Last year, when everyone thought it was rebuilding time for the Broncos, they reloaded instead and won the WAC title. Can they do it again? That's the question for a team that loses its top rusher and receiver -- for the second straight season -- but this time must train a new quarterback, too. Three-year starter Ryan Dinwiddie, the most efficient passer in NCAA Division I-A history, leaves a gaping hole in an offense that must replace eight starters.
The Broncos have won 18 straight WAC games and produced back-to-back Top 15 finishes in the coaches' poll with a combined record of 25-2. But they haven't had this much youth on offense in coach Dan Hawkins' tenure.
"It's going to be interesting, to say the least," offensive coordinator Chris Petersen said before spring ball. "Let's just hope it's not too interesting in the fall."
The defense should provide plenty of help. The Broncos return six defensive starters, five of whom are solid All-WAC candidates, with ready-made replacements at four of the other five spots. Plus, the schedule is favorable. The Broncos play just four road games, and only one of those opponents finished last season above .500.
Hawkins (33-6 in three years) has no doubt his offensive staff will pull things together again.
"They're good coaches," he said. "They know kids, and they know football. They do a great job understanding what each guy brings to the table, giving them a role and building the system around the people that they have."
OffenseThe candidate list at quarterback starts with sophomore Jared Zabransky, who barely edged out Mike Sanford for the backup job last year. Zabransky is a much better athlete than Dinwiddie, but he still needs to learn the intricacies of the offense and clean up his passing skills. Sanford, a senior, could earn the job with his thorough knowledge of the offense.
Tailback is an even bigger mystery. Senior Donny Heck could have been the starter but is not academically eligible. The rest of the tailback crew is untested, with former walk-on Jeff Carpenter and 5-foot-7 speedster Lee Marks trying to transition from role players to starters.
The Broncos could land three receivers on the All-WAC team, if the quarterback can get them the ball. Sophomore tight end Derek Schouman and senior wideouts T.J. Acree and Lawrence Bady step into starring roles this season.
The offensive line begins with junior left tackle Daryn Colledge, a 6-5, 272-pound third-year starter. The rest of the line likely will include two or three redshirt freshmen.
DefenseLinebacker is the strength of a Broncos defense, and Weak-side backer Andy Avalos is a top candidate for WAC Defensive Player of the Year after racking up 113 tackles last season.
Sophomore middle linebacker Korey Hall, a big hitter with huge potential, was among the top freshman tacklers in the country last year. Together, he and Avalos helped the Broncos limit foes to 100.5 yards per game on the ground.
Julius Roberts, a 6-5, 239-pound senior, finally became the dominant defensive end coaches expected him to be. He led the team with 5.5 sacks in 2003 and was named first team All-WAC. The rest of the line is baby-faced -- sophomore Mike Williams, sophomore Andrew Browning and junior Alex Guerrero are slated to start.
The starting secondary is rock-solid. Cornerback Gabe Franklin (14 career interceptions) and rover Chris Carr have been key contributors for the past three seasons. Athletic sophomore Gerald Alexander at cornerback and former nickel back Cam Hall at free safety should slide seamlessly into the lineup.
SpecialistsSenior kicker Tyler Jones and sophomore punter Kyle Stringer give BSU two of the most reliable specialists in the WAC. Jones has added consistency to his booming leg, and his high kickoffs held opponents to 17.0 yards per return last year.
Carr could be one of the top return men in the country. He averaged 26.3 yards on kickoff returns and 19.8 yards on six punt returns in '03.
Final AnalysisThe difference between another spectacular season and a 7-4 mark could be the development of the offensive line. The Broncos didn't run the ball consistently in '03, a fact obscured by theie potent passing game. This year is different. They'll need to lean on the ground game to take pressure off the new quarterback.
If Boise State can take down Oregon State -- which handed the Broncos their only loss last year -- on Sept. 11 at home, it could propel the Broncos to another special season.