The nickel’s niche

For a couple years there, it didn’t look like Boise State took its concept of the nickel position seriously. For a couple years there, it didn’t look like Boise State took its concept of the nickel position seriously. It kind of morphed back to a safety in one situation and a linebacker in another. But the Broncos’ nickel was designed as a hybrid of the two positions, and defensive coordinator Marcel Yates was part of the brain trust that created it in the days of former D-coordinator Justin Wilcox. It has to be a player who’s equally adept at defending the pass and the run, with the ability to shift on the fly. Yates took the nickel spot seriously last year, plugging arguably his best defensive player, Tanner Vallejo, into the post in the absence of a more perfect fit. This season Yates feels he has the ideal pair, junior Chanceller James and senior Mercy Maston.

James was a playmaking safety last season before going down with a torn ACL in November. He was just hitting peak performance. We first saw Maston as a newly-minted junior college transfer from Bakersfield College in—you guessed it—the 2013 season opener at Washington. He made two tackles in a baptism under fire in the 38-6 loss and had Boise State’s only pass breakup of the game other than a Donte Deayon interception. By the end of the season Maston was starting—he finished with 44 tackles and a fumble recovery. The nickel has long been important to coach Bryan Harsin, do you think? “Do we have a guy who can really step up and play nickel?” asked Harsin at the outset of spring ball. “Because if we don’t, we’ll have to put Tanner back at nickel.” It appears he won’t need to do that.

The Boise State nickel, a position some of us called “nickelbacker” in the early days, was born in the third game of the 2008 season when the Broncos visited Oregon. Wilcox and Yates slid Ellis Powers into the new spot, opening the door for true freshman George Iloka to start at safety. Powers delivered an infamous late hit on Ducks quarterback Jeremiah Masoli that day at Autzen Stadium, overshadowing an otherwise solid performance in BSU’s 37-32 victory. The highlight of Powers’ (and the nickel position’s) year was a 45-yard scoop-and-score after a sack of Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle in the Kibbie Dome. The change in defensive alignment helped the Broncos to an undefeated regular season.

Forgive the preoccupation with who’s going to start at quarterback for Washington a week from tomorrow night, but that position is kind of the key—for both the Huskies and Boise State—on the blue turf. Don’t put a lot of stock into who UW’s first guy on the field is, though. Coach Chris Petersen said this week he’s open to using a two-quarterback system. The situation could fluctuate well into the season. Petersen said junior Jeff Lindquist, redshirt freshman K.J. Carta-Samuels and true freshman Jake Browning are all preparing as if they will start against the Broncos.

Three of Boise State’s four opponents in September will have new starting quarterbacks, including the final foe of the month, Virginia. The Cavaliers have been on a merry-go-round unlike any of the others at the QB spot, employing five different starters since the beginning of the 2012 season. The latest was Matt Johns, who started three games in spot duty last year and has now earned the full-time job. Johns is the only guy on the Wahoos’ roster who has thrown a pass in a game—he was 89-of-162 for 1,109 yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions in 2014. Johns’ fortunes this year will affect those of Virginia coach Mike London, who is on one of the nation’s hottest seats.

Fresno State has settled on its starting quarterback, at least for the first game. It’ll be sophomore Zach Greenlee, who has the most experience among the candidates. Coach Tim DeRuyter does say he’ll play more than one QB in Fresno State’s season opener against Abilene Christian a week from tonight. Bulldogs fans are a little uneasy—understandably. Greenlee played in three games last season with one start, a numbing 45-17 home loss to Wyoming, and completed 18 of 41 passes for 213 yards and one touchdown.

One of college football’s more inspirational comeback stories may take awhile to get off the ground. San Jose State linebacker Jared Leaf, who survived life-threatening burns in an apartment fire last year and missed the 2014 season, has not only returned but has been competing for a starting spot with the Spartans after finally being cleared to play at the beginning of fall camp. But coach Ron Caragher says Leaf suffered a concussion in a recent practice, and the fifth-year senior has not participated in drills in the past week. Leaf had to run through a burning building to escape and sustained second- and third-degree burns in the April, 2014, fire.

The PGA Tour’s FedExCup Playoffs begin today with The Barclays, and Graham DeLaet is in the field for the first time since injuring his thumb at the Canadian Open. It’s been a tough season for DeLaet, who has slipped to 104th in this season’s FedExCup standings. The former Boise State star has three top 10 finishes this year compared to seven last year and four top 25 results versus 11 last season. DeLaet picked up more than $2.6 million during his stellar 2013-14 season. He has yet to crack the $1 million mark this season.

Conversely, fellow former Bronco Troy Merritt has had a breakthrough season, including the first-ever PGA Tour victory by a BSU alumnus. Merritt, who’s had four other top 10 finishes and has earned more than $2 million this season, is 43rd in FedExCup standings. Of the top 125 golfers eligible, 120 are competing at The Barclays—the standings will be reshuffled afterward, with the top 100 advancing next week. Elsewhere, Nampa’s Tyler Aldridge begins play today at the Winco Foods Portland Open, the last tournament of the regular season on the Tour. There’s not a lot a stake for Aldridge, who is 11th on the money list with earnings of $189,671.

It’s too little, too late to help this season, but it’s better than the alternative. The Boise Hawks are winning, picking up their sixth victory in the past seven games and their eighth in the last 10 last night, 5-2 at Vancouver. A three-run sixth inning aided by two Canadians errors made the difference. The Hawks are now 12-16 in the second half of the Northwest League season and remain in last place in the South Division, five games behind the Eugene Emeralds with 10 to play. If this run had started a week earlier, who knows?

Colorado State’s top returning scorer in men’s basketball, Gian Clavell, has been reinstated to the Rams squad by coach Larry Eustachy. Criminal charges against Clavell, including false imprisonment, a domestic violence enhancement and harassment, have been dropped in Fort Collins. He was arrested July 16 after an on-campus incident involving his girlfriend. Clavell, a 6-4 guard, averaged 9.2 points and 3.7 rebounds last season as the Rams went 27-7 and advanced to the first round of the NIT.

This Day In Sports…August 27, 2004:

The United States loses to Argentina, 89-81, in the Olympic semifinal in Athens, marking the first time the U.S. had ever failed to win a gold medal with an NBA roster. The team was devoid of NBA stars, with most of the day’s luminaries electing to sit out the Olympics to rest. Argentina would go on to win the gold behind another NBA player, Manu Ginobili. It was then that the U.S. resolved to convince its top players to become Olympians, and the Americans went undefeated in Beijing in 2008 and in London in 2012.

(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 93.1 The Ticket. He also served as color commentator on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football for 14 seasons.)