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Steve Luhm and Lya Wodraska
Steve Luhm and Lya Wodraska cover Utah State athletics for The Salt Lake Tribune. Lya Wodraska is on twitter at @LyaWodraska, Steve Luhm is on twitter at @sluhm

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Time to catch up on other MWC teams

Each week the beat writers who cover Mountain West teams compile a notebook that is shared among the writers.

Here is this week's installment for the fans out there who go by the philosophy of "know thy enemy."

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AIR FORCE

Air Force will enter this week's opener with 10 returning starters who combined for 56 starts last season. And that's just among guys on the second team.

The projected starting lineup for Saturday's game against Nicholls State includes another 15 players who have previously started. Another four players with starting experience didn't even appear on the depth chart.

In short, the Falcons are coming off a 2-10 season that left them humbled and loaded with players who have seen game action.

To build upon that, Air Force kept reps fairly even through fall camp, with each of the first teams running more than 800 snaps in 11-on-11 situations.

"We did give a bunch of reps to our 3s this year, probably more than we have in the past," coach Troy Calhoun said. "Because of that, I think we've developed better depth on our football team."

Depth was a major issue last year, as the Falcons went through four starting quarterbacks and used eight starters at three defensive line positions.

Season opener: vs. Nicholls State, noon MT Saturday, ESPN3

Notable: DE Alex Hansen has missed a week of practice with a shoulder strain, but the team believes he will be ready by Saturday. ... RB Devin Rushing suffered a grade 2 ankle sprain early in camp but appears to be back to full speed. He's listed at No. 2 on the depth chart after entering August as the starter. ... Senior QB Kale Pearson has been named the starter, though he is actually the least experienced of the top three at that position as junior Karson Roberts and sophomore Nate Romine each started multiple games last year after Pearson was injured in the first half of the season opener.

- Brent Briggeman, The Gazette

BOISE STATE

Opposing coaches used to look at Boise State's roster and get jealous of one letter: R, for redshirt.

But in recent years, the Broncos have started relying more on true freshmen and less on the fifth-year seniors that were the driving force behind the 2007 Fiesta Bowl championship team.

First-year coach Bryan Harsin is trying to reverse that trend this season.

Harsin plans to use just one true freshman this season: safety Dylan Sumner-Gardner, a top-100 recruit who arrived in January and likely will get most of his playing time on special teams.

Tailback Jeremy McNichols and tight end Chase Blakley are on the bubble and preparing to play but they aren't expected to get on the field in Thursday's opener against Ole Miss.

"Neither one of those guys will play at this point but they're in a position where if things were needed we would play them," Harsin said.

Boise State has 20 players on its depth chart this season who have not redshirted, including three starters on the defensive line and four of the top five cornerbacks.

The Broncos have seven redshirt seniors on the team. That number should be a lot higher in 2018.

"As the season goes, we know things change," Harsin said. "There might be a guy there we need to grab and utilize him as a freshman. If we don't have to do that, we're not going to do that."

Season opener: vs. Ole Miss in Atlanta, 6 p.m. MT Thursday, ESPN

Notable: Senior defensive tackle Justin Taimatuia will redshirt this year because of injury. ... Junior safety Taylor Loffler, a key special-teamer, has retired because of a hip injury. ... The Broncos named full-time captains for the first time in five years: senior wide receiver Matt Miller and senior nickel Corey Bell. ... The Broncos will wear new orange helmets with chrome accents against Ole Miss. They are the school's first orange helmets in more than 40 years.

- Chadd Cripe, Idaho Statesman

COLORADO STATE

Coach Jim McElwain knows he doesn't have a running back on his roster who can replace the school-record 1,741 yards and 31 rushing touchdowns that Kapri Bibbs provided the Rams last season.

Nevertheless, the third-year coach feels pretty good about the group of running backs he's got to work with and believes they might be able to match that kind of production as a group this fall.

Junior Jasen Oden, a converted safety, earned the starting job for the season opener, but McElwain said as many as four other backs could be part of the Rams' regular playing rotation this season.

Alabama transfer Dee Hart, also a junior, will get plenty of carries, too, as will junior-college transfer Treyous Jarrells, McElwain said. True freshman Deron Thompson, a state-champion sprinter from Wichita, Kansas, also will figure into the mix, as will redshirt freshman Bryce Peters.

"We feel like we're four, maybe even five, deep there," McElwain said Monday.

McElwain, a longtime offensive coordinator who spent four years in that role at Alabama before coming to CSU, usually likes to have at least three running backs ready to go to share carries and reduce the wear and tear on each of them during the course of a season.

That was the case last year, when then-senior Chris Nwoke and sophomore Donnell Alexander, who has since transferred, started the season ahead of Bibbs on the depth chart. Bibbs, now trying to earn a spot on the Denver Broncos' regular-season roster, didn't move into the starting job until the fifth game of the season. He went on to run for more than 135 yards in six of the final nine games, scoring three or more touchdowns in seven of those contests and setting single-game school records with 312 yards in a win over Nevada and six rushing touchdowns a week later in a win at New Mexico.

McElwain wants to give all five of his top running backs a chance to take over the job this season the way Bibbs did last year before he reduces the rotation. Although the coach knows he's got a dangerous passing attack, led by senior quarterback Garrett Grayson, who threw for a school-record 3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, he's not about to abandon the running game.

"Philosophically, we believe that you've got to run the ball to win and you have to be able to run it when needed," McElwain said. "... We'll continue to maintain our balance; that's who we are, and that's our identity."

Season opener: vs. Colorado in Denver, 7 p.m. MT Friday, Fox Sports 1

Notable: The Rams had three true freshmen on their first depth chart of the season, released Monday. Receiver Deionte Gaines was listed as the top kick returner, cornerback Kevin Nutt was listed No. 3 at this position and Thompson was listed as the fourth running back. Josh Lovingood, listed as a second-string defensive tackle, is technically a true freshman, as well, since he was granted a medical hardship waiver after suffering a season-ending foot injury in his third game of the season last year at Alabama. ... Hart, who was slowed by an ankle sprain, has been able to do more and more in practice each day and should be fine for the opener, McElwain said.

- Kelly Lyell, Fort Collins Coloradoan

NEW MEXICO

Because he could, second-year UTEP football coach Sean Kugler began game preparation for New Mexico and its triple option-based offense two weeks before Saturday's Miners-Lobos season opener in Albuquerque.

Third-year UNM coach Bob Davie did not follow suit.

Though the Lobos did some UTEP-specific work late last week, Davie said Monday he preferred to keep game preparation for the opener in essentially the same time window as for any other game during the season.

"I didn't want to start the UTEP preparation too soon," Davie said. "In just experience over the years, I've found that you're better off to treat a normal week like a normal week.

"It won't differ much next week with Arizona State, nor with the rest of the season."

The Lobos actually did a bit of game preparation for ASU last week - because they could. The Sun Devils run a pass-oriented spread offense, which has been the UNM defense's Kryptonite the past two seasons.

The pro-style offense run by UTEP, however, offers its own challenges. Last fall, in a 42-35 New Mexico victory in overtime at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, the Miners rushed for 287 yards and averaged 6 yards per carry.

"They're big," Davie said. "Big tight ends, big fullbacks, big offensive linemen, big quarterbacks. They're a big, big physical football team, and I think there's a direct correlation to their head coach having been an offensive lineman and having coached (the offensive line) in the NFL. ... They've taken on that personality."

Season opener: vs. UTEP, 6 p.m. MT Saturday, Mountain West Network (online)

Notable: The depth chart released by UNM on Monday contained some major changes and a few surprises. As Davie had said earlier, sophomores Isaiah Brown and Jadon Boatright are the starters at cornerback ahead of incumbents SaQwan Edwards and Cranston Jones. Edwards is still catching up after missing the first two weeks of fall camp while under suspension. Rape and kidnapping charges filed against him in April were dismissed. ... Outside linebacker Javarie Johnson, a four-star recruit out of high school and a starter last season, has dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart behind fellow senior Tevin Newman and sophomore Donnie White. ... Sophomore running back Teriyon Gipson is listed No. 1 ahead of junior Jurhell Pressley and senior Crusoe Gongbay. Like Edwards, Gongbay missed the first two weeks of camp before criminal charges stemming from his April arrest were dismissed.

- Rick Wright, Albuquerque Journal

WYOMING

As coach of FCS North Dakota State for 11 seasons, Craig Bohl was 7-3 against FBS schools.

Now, Bohl is on the other side of the FBS vs. FCS fence as Wyoming hosts FCS power Montana at 2 p.m. MT Saturday in Laramie.

"Our whole program is a work in progress, but make no mistake, you don't get a second chance to make a first impression," Bohl said. "It's a great opportunity for us to establish a great program here. If there's any thought that any of our guys are overlooking anybody, it's not going to happen. I can guarantee you that."

Montana should be a good first test for Wyoming's new pro-style offense and 4-3 defense. Montana's strength defensively is along the defensive line. Wyoming's offensive line has just one senior and is still adjusting from a finesse spread offense the last five years to the more physical pro-style.

Offensively, redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard will start at quarterback, which was expected. Kirkegaard was the fourth-string guy last season. Kirkegaard will make his first start since 2012, in which the Cowboys lost 24-22 at home to FCS foe Cal Poly.

Kirkegaard was elected as one of four team captains by his teammates.

Wyoming enters the week healthy. Redshirt sophomore running back D.J. May, who will get equal carries this season with junior Shaun Wick, returned to practice full time Monday after taking most of last week off with a minor case of turf toe.

Season opener: vs. Montana, 2 p.m. MT Saturday, Root Sports

Notable: As of Monday afternoon, only 1,854 tickets remained for the opener. Wyoming has not sold out its season-opening game since 2007 against Virginia. ... Senior receiver Dominic Rufran, junior defensive end Eddie Yarbrough and senior free safety Darren White were elected as the other team captains. ... The Cowboys have won 10 of their last 11 home openers, and are 55-17-1 all-time in season-opening home games. ... One surprise on the depth chart was at right guard where junior Jake Jones and sophomore Sam Hardy were listed as 'or' in terms of starters. Jones has started all 24 games of his career. Hardy, who moved over from the defensive line last season, has played in two games in a limited role. "Sam has really developed into an excellent football player," Bohl said. ... True freshmen expected to play this season include running back Brian Hill and cornerback Robert Priester.

- Robert Gagliardi, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

WEST DIVISION

FRESNO STATE

Fresno State President Joseph Castro reassigned Athletic Director Thomas Boeh to a newly created post within his administration on Aug. 12, which was a next step toward fulfilling his vision of coupling academics and athletics to grow the university and put the athletic department's primary revenue driver on a bolder path.

Fresno State can aim at contending every year for a Mountain West Conference championship.

It can make a goal of becoming a legitimate player to capture the spot in one of the access bowl games in the new College Football Playoff system that will go to the highest-rated champion from a Group of Five conference, competing not only with its Mountain West rivals but the top teams in the American, Conference USA, Mid-American and Sun Belt.

And in doing that, it can position itself to be in the conversation should there be further expansion among the Power Five conferences.

"I'd say it's all of the above," Castro said. "My vision for Fresno State is that the academic programs and the athletic programs rise together. I want us to continue to compete and to win championships across the board. I want us to win with integrity. I'm really proud of the fact that we've been winning with integrity, and that has to continue. And I want us to be able to compete on a national stage and to be effective in doing that.

"I'd like us to be in good position to do that and as things change over time, as there are different sorts of discussions that happen nationally, I want to position us to be a part of those conversations."

Season opener: at USC, 5:30 p.m. MT Saturday (Fox)

Notable: The competition at quarterback between Brian Burrell and Brandon Connette will continue through game week. Fresno State is not going to announce its starter until Saturday, before it opens the season at USC. "We feel really confident about both of those quarterbacks and we don't want to tip our hand on who is going to be our starter because we have some different packages for both of them," coach Tim DeRuyter said. One will start, the other will get at least one series at the start of the second quarter. ... The competition is even more unsettled at the cornerback spots, where injuries in fall camp slowed the evaluation process. Starting strong safety Charles Washington, who was moved to corner for the Mountain West championship game against Utah State last season and stayed there in the Las Vegas Bowl, is back in the mix there. Washington is listed as the starter at both positions, and at corner he is followed by an 'or' Curtis Riley and an 'or' Jamal Ellis. On the other side, it is Bryan Harper 'or' Corey Ferguson 'or' Stratton Brown. "That part has been tough from an evaluation standpoint, but before that we liked the competition and we're starting to get that competition going again," DeRuyter said. "I can see us likely playing four corners in the game on Saturday and seeing how it plays out. That's going to be a situation where we like the talent that we have, but right now we're not at a point where it's been separated where these two guys are the starters and these two guys are the backups just because we've had those guys out."

- Robert Kuwada, Fresno Bee

HAWAII

Norm Chow begins his third season as head coach - and 45th overall in the coaching business - with another starting quarterback. Sean Schroeder and Taylor Graham were the No. 1 quarterbacks to open the past two seasons, respectively. Ikaika Woolsey, a third-year sophomore, won the starting job two weeks ago.

Woolsey's strong arm and elusiveness are matches for the Warriors' expanded offense. Woolsey has a diverse group of targets. X receiver Marcus Kemp played as true freshman last year. Z receiver Quinton Pedroza redshirted in 2013 after transferring from Utah. Slotback Scott Harding played six years of Australian rules football before joining the Warriors in 2011. His first UH practice was the first time he ever wore a football helmet.

Harding, 28, is older than quarterbacks coach Jordan Wynn and receivers coach Luke Matthews. Harding also is the Warriors' punter and punt returner. After juggling the offensive line, including a lineup of three freshmen, the Warriors will start three fifth-year seniors: Center Kody Afusia, right guard Dave Lefotu and right tackle Sean Shigematsu. Fifth-year seniors Beau Yap and Moses Samia will start on the defensive line.

This year, the Warriors have switched from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 scheme. In the secondary, Ne'Quan Phillips, the best cover defender, will rotate between cornerback and nickelback. Taz Stevenson, who transferred after earning a degree at Washington, is a starting safety.

This training camp, the Warriors spent 16 nights sleeping on cots in two dance studios. They also had to relocate and cancel a practice when Hurricane Iselle approached. (Iselle did not affect Oahu, where UH's Manoa campus is located.) The Warriors coined the phrase, "Relentlessly positive," which is printed on the back of their warm-up shirts.

Season opener: vs. Washington. 8:30 p.m. MT Saturday, CBSSN

Notable: The Warriors have three new assistant coaches: Defensive coordinator Kevin Clune, linebackers coach Kurt Gouveia and running backs coach Wayne Moses. What's more, Wynn and Matthews were promoted from graduate assistants to full-time coaches. Secondary coach Daronte' Jones added the title of assistant head coach. ... Former USC quarterback Max Wittek began practicing with the Warriors this week. He will redshirt this season. ... Three receivers in the playing rotation - Keelan Ewaliko, Ryan Pasoquen and Damien Packer - were safeties last year. Ewaliko is a former champion bull rider.

- Stephen Tsai, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

NEVADA

About a half dozen true freshmen are expected to play for the Wolf Pack this season, led by running back James Butler, whose emergence has allowed the coaching staff to move Kendall Brock to wide receiver.

"He's going to play, hopefully a lot," coach Brian Polian said of the 5-foot-9, 200-pound Butler. "He's obviously very talented, and his approach to it is very mature. He does not goof around on the practice field. He is very serious about what he does and we're excited about that."

Other true freshmen who are expected to play include receiver Wyatt Demps, tight end Matt Moen, defensive back Ahki Muhammad, cornerback Kendall Johnson and defensive end Patrick Choudja. All have been playing in some second-team sets (Muhammad is the nickel back).

"I'd like to get to a point where it's none, but we're not there yet," Polian said.

Polian played six true freshmen last season, posting a 4-8 record in his first season with Nevada.

Brock, who played running back as a true freshman, was moved to wide receiver his sophomore year and then back to running back last season. He'll back up Richy Turner at the X (slot) position.

Butler is penciled in as the third-team running back behind starter Don Jackson, a junior, and senior Nate McLaurin, who has also had a solid camp. All three are expected to play.

Season opener: vs. Southern Utah, 1 p.m. MT Saturday, NevadaWolfPack.TV (online)

Notable: The Wolf Pack exits camp in pretty good shape. Second-team defensive tackle Kevin Sundberg (head) did not practice last week. ... Polian announced Sunday the team's four captains: QB Cody Fajardo, OL Matt Galas, LB Jordan Dobrich, LB Jonathan McNeal.

- Dan Hinxman, Reno Gazette-Journal

SAN DIEGO STATE

San Diego State coach Rocky Long is best known for his multi-look, 3-3-5 defense that has confounded opponents for years. But injuries at linebacker are forcing him to make a big change for this season.

The Aztecs still will go with three down linemen, but a linebacker also will be at the line of scrimmage, with the other two linebackers manning the perimeter.

Long believed the move had to be made because the team's defensive centerpiece, Jake Fely (neck surgery), won't be available until at least midseason, and two other returning linebackers, Derek Largent (hamstring) and Josh Gavert (shin), have been limited to light contact in fall camp.

Gavert and Largent are expected to be ready for Saturday's season opener against Northern Arizona, but Long couldn't wait to make the decision on scheme and said it would remain in place for all of this year.

"It's not as easy to keep the other teams off-balance because they know exactly which linebackers are on the line of scrimmage instead of having one to three linebackers coming to the line of scrimmage," Long said. "It makes it harder to disguise but not impossible; it just takes us a little longer to get used to it because we're used to doing it the other way."

If there is a positive in the situation, the linebacker who will play on the line is Cody Galea, who is a converted defensive end.

Season opener: vs. Northern Arizona, 5 p.m. MT Saturday, CBSSN

Notable: After last season's kicking troubles, the Aztecs have chosen junior transfer Donny Hageman to be their place-kicker. Long apparently was sold when Hageman made a 51-yard field goal in the Fan Fest scrimmage. All three kicking candidates missed 35-yard field goals in a practice before Fan Fest. ... Standout sophomore RB D.J. Pumphrey has been sharp in practices, and Long has kept him from heavy hitting. The backup looks to be junior Chase Price. Marcus Stamps seemed to be Long's favorite heading into the fall, but Stamps has been limited by a sore ankle. Utah graduate transfer RB Lucky Radley has impressed and figures to have a significant role. ... Long continues to be concerned about the play of the inexperienced safeties. They were directly responsible for two TDs in Fan Fest, including a badly blown coverage ... Angered after what he thought was a listless effort in last year's Fan Fest, Long was more upbeat this year. He was particularly pleased with no turnovers or penalties committed by the first-team offense.

- Tod Leonard, San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN JOSE STATE

In a bit of a surprise, San Jose State went with senior Blake Jurich over junior Joe Gray to start at quarterback in Thursday's opener against North Dakota.

"I was encouraged by the fall camp of both those guys," coach Ron Caragher said. "But in having to name a guy and what we saw the last two weeks, Blake's just kind of inched ahead and he's going to be our guy running with the 1s."

Gray seemed to be the leader coming out of fall camp, but Jurich - known previously as more of a runner - improved enough as a pocket passer to get the nod. He brings prototypical size at 6-foot-4, 235 pounds that makes him tough to bring down.

Still, it won't surprise many if Gray gets a shot at some point. The first two games could easily be blowouts - in the Spartans' favor against North Dakota and the opposite against Auburn - and that should allow both QBs to get game time to bring further clarity to the position.

But for now, Jurich is preparing to make his first start and also become the first graduate student in school history to start at quarterback.

The Spartans don't know much about their first opponent with UND breaking in a new coaching staff. They're trying to glean what they can from Bubba Schweigert's days as a defensive coordinator at Southern Illinois and offensive coordinator's Paul Rudolph's time at Minot State.

Season opener: vs. North Dakota, 8 p.m. MT Thursday, ESPN3

Notable: Sophomore RB Jarrod Lawson, the Spartans' leading rusher last season, was suspended for the first two games of the year for a violation of team rules. That means sophomore Thomas Tucker will make his first career start, something he was likely ticketed for anyway. Redshirt freshman Brandon Monroe should also see an expanded role. ... Sophomore TE Billy Freeman, who didn't fully participate in most of camp while recovering from foot surgery, is healthy and good to go Thursday. ... Junior LB Moses Saucedo, a potential starter at linebacker, is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Other that that, the Spartans have gotten through camp without any major losses to injury.

- Jimmy Durkin, San Jose Mercury News

UNLV

The battle to become UNLV's next quarterback lacked drama.

Junior college transfer Blake Decker quickly assumed control of the first-team offense and was named the starter before the Rebels even played their major preseason scrimmage.

"He's just played better," coach Bobby Hauck said. "He's made more plays in camp. We feel right now it's productive to move forward in that direction."

Decker beat out fellow junior Nick Sherry, who started the first three games in 2013 before being benched because of a problem with turnovers. Caleb Herring took control, and led the Rebels to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, their first postseason appearance in 13 years.

Now Decker hopes to make a little more UNLV history and lead the program to back-to-back bowls for the first time.

However, he downplayed his own role in leading the offense.

"Really, the quarterback doesn't need to be that much of a playmaker in this offense," Decker said. "He just needs to distribute the ball and get it out to the superstars that we have. We have a lot on offense. I think if we do that, we'll have put ourselves in good position to win."

Decker put up tremendous numbers at Scottsdale Community College last season, leading the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns.

He returns to that state for his first start when the Rebels open Friday at Arizona. Decker grew up in the Phoenix area and cheered for Arizona State.

Arizona "was the enemy growing up," he said.

Season opener: at Arizona, 8:30 p.m. MT Friday, ESPN

Notable: UNLV will see a familiar face at Arizona. Running back Adonis Smith played for the Rebels before transferring to Arizona following spring practices. Hauck was asked if Smith could provide the Wildcats with some insight about UNLV. "You were inferring that he was paying attention while he was here," Hauck said. ... Redshirt freshman quarterback Anu Solomon will receive his first career start for Arizona. He is from Las Vegas, and the Rebels recruited him. ... The Rebels make their first trip to Arizona since Sept. 22, 2001, a 38-21 loss. That was UNLV's first game since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that year. ... UNLV seeks its first season-opening victory since 2009 at home against Sacramento State and its first on the road since 2007 at Utah State.

- Mark Anderson, Las Vegas Review-Journal



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