BOISE, Idaho (AP) Chris Petersen and his staff are back at work this week with one big task at hand: Filling some key holes in a Boise State defense that was among the nation's best last season.
The list of vacancies created by graduation is extensive, covering more than half of a unit that allowed 15.7 points per game last year, ranked 12th in total defense and fifth in pass efficiency defense.
Petersen and his defensive coaches are shopping for two new starting cornerbacks and a nickelback in the secondary. Up front, coaches are hoping some young or inexperienced players can step in to fill two linebacker spots and another at defensive tackle.
The first chance to make a good impression began Monday when the Broncos held the first of 14 spring workouts.
"There's no question we've got some gaps to fill, and we're very aware of those gaps" Petersen said. "We've got two corner positions that are quite wide open. It's awesome to really watch those guys go at it because that is such a critical position."
Several untested cornerbacks are in the mix to take over for Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins, stalwarts who were as critical as any on the defense in slowing down opposing passing attacks and propelling the Broncos - especially in the first half of the season - to an 11-2 record.
Taylor is projected to go in the early rounds of the NFL draft next month, while Gavins is a likely candidate for the later rounds. The early front runners to fill their shoes include junior Bryan Douglas and sophomore Donte Deayon, both of whom got some valuable experience last year. Douglas played in eight games last year but went down for the season in the Wyoming game with a torn ACL, while Deayon flashed in limited action late in the season. Petersen said Douglas' rehab is progressing and he's on schedule to return to the practice field sometime during fall camp.
"We've also got some guys coming in this fall that we like quite a bit," Petersen said.
At linebacker, the Broncos are counting on the development of players like Blake Renaud, a special teams star, and Tyler Gray, who in a backup role had 27 tackles and an interception in 13 games a year ago.
Although the defensive line is anchored by senior tackle Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe and returning ends Demarcus Lawrence and Sam Ukwuachu, there is still a void at the other tackle position and a need to get better up front at stopping the run. Petersen spoke highly of newcomer Tutulupeatau Mataele, a 285-pound tackle who had 14.5 tackles for loss last year while playing for Mt. San Antonio College in California.
"He's athletic for a big guy," Petersen said. "And we've got a few more guys coming in the fall that I think will help."
Petersen also spoke highly of the growth and maturation of quarterback Joe Southwick. The senior struggled early last season running the offense, adjusting to opposing defenses and taking advantage of red zone opportunities. In the first nine games, Southwick had just 10 TDs and seven picks, and in two of those games the offense failed to get into the end zone.
But as the season progressed, so did Southwick's play and decision-making, leading the Broncos to four straight wins to close out the season.
Southwick completed 66.8 percent of his passes, threw for 2,730 yards and 19 touchdowns and saved his best performance for the postseason when he led the Broncos on a final possession drive to set up the game-winning field goal in a 28-26 victory over Washington in the Las Vegas Bowl.
"I think he's in a great groove right now," Petersen said of Southwick. "He's confident because he knows he got better as the season went on. I'm excited to watch him as much as anyone through the spring.
"When you get a fifth-year senior at that position who has done some good things, the average fan may not see it, but as coaches we'll know," Petersen said. "If he can take that next little step, he's going to be an extremely effective and efficient player and play at a very high level."
The Broncos end their spring drills with the annual scrimmage at Bronco Stadium on April 13. The team opens next year on the road against Washington on Aug. 31.