By Chadd Cripe
© 2012 Idaho Statesman
When the Boise State football team lost starting free safety Lee Hightower to suspension in late October, the Broncos ranked eighth in the nation in pass defense and seventh in pass-efficiency defense.
Five games later, with redshirt freshman Darian Thompson playing free safety, they’re tied for fourth in pass defense and seventh in pass-efficiency defense.
In other words, it was a seamless transition — and that hasn’t been the case with personnel changes in the secondary in recent years.
“I do take pride in that, being able to step in and having the older guys count on me just as much as I count on them and knowing that we haven’t missed a beat,” Thompson said. “But it’s not just me — it has to do with everything from the linemen to the corners to the linebackers. We all just work together and we’re able to get things done.”
Thompson is sixth on the team with 25 solo tackles (34 total) this season. He’s tied for the team lead with three interceptions and tied for third with three pass breakups.
In five games as the starter, he has 15 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups.
“It’s been a huge experience for me,” Thompson said. “It’s been really fun, playing a lot more than I expected this year and having a pretty good impact on defense. I’m still young. I still have a lot of growing to do in the next few years to better my game and help out the defense. Overall, it’s been a great experience this year, something I’ll never forget.”
If Hightower returns for 2013, the Broncos will have an interesting situation at safety with Thompson and sophomore strong safety Jeremy Ioane returning. Hightower, who started at cornerback last season, and Thompson, who played cornerback in practice last year, give coaches some options.
Boise State sophomore nickel Corey Bell will be halfway through his career after Saturday’s game. He arrived in summer 2011 and didn’t make his college debut until Oct. 15, 2011 — just 14 months ago.
“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “I can’t believe how fast this all goes. It feels like I’m still a new guy here and I’m already halfway through it.”
Bell has started three of the past four games because of an injury to senior Dextrell Simmons. Simmons is expected to play in the bowl game, but Bell likely will see extensive time, too.
Bell has 15 tackles in the past four games. He had 22 in the first eight.
“I’m just trying to do my job out there,” he said. “It’s nice the defense that we’re playing in is such an awesome group of guys to be around. It’s a group where we’re all making plays.”
He said he’s looking forward to the offseason.
“I’ve got a lot of improvements I can still make,” he said. “I’m actually excited with that because it means there’s a lot I can go into the offseason and work on. I think I’ve made a lot of improvements since I got here. I’m happy with that. I’m just looking forward to getting better.”
Boise State sophomore wide receiver Matt Miller needs three catches and 1 yard Saturday to set new career highs. He made 62 catches for 679 yards and nine touchdowns last year; he has 60, 679 and five this year.
“I’d say I was productive … moving the chains when I needed to, just doing whatever the coaches asked me to do,” he said.
Boise State offensive coordinator Robert Prince said Washington’s pass defense, in particular, has been impressive this season.
“They have two really good corners,” he said. “Their safeties are very active. That’s probably the strength of their defense. Up front, they’ve got some big guys who can plug some holes, so it’s going to be a challenge.”
Prince recruits in the Sacramento area and remembers running across Shaq Thompson, the true freshman standout who plays nickel for the Huskies.
“He’s a very special guy,” Prince said. “He can run, he can hit, he’s a big guy — very mature looking. When I saw him in the spring (of 2011) when I went down to the school he looked like a grown man. He looked like an NFL player.”
Defensive tackle Deuce Mataele (6-foot-3, 285 pounds) of Mt. San Antonio College in California has signed a letter of intent to join Boise State, Mt. SAC coach Bob Jastrab said Thursday.
Mataele is a two-year starter. He had offers from Arizona State, Arizona and BYU, Jastrab said.
“He did a great job anchoring the defense. He’s very quick. He was a dominant player in our league,” Jastrab said.
Mataele is from West Valley, Utah. He is the fourth junior college signee in this class.
Bakersfield College coach Jeff Chudy said cornerback Mercy Maston was ineligible to sign a letter of intent Wednesday because he wasn’t a qualifier out of high school. So Maston still could join the Broncos’ recruiting class by enrolling in January or signing in February.
Boise State’s signees:
— K Tyler Rausa, 5-10, 180, Riverside CC (Temecula, Calif.)
— RB Derrick Thomas, 6-1, 210, Butler CC (Dothan, Ala.)
— CB Cleshawn Page, 5-10, 190, Harbor College (Los Angeles)
— DT Deuce Mataele, 6-3, 285, Mt. San Antonio College (West Valley, Utah)