Some comfort in the linebacker situation

Boise State fall camp opens today with veterans and newcomers separated for the first three days. True freshman and transfers will, first and foremost, learn how to practice. Now to nuts and bolts. My first impression of Boise State’s 2017 defense: it’s going to be better than many think. Look at what has happened at linebacker, for example. The Broncos lost Ben Weaver, Joe Martarano and Darren Lee off last year’s team. That’s 567 career tackles (plus five interceptions). But hopes are high for Gabe Perez, Leighton Vander Esch and Tyson Maeva. Perez has been moved to outside linebacker as a senior, Vander Esch’s status as a new leader on this Bronco team are well-chronicled, and Maeva finished the 2016 season with a flourish.

I’m probably more optimistic than even coach Bryan Harsin, who has identified linebacker as a focal point. He mentioned at his inaugural fall camp press conference yesterday that he hasn’t seen Joseph Inda on the field yet, nor Breydon Boyd, nor Riley Whimpey. Beyond those three are guys Harsin has seen: Blake Whitlock, who got massive playing time last year, and Desmond Williams, who had a great spring. To me, that screams “depth.”

Another subject Harsin touched on yesterday was Boise State’s emphasis on a “downhill running game” this season. I asked him at the presser how he would characterize the run game the last two years with Jeremy McNichols. “The philosophy hasn’t changed,” said Harsin. It’s presumably a matter of maintaining, sustaining and gaining. “Alexander Mattison is a physical, downhill running back,” Harsin said. The sophomore is also an uncommonly smart cookie and has established himself in the nuances of the playbook and in pass protection. Mattison showed that as he backed up McNichols last year.

The Broncos know what to expect from senior backup Ryan Wolpin. Not so much from redshirt freshman Robert Mahone, who had a disappointing spring. “Robert Mahone is in a much better position than when he got here,” Harsin said. The ball’s in his court in fall camp. The wild card is incoming freshman Drake Beasley. He’s an intriguing guy. Beasley’s champing at the bit to get on the field after having not touched the ball since the 2015 season. He was declared ineligible for his senior year of high school last fall in California after it was ruled La Canada High exerted “undue influence” on his transfer from Loyola. The Boise State roster lists Beasley as 5-11, 178 pounds, more than 20 pounds lighter than recruiting services had him at the beginning of his ill-fated senior season.

How about this tweet from Troy coach Neal Brown Sunday night: “Happy New Year! 1st prac under the lights. Preparing for our ESPNU 815 kick vs Idaho!” That certainly lit up the Twitter-sphere. The assumption is that Brown meant Boise State, the Trojans’ Opening Day opponent on September 2. But the key word is “day.” The Broncos and Troy kick off at 1:45 on the blue turf. The Trojans and the Idaho Vandals? They do indeed kick off at 8:15 p.m. Central time—on November 2. It looks like Brown simply misread his schedule. It is hardly a slight against Boise State.

Is this counter to everything the NFL is trying to do these days? Miami coach Adam Gase has said he wants a more physical training camp, and there’s been since hitting going on. Well, yesterday former Boise State star Jay Ajayi was helped off the field with a possible concussion after taking hard shots from both defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and safety T.J. McDonald. Ajayi is being evaluated—Gase “did not have a definitive prognosis on Ajayi when he met with reporters after practice,” according to the Miami Herald. “(Gase) knew he was in a no-win situation. Either he’d get criticized for not hitting enough before the season, or he’d take heat if one of his best players got hurt while doing so.” Oh boy.

Ajayi was the subject of a weekend feature by Lindsay Jones in USA Today, and the magic word for the Miami running back was “consistency.” The Jay-Train became only the fourth player in NFL history to run for 200 yards three times in a season, but eight other times he was held under 60 yards. “I’m trying to get to that next level of knowledge, things like landmarks on routes and different plays,” Ajayi said. “Knowing those little things will help me not have to think as much and be instinctual.” He told Jones he won’t be complacent despite being the Dolphins’ anointed starter going into training camp. And he shouldn’t be. Gase has a history of benching underperfoming players, including Ajayi in the season opener last year. Now we hope yesterday’s injury doesn’t get in the way.

That’s not the only Boise State-related NFL injury. Former Bronco George Iloka was carted off Cincinnati’s practice field Sunday with a knee injury. Unlike Ajayi, Iloka sustained his ailment in a non-contact situation. The sixth-year safety has been durable for the Bengals—he has appeared in 60 of 64 regular-season games since becoming a starter in 2013. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “The results were positive in that Iloka did not suffer any ligament tears, but The Enquirer learned through a league source that the sprain was severe enough to sideline him for three to four weeks. That means Iloka would likely miss the entire preseason but be ready to return for the regular season opener on September 10 against Baltimore.”

Northwest Nazarene is looking for new men’s basketball coach at an inopportune time, a couple months before practice begins for the 2017-18 season. But this was an opportunity NNU coach Scott Flemming could not pass up. Flemming is headed back to India to become Senior Director for Basketball Operations for NBA India. That’s where Flemming had been prior to taking over the Crusaders program, leading the India National Men’s Basketball team to South Asia Championships in 2013 and 2014. Flemming went 20-32 in his two years at NNU, including 12-14 last season. Assistant coach Paul Rush, who led Capital High to its undefeated season and 5A state championship in 2014, will take over in the interim.

This Day In Sports…August 1, 1945:

The legendary Mel Ott, standing only 5-9 and weighing 170 pounds, becomes the first National League player in history to hit 500 career home runs, connecting for the New York Giants off Boston Braves pitcher Johnny Hutchings. Ott, a 12-time All-Star, was in his 20th season with the Giants and would retire less than two years later, finishing with 511 homers. Today there are 27 players in the majors who have reached the 500 home run plateau—the only one currently active is Albert Pujols of the L.A. Angels.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 FM KTIK. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)