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Silver Linings

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How a horrible 2013 and rocky 2014 shaped the Broncos' present...and their future

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Silver linings are usually things you seek out after a disappointing season. Lord knows we all tried to find a few after the 2013 debacle…but alas, there weren't many. The Broncos lost virtually every meaningful game in 2013, were blown out on more than one occasion and then lost their hall of fame coach weeks before an embarrassing bowl loss (one punctuated by a public urination controversy). Oh yeah, then our hall of fame coach took 3/4ths of the recruiting class with him. Believe it or not, this is where the series of incredible silver linings and serendipitous goings on actually begins.

Over Chris Petersen’s phenomenal 8-year run at Boise State, other institutions had dipped into Pete’s talent rich assistant coaching pool early and often. Boise State’s main innovators, recruiters and motivators had sadly dwindled throughout Petersen’s tenure…to the point that the headhunters really had nowhere else to go but to the top. Bryan Harsin, one of the key architects of the Broncos’ breakthrough Fiesta Bowl season had moved on—first to Texas as an OC and then to Arkansas State as head coach…and there was little hope of luring him back. The same could be said of "DBU" architect Marcel Yates, who had decided to continue his career ladder ascent in the SEC as a defensive coordinator. Fellow alum Mike Sanford Jr. was widely considered an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks—but was comfortable in his role at Stanford and seemed well out of the Broncos’ grasp.

Then Pete left without warning. It was something many in Bronco Nation weren’t prepared for—and a move that pundits said would seal the doom of Boise State. The mystique, they said, was gone ("they" being Rocky Long, amongst others). Then the 2014 recruiting class—on paper, one of the best of Petersen’s tenure—evaporated. The Broncos were without a coach, without direction and largely without a foundation for their future. This is where the story takes a somewhat surprising turn—there was a silver lining to all this misery, and any wistfulness about the Chris Petersen era would soon fall by the wayside.

Bryan Harsin returned to Boise State, his alma mater, a year ago tomorrow and immediately infused a new energy and sense of purpose into the program. He reached out to, and successfully lured back, key pieces of the Broncos rich coaching tapestry. In fact, Harsin stocked the cupboards with alumni, seasoned veterans (Steve Caldwell) and up-and-comers (Eliah Drinkwitz). All told, this represented a net positive for the Bronco coaching staff…something that seemed nearly impossible when Chris Petersen left town. The Broncos are Mountain West champs and headed to another Fiesta Bowl—due in large part to the darkest days in a decade. Go figure. And those lost recruits? Harsin and company attacked recruiting like madmen, and finished with more four-star signees (3) than during Chris Petersen’s entire 8 years at the helm. So much for being handcuffed.

The silver linings don’t stop there.

A Joe Southwick injury in 2013 thrust Grant Hedrick into the starting role…with mixed results, but that earlier-than-expected starting time gave Hedrick the inside track on the starting job in 2014, and he parlayed that into a 2nd team All-MWC season. A season, by the way, that was off to an inauspicious start for Grant until he hit rock bottom against Air Force in Colorado Springs. That deflating (and frankly embarrassing) loss had a silver lining. Grant, and the team, refocused…reeled off 8 straight wins and won their first outright conference title.

That Air Force game, as painful as it was, lined another cloud for the Broncos. WR Matt Miller, the Broncos leading receiver up to that point, was lost for the year in that game. Without Miller in the lineup, Thomas Sperbeck was forced into action and the Broncos offense had to find more dimension. The offense did find another dimension, more playmakers, and Sperbeck became a budding star—finishing the regular season as the Broncos’ receiving yards leader.

Boise State seemed to have heaping helpings of bad over the course of a year and a half…nearly all have somehow paid dividends during the 2014 season or promise to in the near future.

Other injuries accumulated by the Broncos were costly—but because of the timing of the injuries, the Broncos will regain the services of players like Tyler Horn, Justin Taimatuia, and Mercy Maston next season. Even Jeremy Ioane’s story led to a healthy silver lining—it rallied the fan base around their sidelined star…gave the team someone to fight for, and forced more young talent into the lineup in his stead, who will now have the benefit of game experience in 2015 (guys like Chanceller James and Dylan Sumner-Gardner).

In sports you take the good with the bad. Boise State seemed to have heaping helpings of bad over the course of a year and a half…nearly all have somehow paid dividends during the 2014 season or promise to in the near future. Of course, it takes the right type of program and the right types of leaders to turn weaknesses and setbacks into strengths. I think we’ve found just the leaders. The cloudy days are now lined with silver.