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Washington vs. Boise State Preview: Defense

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Taking a look at the most talented and experienced Boise State defense in years.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This Boise State team has a chance to challenge our perceptions of Idaho's dominant program (uh, sorry Vandals). So much of BSU's identity has been sourced from skill players: Kellen Moore, Doug Martin, Jay Ajayi, Austin Pettis and Titus Young. This year an identity already exists and expectations for the Broncos are as high as ever. Yet it just so happens that the biggest question marks may be at quarterback and running back.

So why are Boise State fans neglecting to panic given this lack of obvious star power at QB and RB? While returning every contributing offensive lineman and four of five top pass-catchers certainly has a calming effect, it is the star power on the defensive side of the ball that has BSU so confident.

Defensive Line

DE Tyler Horn (Sr., 6-5, 268), DT Tutulupeatau Mataele (Sr., 6-3, 296), NT Armand Nance (Sr., 6-0, 306) OR NT Justin Taimatuia (Sr., 6-0, 298), STUD Kamalei Correa (Jr., 6-3, 248).

Scariest lineman is sort of a wash between STUD end Kamalei Correa (who could also be counted with the linebackers given the hybrid role) and DE Tyler Horn. Correa is a pass rush specialist who notched 12 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in 2014 and looks set to build on that production.

Horn missed all but one game last season to injury. His 8.5 career sacks and 17.5 career TFLs do not jump off the stat sheet next to Correa's numbers, but he brings prototypical size and stout run defense to the less-glamorous of the two edge roles along the line.

On the inside we will see major contributions from three big tackles. Tutulupeatau Mataele is penciled in as the starting defensive tackle as a senior despite never playing for the Broncos. He started off at Mt. San Antonio College before transferring to Boise before the 2013 season. He practiced but didn't play that first year and then used his extra year of eligibility to redshirt in 2014. Now he will finally have a shot to prove that the journey was worthwhile. On paper this is the weakest link on the defensive front, but if he turns out to be a dud, Antoine Turner and Eliot Hoyt are co-backups behind him. Both gained valuable experience last season in reserve roles.

At nose tackle we have a pair of co-starters. Armand Nance held down the starting role last season, recording 27.5 tackles, 6.0 TFLs and 2.5 sacks. Taimatuia, like Horn, missed the entire season after a very promising 2013 campaign. The lack of a clear starter seems to be less of a problem and more of a luxury. Both figure to switch off frequently at nose tackle, and if I'm a defensive coach I rotate Nance, Taimatuia, and Mataele heavily between the two interior line spots.

Considering the relative youth of Washington's offensive line, this is not a favorable matchup. Two marquee edge players and a solid rotation of 300-pound tackles is not your typical MWC D-line. Between the hostile road environment and intense quality of opponent, it will feel like an early Pac-12 road game for the Husky O-line.

Linebackers

ILB Tanner Vallejo (Jr., 6-1, 230), WLB Ben Weaver (Jr., 6-0, 228) OR Tyler Gray (Sr., 6-4, 232).

The Broncos run a 3-3-5 defense, meaning they list a fifth defensive back (a nickelback) in the starting eleven. I categorized STUD Correa as a defensive lineman simply because his biggest contribution to the defensive is rushing the passer.

One consequence of categorizing the STUD as part of the defensive line is that it leaves us with only two starting linebackers, which feels sort of wrong even if most teams end up playing nickel around half the time anyways.

Vallejo turned in a dominant 2014 season in the middle of the defense. He played in all 14 games and totaled a team-high 81 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, and an interception. He feasted against the run last year, filling whatever holes were allowed to come into existence against this quality D-line.

Gray and Weaver are listed as co-starters on the weakside after both playing well in 2014, which seems to indicate that whoever "loses" the competition will see the field on the strong side whenever the defensive staff calls for three traditional linebackers. Joe Martarano (So., 6-3, 229) will spell Vallejo at MIKE.

Defensive Backs

CB Donte Deayon (Sr., 5-9, 155), CB Jonathan Moxey (Jr., 5-10, 188), NB Chanceller James (Jr., 6-2, 216), SS Dylan Sumner-Gardner (So., 6-1, 201), FS Darian Thompson (Sr., 6-2, 212).

At the risk of sounding dismissive of some really good defenses, this must be the best defensive backfield the Broncos have boasted in years. First of all, the stars are there in Deayon and Thompson, who combined to nab 13 interceptions last year.

Second, four of the five starters are upperclassmen with starting experience. The only younger player, sophomore safety Sumner-Gardner, is a four-star recruit (the only consensus four-star recruit on the defensive depth chart) who already played a bunch as a true freshman. This is a perfectly balanced position group, one that is set up to peak this season without being totally depleted for 2016.

There isn't necessarily a weak link. Moxey is not as good as Deayon, but he played a ton in 2014 and should be a very capable second starter. James has earned the starting nod at nickel, but Mercy Maston (yet another former starter who missed last season to injury) will push him while providing excellent depth.

Special Teams

Oh, poor special teams. You have decided the outcome of many a game, but you are all that fun to write about so it is your fate to be tacked on to the end of my defensive preview.

Sean Wale (Jr., 6-2, 186) will handle punting duties for the second straight year. I can tell you he averaged 42 yards per punt, but I can't tell you what that really says about the quality of his punting without having watched him play much. Experience never hurts with college special teams.

It will be a new kicker with the departure of Dan Goodale. Tyler Rausa (Jr., 5-9, 192) has earned the role out of camp, but apart from going one for one in extra point attempts last season, he has no game experience from which to judge. Lucky for him he'll be kicking in Boise instead of into the vicious winds on Montlake.

As far as returners, the super-compact slot receiver Shane Williams-Rhodes will return punts along with Donte Deayon, who housed one last season. Jeremy McNichols will handle kick-returns along with Kelsey Young.

Key Players

It is a little strange to think that so soon after boasting Shaq, Shelton, Kikaha, and Peters, the Huskies will now measure up short in defensive star power to open the 2015 season. While the names might not be nationally known, there are around a half dozen Broncos that are capable of all-conference seasons. Nearly every other starter is an upperclassman. The Husky defense is loaded with potential, but Boise State is simply loaded.

STUD Kamalei Correa

We've already talked about Correa's impressive sack numbers, but it would feel wrong not to list him as a key player. He should see most of his snaps against LT Coleman Shelton, who is one of Washington's more experienced starters. He played in 13 games in 2014 at right tackle, starting for seven, and he did an acceptable job for a redshirt freshman. That doesn't mean he is ready to contain Correa, whose precise technique and steady motor have drawn comparisons to Hau'oli Kikaha.

FS Darian Thompson

Thompson's 2014 stats: 60.5 tackles, 6 TFLs, 7 interceptions. Good enough for All-MWC 1st team and 2nd team All-America honors from CBS. Looking forward to his senior season, the 6-2, 210-pound safety is a captain and, along with Deayon, gives the Broncos one of the scariest ball-hawking defensive backfields in the country. Good luck Lindquist/Browning/Carta-Samuels, I believe in all of you.

Final Thoughts

The prospect of establishing the run against this group is daunting yet likely Washington's only real path to success. Boise State ranked 36th in rushing yards allowed per game last season and they return basically every major contributor except for Beau Martin, while also adding the formerly injured Horn and Taimatuia.

Allow a college team the luxury of an entire year with practically zero turnover and significant improvement is nearly inevitable. When you consider all my gushing about the DBs, the fact that stopping the run is likely to be BSU's greatest strength almost seems unfair.

This is a difficult game to evaluate given that this defense is such a known quantity versus Washington's offense, which is essentially a mystery aside from a few running backs and pass-catchers. Still, keep in mind that just because we don't know much about the offense does not mean it will simply be awful.  It is the nature of the college game that previously unknown quantities become essential components in the span of a single year. We just can't guess how quickly, and how frequently, that will happen, just like we don't know how much another year of progress under Coach Petersen's leadership will be tangibly worth. In a few weeks we will know so much more.

For now, this Boise State defense deserves the benefit of the doubt, especially on the blue turf in an emotional matchup. If Washington's offense can come out with a new starting QB and a green offensive line and manage to avoid panic and establish a few respectable drives, it will say a lot for UW's chances in 2015.