment. The players have set two goals for this season: beating local rivals New Mexico and UTEP in September, and winning the conference title. The latter is probably a few years off, but the former is certainly doable this season. Either way, Coach Mumme has an exciting team to watch, and a program moving in the right direction.

 

Louisiana Tech - 2006: 3-10 Overall, 1-7 WAC

Offense

New head coach Derek Dooley has exactly zero years of head coaching experience - at any level. And his first year in the top spot won't be an easy one. Quarterback Zac Champion will be back under center for the second season, though last year was a mixed bag of success for him, throwing for 2,466 yards - 46th in the nation - but also throwing four more interceptions (18) than touchdowns (14). Coach Dooley puts it simply, if with a bit of defeatism: "He has to know it's OK to punt the football." Champion has lost his top two targets from last year, but the running game will give him a breather. Patrick Jackson averaged over five yards a carry and will have three experienced linemen to run behind, including bookend senior tackles Ryan Considine and Tyler Miller. With some more consistency from Champion in his senior campaign, the Bulldogs have a shot at joining the top offenses in the conference.

 

Defense

The good news is that the defense returns 10 starters. The bad news is that those starters were part of the worst statistical defense in the country last season. Last in scoring defense, last in total defense, and just one spot better in rushing defense, there's nowhere to go but up. Half of those returning starters were freshmen or sophomores last season, so the added time on the field and in the weight room should provide a boost. Dooley is particularly excited about the interior duo of Josh Muse, who is healthy after an injury-plagued 2006, and sophomore D'Anthony Smith. Linebacker Quin Harris, an Academic All-WAC selection, led the team with 95 tackles last season and is looking to lead a group that returns entirely intact. A young secondary got thrown around by the high-flying passing attacks in the WAC, but Dooley expects them to use that as motivation. It remains to be seen whether that motivation will turn into success.

 

The Skinny

"I won a couple cases, I got my (butt) kicked a couple times. It was kind of like football," says Dooley about the year and a half he spent as an attorney before entering coaching. Sadly, even the best legal defense won't mean much if the Bulldogs' actual defense doesn't improve. If any past experience will help Dooley at Tech it will be his seven years under Nick Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins - not to mention learning from his dad, former Georgia head coach Vince Dooley. Dooley says that without recruiting and summer camps, coaching in the NFL is "Like getting a PhD in X's and O's. It's football 365 days a year." He'll need that expertise to take a team with some raw young talent - and a program that was the last team to win a conference title besides Boise State, in 2001 - back into the top half of the conference.

 

Idaho - 2006: 4-8 Overall, 3-5 WAC

Offense

There is a lot new head coach Robb Akey has introduced at Idaho. Seventeen players were dismissed from the team this summer. There's a new offense with a one-back package that employs plenty of option plays and designed QB draws. Now Akey just has to figure out who's going to run it. At this point there are three quarterbacks competing for the job, and all are close to even money for having the privilege of leading Idaho in its breather of a first week game: at No. 1 USC. Thankfully, whoever the signal-caller ends up being, he'll have two returning rushers in Brian Flowers and Jayson Bird who can provide some stability in the backfield. And the running game better step up, because no returning receiver gained more than 150 yards last season, though Lee Smith has the speed to provide a deep threat. The line has solid experience with three returning starters, led by center Adam Korby and tackle Kris Anderson.

 

Defense

The Vandals may play in Moscow, Idaho, but their offense has been more of a velvet than an iron curtain: Idaho had the fifth worst scoring defense last season. If there's a bright-spot for Idaho, it's in the linebacking corps. Weak-side linebacker David Vobora was fourth in the country in tackles, and fourth in solo tackles. His numbers might get even better this season when the return from injury of middle linebacker Jo Artis Ratti takes some load off Vobora - the Vandals were 3-3 with Ratti and 0-5 without him last year. Seniors Brandon Ogletree and Josh Bousman have starting experience, a point that may push Akey to switch to a 3-4 defense to lessen the pressure on an inexperienced front line. Lockdown corner Stanley Franks led the nation with nine interceptions, and sophomore safety Shiloh Keo gives the Vandals a solid secondary. If an untested defensive line can get pressure in the backfield, the Idaho defense could be in the top-half of the conference. "If we can play good defense, I think we have a good chance," says Akey.

 

The Skinny

Change is a fact of life at Idaho - fifth-year quarterback Brian Nooy has seen four different head coaches. Coach Akey is trying to institute a new option-based offense, and maybe even a 3-4 defense, but most of all he's trying to change the culture of Idaho football. The 17 players dismissed from the team over the summer - a process Akey referred to as "the massacre" - was meant to instill a new mindset for his team. It will be tough for the Vandals to get to .500 with non-conference games at USC and Washington State, as well as a tough WAC slate, but Akey has Idaho moving in a new direction, which can't be worse than the old one.

 

Utah State - 2006: 1-11 Overall, 1-7 WAC

Offense

Last season was not good to Utah State on offense. It took five games for the team to even get into the end zone. The likely starter will be Leon Jackson III, who has started 14 games but was benched for Riley Nelson after Jackson threw just three touchdowns, and even worse, had even more passes (five) returned for scores against the Aggies. But Nelson left the team for a planned Mormon mission trip in Spain, so Jackson will be back in the saddle with several experienced targets to throw to, namely all-conference receiver Kevin Robinson. But with new offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey, whose North Texas teams were last in the country in passing, the focus will be on the running game. Unfortunately, there isn't much to speak of at that position (Jackson is the leading returning rusher, with 105 yards). Converted receiver Aaron Lesue will likely share time with freshmen Curtis Marsh, running behind three returning middle linemen. Dickey will also expect Jackson to run with the ball more than Aggie quarterbacks have in the past. Dickey's offense at North Texas ranked 115th in scoring in the country last season, but for better or worse, it's an improvement on Utah State's own rank: 117.

 

Defense

Though the stats weren't particularly good last year, the defense shows promise. Eight starters are back from a side that held Darren McFadden and Arkansas to just 20 points - although the offense, unfortunately, was shut out in that game. The front four will be all upperclassmen and returns three starters, including All-WAC second team selection Ben Calderwood on the edge. But it's in the linebacking corps that most of the promise lies. WAC Freshmen of the Year Paul Igboeli has the most upside, while junior Jake Hutton returns from a foot injury to anchor the middle. Two-year starter Devon Hall and junior college transfer Deshon Benton round out a group that will be leaned on to help a defense that was second-to-last in the WAC. Twenty of the team's top 21 tacklers return, so the question won't be whether the team can tackle, but whether it can make enough tackles to keep the other team out of the end zone.

 

The Skinny

With 14 starters returning, and only three sophomores expected to start, there is plenty of experience coming back. Unfortunately, that experience is coming back from a school record 11-loss season. The Aggies had few bright spots last year, and after losing Nelson, who had a promising season, it will be tough going on offense in particular. If the Aggies hope to win a few games in the WAC - not to mention avoid a shellacking at Oklahoma - it will be the Aggie defense that has to carry the load. As for the team's goals, Dickey has been modest. "You have to have a winning season first. Each year we've seen a team in this league jump up from the bottom-half to the top-half, like San Jose State. We have to be San Jose State."

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