Boise State football’s latest renowned young coordinator leads rejuvenated defense

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The same quality that made Andy Avalos one of the Boise State football team’s most productive defensive players in the early 2000s has made him the latest rising coaching star on the Broncos’ staff.

And it’s the same attribute the second-year defensive coordinator demands from his players.

Passion.

“It’s his motor,” junior cornerback Tyler Horton said of what makes Avalos so effective. “His motor is always rolling.”

Avalos orchestrates a Boise State defense that has held five straight opponents to 14 points or fewer — the longest such streak for the Broncos since 2002, when Avalos was the leading tackler as a linebacker. The Broncos rank 15th nationally in total defense (307.9 yards per game, best for Boise State since 2010) and 25th in scoring defense (19.9 points per game, best since 2012).

The defense has been the key to the Broncos’ 7-2 record this season despite a youth movement that usually spells inconsistency, not dominance. Of the 23 players listed on the depth chart for Saturday’s game at Colorado State, eight are freshmen and seven are sophomores. None of those 15 players — 65 percent of the two-deep — were on the roster before January 2016, when Avalos was promoted to coordinator to replace Marcel Yates (Arizona). Avalos also coaches the three linebacker positions and meets weekly with the STUD ends.

Avalos’ revamp hasn’t gone unnoticed. He was one of 56 nominees announced this week for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant coach.

The honor places the 36-year-old Avalos as the latest in a line of young Boise State coordinators on a path to significant success. Chris Petersen was a finalist for the Broyles Award in 2002 and 2004 before becoming the head coach at Boise State and Washington. Bryan Harsin was a finalist in 2009 before becoming the offensive coordinator at Texas and head coach at Arkansas State and Boise State. Mike Sanford was a nominee in 2014 before becoming an assistant at Notre Dame and the head coach at Western Kentucky. The Broncos also have developed Justin Wilcox, who served as defensive coordinator at Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin after Boise State on his way to the top job at California; and Eliah Drinkwitz, who has earned acclaim for his work as the offensive coordinator at North Carolina State after a year in that role at Boise State.

All of those guys were early in their careers as college football coaches when they became coordinators at Boise State — and each stepped into a larger role than he had experienced before.

Avalos, who played at Boise State from 2000 to 2004, joined the profession as a graduate assistant under Dan Hawkins at Colorado. Hawkins was the Broncos’ head coach for most of Avalos’ playing career.

“That was my ultimate goal and something I was aspiring to,” Avalos said of returning to Boise. “Every day, I try to remind the players we’ve all got to be very grateful for being here. We have this opportunity. What are we going to do with it?”

That has been the theme of Avalos’ coaching career, with each success leading to a better opportunity. He spent one season as a high school coach in his hometown of Corona, Calif., three years as a graduate assistant at Colorado, two years as the defensive line coach at Nebraska Kearney, one year as the linebackers coach at Sacramento State, two years as the defensive line coach at Boise State under Petersen and two years as the linebackers coach at Boise State under Harsin. He could have followed Petersen to Washington in 2014 but opted to stay at his alma mater to coach his old position.

Other than returning to Boise State someday, Avalos says he didn’t have his sights set on any particular job when he started coaching.

“You focus on the now ... and worry about the rest later,” he said. “Having that mentality and that mindset has presented these opportunities that I’m currently in. I try to stick to that.”

That mentality even carries off the field. Avalos and his wife, Summer, have two daughters — Paityn, 3, and Paige, 1  1/2 . Avalos is an energetic recruiter in addition to his massive workload game planning during the season, so he treasures his time as a dad. Whatever make-believe role Paityn dreams up for him to play with her, he’s in.

He also relates well to recruits and players — “There’s times when it’s really like friend to friend,” sophomore linebacker Tyson Maeva said — and blends together a defensive coaching staff that includes defensive line coach Steve Caldwell, who was coaching before Avalos was born, and graduate assistants who are in their 20s.

avalos playerBoise State linebacker Andy Avalos runs back an interception for a touchdown against Louisville during the first quarter of the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 31, 2004, in Memphis, Tenn. Blocking for Avalos is Gabe Franklin. Avalos is Boise State’s defensive coordinator; Franklin is the safeties coach.

The camaraderie within the program is the key reason Avalos pursued a coaching career. He and his brother used to ride their bikes after school to watch their dad coach high school football.

“We’re locked up in the ‘lab’ for hours at a time,” Avalos said of the defensive staff. “We try to have as much fun as we can and be focused on what we have to get done. We need our music to get us through the day and the (graduate assistants) are the DJs.”

The goal is to create a scheme complex enough to befuddle opposing offenses and simple enough to foster the “relentless” style Avalos wants from his players. One lesson the Broncos learned from the 42-23 loss to Virginia — the only time all season that the defense didn’t play well — was the price of trying to out-scheme the opponent, Avalos said.

“He makes the defense so simple for us,” junior STUD end Jabril Frazier said, “so when we get out there we can just play full speed.”

Avalos sets his expectation for the defense at the beginning of each year. It has nothing to do with results and everything to do with attitude.

“You’ve got to have a competitive and relentless mindset,” he said. “... Being a good competitor always starts with being able to compete with yourself and be self-motivated.”

That helps Avalos keep his defense humble, players say. No matter how good they’ve been, they can always do better.

Avalos tells players that their opponents, and the people watching on TV, should gain an appreciation for the way the Broncos play the game and the joy they bring to the field.

“We stay quiet, play humble,” Maeva said, “but we always want to play hard and go face-first into everything.”

And the winner is ...

This has the feel of one of those inexplicable college football games. All the momentum is with Boise State, which since Oct. 1 has been the best team in the Mountain West. Colorado State, after a hot start, has stagnated and slipped defensively. But Colorado State, which never has beaten Boise State, is at home and has had this game in its sights all year. It’s the recipe for an upset — even before you consider that Harsin is clearly concerned that another loss of focus by his team will lead to a result like the 42-23 loss to Virginia.

All that said, I’m picking Boise State — and I expect the Broncos to win convincingly. The deciding factors for me are the Broncos’ advantage on defense (CSU ranks 86th in total defense) and their strange habit of playing much better on the road than at home. I looked for a way to measure the difference between Boise State at home and on the road. Here’s the best stat I could find: Boise State, one of five teams that are 4-0 or better against the spread on the road, has covered by an average of 12.4 points in those games, the eighth-best such mark in the country. It has failed to cover by an average of 6.5 points per game at home, which is in the bottom 40 nationally. The line this week: Boise State by 6.

Expect the Broncos’ offense to put up 40 points again — even if their turnover streak stretching for nearly five full games is broken — and the defense to slow down the Rams.

Boise State 41, Colorado State 23

College football spotlight

Pac-12 game of the week — No. 9 Washington (-6) at Stanford, 8:30 p.m. Friday, FS1: Huskies already delivered their road no-show for the season. Washington 27, Stanford 13

National game of the week 1 — No. 3 Notre Dame (-3.5) at No. 7 Miami, 6 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Take Irish’s consistency over Hurricanes’ resilience. Notre Dame 27, Miami 21

National game of the week 2 — No. 2 Georgia (-2.5) at No. 10 Auburn, 1:30 p.m., CBS: Bulldogs still seem a little too good to be true. Auburn 19, Georgia 17

Mountain West game of the week — Wyoming at Air Force (-3), 8:15 p.m., ESPNU: A Cowboys win keeps pressure on Boise State. Wyoming 24, Air Force 23

NFL spotlight

On TV: Steelers at Colts (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Vikings at Redskins (11 a.m., Fox), Cowboys at Falcons (2:25 p.m., Fox), Patriots at Broncos (6:20 p.m., NBC), Dolphins at Panthers (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).

Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at ccripe@idahostatesman.com, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.

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