The good news for Boise State fans: Bryan Harsin is still at Boise State. The bad news for Bryan Harsin: The Broncos lost a lot of talent from 2016.
Boise State’s spring practice gets underway this week, and Harsin will get his first on-field look at a very different cast of characters wearing blue. Additionally, he's also staring down the barrel of a 2017 season where his Broncos may not be the favorite to win or even play for the Mountain West title.
Has Boise State arrived as a program that can simply reload after a mass exodus of talent and experience? We may find out this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Boise State's Spring Practice
1. Brett Rypien's growth and ability to lead
The departure of 18 seniors will have head coach Bryan Harsin looking for a strong leader – both on the field and in the locker room. Rypien is the logical choice, given his status as one of the better quarterbacks returning in the conference, if not the country. Be that as it may, we've seen little evidence of him stepping up as any sort of authority figure outside of the offensive huddle. Most of that is probably because he hasn't had to. But now he's an upperclassmen and a guy who incoming freshmen have been watching and reading about for two years. It's simple, really: this team will go as far as Rypien leads it.
2. New faces on the offensive line
Offensive line coach Scott Huff is on record saying he has no clue who the starting five linemen will be on opening weekend. The unit comes into 2017 without three starters and another significant contributor from a season ago. On a positive note, two of the returning starters are center Mason Hampton and left tackle Archie Lewis – veterans at the two most important positions on the offensive line. Both players, however, will miss spring practice due to injury. That opens the door for guys like Zach Troughton and Ezra Cleveland to get plenty of work before fall camp.
3. Playmakers stepping up at linebacker
The Broncos’ linebacker corps lost three starters from last season. At least of one them will be playing on Sundays in 2017. From an experience standpoint, Joey Martarano leads the way. He's seen legitimate action in each of the last three seasons. He'll likely start and emerge as a defensive captain. In terms of playmakers, look for Leighton Vander Esch – Boise State's best overall athlete at the position – to break out this spring. When healthy, he's the sort of player that can dominate a game.
4. Fixing special teams miscues
Name a special teams blunder and I promise Boise State was guilty of it in 2016. Sometimes it boils down to confidence. More often than naught, it comes down to the ability to execute. The Broncos are replacing both their punter and place kicker. The hope is that a clean slate yields positive results. As far as the return game, something needs to change. Cedrick Wilson was able to stop the bleeding at one point in the season. He'll likely be the go-to return man to at least open the campaign. Regardless of who nails down the starting roles, the Broncos must take better care of the football on special teams if they want any chance of winning an increasingly more competitive conference in 2017.
5. What will the offense look like without Jeremy McNichols in the backfied?
McNichols did it all for the Broncos over the last couple of years. The offense ran through him, as he acted as both a playmaker and as a safety net for Rypien when everything else wasn't clicking. His talents are gone to the NFL, and replacing him is going to be tough. Alexander Mattison probably has the inside track in terms of wining the starting job. He was impressive as a true freshman in 2016, piling up 328 yards and four touchdowns on 67 carries. Bronco fans would love to see freshman Drake Beasely push Mattison for the starting role. Beasely is a legit Power Five-caliber talent who wasn't able to play during his senior year in high school due to a transfer eligibility issue. Be that as it may, he still had offers from a handful of Pac-12 schools. He chose Boise State instead. Beasely has the potential to be the next great Bronco back.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Boise State in the Mountain West
I can't remember the last time there was this much turnover in Boise. The continuity Brett Rypien provides under center is going to keep the Broncos in the conversation for the Mountain West crown, but it will be much more of an uphill battle than the Boise State faithful are accustomed to. The schedule looks more difficult than it has in years – especially for such a young squad. After opening against Troy, Boise State will play road games at Washington State, BYU, San Diego State and Utah State all before the end of October. Sandwiched between trips to San Diego State and Utah State is a home game against Wyoming. If the Broncos can make it to latter part of October with fewer than three losses, I'll be beyond impressed. This could be the first year since 1998 where Boise State fails to win at least eight games.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Bryan Harsin photo courtesy of www.broncosports.com)