|Wide receiver Matt Miller :: Getty Images|
When asked about the last time there was a quarterback competition in camp, Boise State coach Chris Petersen simply chuckled. "Well, it was about four years ago, when Kellen was a freshman."
Kellen Moore, the two-time All-American who finished college with a record of 50-3 and broke virtually every Boise State passing record, has graduated, but the goals and outlook remain the same for the perennial BCS buster: Win 13 games (or play in the MAACO Bowl), beat a ranked opponent to begin the season and dominate conference play. The difference this year is that number 11, formerly the jersey of major college football's all-time winningest quarterback, now belongs to a freshman wide receiver instead.
Moore went undrafted in the April NFL Draft and is now fighting for a roster spot with the Detroit Lions. His trusted running back, Doug Martin, was a first round selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and may start immediately. Back in Boise, most familiar faces from 2011 are missing, but that probably won't faze the head coach with a career record of 73-6.
Petersen has yet to announce a starting quarterback for the Broncos' season opener against AP No. 11 Michigan State, Boise State's fourth consecutive season opener against a ranked foe (and third on the road). The most experienced candidate is redshirt junior Joe Southwick, who has appeared in 16 games in his Boise State career and has thrown for two touchdowns. Southwick will have to fend off redshirt sophomore Grant Hedrick and true freshman Nick Patti. "I think we have four good quarterbacks," Petersen said. "You just need to see where they are physically and where they are knowledge-wise. They're all talented; we just need to push the envelope and get these guys ready for what we want to do."
The Broncos' offseason was an adventurous one. Not only did 12 players sign NFL contracts, but offensive coordinator Brent Pease left to become the offensive coordinator at Florida. There are all of seven returning starters; Boise State lost nine of its top ten tacklers, its leading passer, rusher, receiver, and even its punter.
But Petersen, arguably the most sought after coach in college football, fended off an aggressive overture from UCLA and calls from seemingly every major school with a vacancy to return to Boise. Now, he's ready to face what may be his most challenging coaching job yet.
Can Chris Petersen's Broncos survive -- and overcome -- immense roster turnover during the offseason?
2 -- Number of career touchdown passes thrown by projected starting quarterback Joe Southwick. Southwick will compete with heralded true freshman Nick Patti for the starting job.
D.J. Harper, RB, Sr. -- Harper effectively spelled future NFL first-round pick Doug Martin in 2011. Expect Chris Petersen to lean heavily on Harper all season -- particularly on opening night at Michigan State with a new quarterback taking the reins for the first time.
Charles Leno, RT, Jr. -- The starting right tackle is the only member of the offensive line that started every game last season. Leno's play was described as sloppy at times, but he has emphasized that he is becoming a "blocking technician" in camp and that his fundamentals are vastly improved.
J.C. Percy, LB, Sr. -- Percy wasn't a starter in 2011, but he is the only returnee that recorded more than 31 tackles last season. The Broncos lost an astonishing nine of their top 10 tacklers, and now Percy has the most game experience of any projected starting linebacker.
Jamar Taylor, CB, Sr. -- The 5-foot-11, 198-pound Taylor will be asked to step into a major role on Boise State's rebuilding defense. He finished with 27 tackles and two interceptions for the Broncos in 2011.
Blake Renaud, LB, So. -- Recruited out of high school powerhouse De La Salle in Concord, Calif., Renaud has lofty expectations despite seeing limited action as a freshman. Renaud managed just 10 tackles in 2011, but he will likely start at middle linebacker on Boise's depleted defense.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Jr. -- After arrving in Boise from Butler C.C. in El Dorado, Kansas, Lawrence should immediately start at weakside defensive end. He spurned power conference teams like Kansas State and South Florida, and the open defensive end position probably factored in his decision. Lawrence was first-team all-conference at Butler and finished second on his team with 66 tackles.
When Kellen Moore threw his 100th touchdown pass, Matt Miller made the first reception of his collegiate career. In Boise State's 2011 season opener against Georgia, Miller, an unknown freshman, slipped behind the Bulldog linebackers before catching a sharp throw from Moore. He dove into the end zone to tie the game at seven.
For Moore, the touchdown pass was expected -- this was a quarterback expected to compete for the Heisman Trophy and the most revered signal-caller in school history. But for Miller, the touchdown catch wasn't merely a relief; it was a shock. "I wasn't even sure if I'd be playing last year," Miller said. "Coming in and having my first catch be a touchdown was unbelievable. It caught me off guard, actually. But silencing a whole bunch of Georgia fans was a good feeling."
Just over a year after suffering a serious Achilles tendon injury, Miller had not only returned to the football field, but caught a critical touchdown in a nationally televised game. By the end of the year, Miller emerged as the team's second-leading receiver and set single-season freshman records in several major receiving categories.
With Moore, running back Doug Martin and tight end Tyler Shoemaker now gone, Miller becomes an integral part of a complex offense. In one year, the redshirt sophomore went from a college football unknown to Boise State's focal point.
A three-sport high school star at Capital High School in Helena, Mt., Miller arrived in Boise from the football-crazed state of Montana despite overtures from former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino (a former Capital High graduate) and several Pac-12 schools. He was first-team all-state in football and basketball by the time he was a sophomore, and he helped lead Capital to state titles in both sports before he was a senior. Miller also served as a state champion hurdler.
That's what made the injury so difficult.
Miller tore his Achilles tendon in August 2010, directly after he graduated high school and shortly before football season. For a player well accustomed to winning, the injury was a rough beginning to an anticipated college career. "It was pretty bad," Miller said. "You have to be really patient because the biggest thing with that injury is time. You have to be very careful when to start rehabbing at the right time and the Boise trainers really did a smart job with my injury."
But for the unassuming Miller, who speaks predominantly in short sentences rife with humility, the injury was a growing experience that didn't cost him eligibility. In fact, Miller reminds his head coach of another mild-mannered but trustworthy playmaker." I think he's a lot like Kellen in terms of being a quiet, humble, unassuming playmaker," Petersen said of Miller. "And that is what he is. He makes plays. He just quietly and continually made plays all year long. If he keeps that up, he is going to have a great career here."
Considering how he describes playing with Moore, Miller is probably honored by the comparison. "It's once in a lifetime to have a guy like that calling the plays for you," Miller said. "He made my job very easy. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
While he won't catch 100 touchdowns in his Boise State career, Miller could carve out a legendary career of his own. It all started with a pass from a humble fellow teammate.
SI: How different does it feel this year after undergoing such drastic roster turnover during offseason?
CP: It is different. The last senior class really played a lot for us. Everybody talks about how 12 guys signed NFL contracts. In the class before that we had eight or nine. That?s a lot of talent that has graduated. Now we are a little bit on the young side but we have been that before and down the road. We just need to get these guys experienced and get them coached up.
SI: How are the quarterbacks responding to the open competition in camp?
CP: I think we have four good QBs, I really do. One of them, Joe Southwick, is fairly experienced because he is going on his fourth year. What we do here is fairly complex. It takes a while not only to learn it, but also to have it ingrained in your system and to be able to react. So he is further along than the other guys, but it?s just a step progression.
SI: Is it exciting to open up against marquee opponents like Michigan State? Does it change your preparation at all?
CP: It doesn?t change too much. It doesn?t matter who you play, really. You have to worry about yourself and how to get lined up correctly. For our kids, we need to get adjusted to playing fast. With a team like Michigan State, that?s always in the back of your mind, but we can?t concentrate on Michigan State until we have ourselves figured out. That?s always been the process.