BOISE — Whether in the meeting room or in media interviews, first-year Boise State defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake rarely gets off message.
“We’re going to be defined by how many times we get the ball back for the offense,” he says, “So we’re all trying to score or get the ball back.”
The stats suggest that Lake’s emphasis is in the right place. Boise State recorded 22 and 24 interceptions in 2008 and 2009, and 33 and 35 total takeaways. The Broncos went undefeated in both regular seasons.
The past two years, those numbers dropped to 14 and 15 interceptions and 27 and 26 takeaways. Both seasons ended with one loss, but without an outright conference title or a major bowl berth.
“I love it,” coach Chris Petersen said of Lake’s approach. “Because that’s what we need to be all about on defense. If we can create a lot of turnovers — if we can do that one thing — we’re going to have a big chance as a team. Not just as a defense, as a team. The other thing is, you have to play aggressive on defense. You’re going to have to take chances.”
Thousands of Boise State fans received a firsthand look at what the Broncos hope to get from their secondary in the scrimmage Saturday at Bronco Stadium.
The defense collected seven turnovers, including six interceptions — and none of them came from senior cornerbacks Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins, the guys expected to fuel the turnover drive.
“Coach Lake does a great job of emphasizing that and it’s definitely installed in our head right now to just keep on trying to get turnovers,” Taylor said.
The Broncos have made some changes to their coverages that players say will put them in better position to play the ball. Lake, who previously coached defensive backs with the Lions and Buccaneers in the NFL, wants his defensive backs eyeing the quarterback in as many coverage schemes as possible.
The major exception: man coverage, where the players have to take care of their individual assignment before looking for the ball.
“We say (the quarterback) is the dealer and he’s dealing the cards,” Lake said. “We want to see that ball come out in a lot of coverages. If we can see the ball come out, now we have a better chance for tip interceptions, we have a better chance to react to the football in underneath zone coverages. And the guys love it, because we’re ultimately getting after the football.”
Lake replaced Marcel Yates, who became the co-defensive coordinator at Texas A&M after nine years on the Broncos’ staff.
Yates placed a premium on developing a physical secondary that got into receivers’ heads.
Lake has his sights set on quarterbacks.
“What offenses are going to see is an aggressive secondary,” he said. “That ball better be on point or our guys are getting after it.”
That starts with Taylor and Gavins.
Taylor is a preseason All-Mountain West pick and third-year starter. He only has three career interceptions, most notably the one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown in the 2011 MAACO Bowl Las Vegas.
“He’s going to be a good professional player because he knows what it takes to be in his playbook, study film and then bring that onto the football field,” Lake said. “We want to see him get more turnovers this year. He doesn’t have enough interceptions.”
Gavins returns from a nasty knee injury sustained in practice after the third game last season. He grabbed three interceptions in those three games — that was good for the team lead when the season ended — and shut down Georgia’s attempts to throw deep in the season opener.
Coaches have limited him through fall camp to protect the knee, but he is expected to be at full strength for the opener Aug. 31 at Michigan State.
Gavins and Taylor say they should be among the best tandems in the nation.
“We plan on being the best, and that’s what we’re going to be — the best in the Mountain West, the best in college football,” Gavins said. “Anybody got a problem with it, any receiver, just come see us.”
The rest of the secondary is inexperienced, with sophomores Lee Hightower and Jeremy Ioane expected to start at safety. Sophomore cornerback Bryan Douglas and senior safety Hazen Moss, a career-long special-teamer with little defensive experience, provide depth.
The Broncos also boast an intriguing stockpile of freshman defensive backs who have impressed in camp. The group — true and redshirt freshmen — combined for four interceptions in the scrimmage. Sophomore Deon’tae Florence, a junior college transfer who joined the team this month, forced three turnovers in the first scrimmage.
“Some of these young DBs, they have a natural edge to them, a natural chip on their shoulder, that they want to compete,” Petersen said. “So we have to continue to foster that.”
That’s the plan for Lake, who figures the more he talks about creating turnovers, the more he’ll see it happen on the field.
The defense’s goal this year: 30 turnovers — seemingly the dividing line for the Broncos between a successful season and a dream season.
“Our job is to score,” Lake said. “If we can’t score, we’re getting the ball back for our offense. That’s our job. That’s our mission. The more and more we can drill that into these guys’ heads, now we can score a couple touchdowns every Saturday.
“That’s going to help us win.”