Former five-star recruits at QB, receiver look impressive in Boise State spring game

The energy at Albertsons Stadium was palpable Saturday for Boise State’s annual spring game.

Parking lots around the stadium were packed two hours before kickoff. Smoke and chatter from tailgates wafted toward the Boise foothills, and fans filled much of the stadium’s lower bowl.

An offseason that has included the addition of two former five-star recruits to a roster full of returning starters and the reality that College Football Playoff expansion has arrived, meaning a real chance to compete at the highest level, has created an air of optimism around the Broncos that probably hasn’t been felt since 2015 — the season following the program’s most recent win in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

The playoffs expand to 12 teams this year, and the five highest-ranked conference champions earn automatic spots. Boise State won its fifth Mountain West title in program history last season, and there’s a good chance the Broncos will be the preseason favorites to repeat as champions.

Boise State coach Spencer Danielson called the expectations a “good weight” that everyone in the building feels. He also said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“The expectations are through the roof, and that’s what you love about this place,” Danielson said after the spring game. “We’re the winningest football team since the turn of the century. That doesn’t just happen. That’s outworking people and finding the right players and the right coaches.”

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Many of the 7,137 fans in attendance were at the stadium Saturday to catch a glimpse of what could become Boise State’s next dynamic duo: quarterback Malachi Nelson and wide receiver Chris Marshall.

Both were five-star recruits coming out of high school, and both joined the Broncos in January. Nelson, who threw 105 touchdown passes during his carer at Los Alamitos High in California, spent last season at USC.

Marshall was the No. 3 wide receiver in the 2022 class and the No. 1 junior college transfer in the country this year, according to 247Sports. He transferred from Kilgore College in Texas, where he had 449 yards and five receiving touchdowns last year.

Fans didn’t have to wait long to see them pick up a first down. Nelson took the field on the offense’s second series of the game, and his first pass of the day went to Marshall for 16 yards. Marshall finished the game with three catches for 35 yards, all in the first half.

“He has worked hard this offseason,” wide receiver Prince Strachan, who finished the game with two catches for 48 yards, said about Marshall. “He’s been in the meeting room locked in and learning the playbook. He’s been a great addition.”

Boise State University wide receiver Chris Marshall makes a catch during Broncos’ spring game Saturday at Albertsons Stadium. He finished the game with three catches for 35 yards. Sarah A. Miller/
Boise State University wide receiver Chris Marshall makes a catch during Broncos’ spring game Saturday at Albertsons Stadium. He finished the game with three catches for 35 yards. Sarah A. Miller/

Fans got their first look at Nelson’s powerful, accurate arm Saturday. He delivered pinpoint passes to Latrell Caples (4 catches, 40 yards) and Strachan in the first half despite tight coverage. Strachan’s catch covered 32 yards and set up a rushing touchdown by Ashton Jeanty, last season’s Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.

Nelson’s most impressive throw of the day was a 32-yard touchdown pass to former Colorado wide receiver Chase Penry (2 catches, 35 yards). He was bracketed by defenders, but Nelson delivered a perfect pass that Penry hauled in without breaking stride.

That was one of several throws Nelson made Saturday that ranked pretty high on the difficulty scale.

“He can make all the throws,” Danielson said. “Now it’s just growing a lot of the other aspects of playing the quarterback position. In regards to a complete understanding of the offense, he’s done a really good job to this point, but there’s obviously still steps to take.”

Nelson led the four quarterbacks who played Saturday, completing 9-of-16 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. He was also the only quarterback who wasn’t sacked.

Walk-on Colt Fulton finished the game 7-for-12 for 50 yards, while former Skyview standout Max Cutforth finished 2-for-6 for 19 yards. Redshirt freshman CJ Tiller, who was forced to start the LA Bowl last December, completed 3-of-9 passes for 17 yards and an interception, which linebacker Gabe Hunter returned 33 yards.

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The Broncos are looking for a replacement for former starting quarterback Taylen Green, who transferred to Arkansas last December and has won the Razorbacks’ starting job.

It’s clear that Nelson has a leg up on the competition as spring practice comes to a close, but the battle won’t be decided until fall camp in August, because his biggest competitor hasn’t been on the field very much.

Redshirt freshman Maddux Madsen has been limited to individual drills and 7-on-7 sessions this spring as he recovers from surgery he had in November to repair a torn MCL and PCL in his right knee. He’s expected to be cleared to play by August, but it might already be Nelson’s job to lose.

“Where he is today after the spring game from where he was in practice one, there’s been a lot of growth and development,” Danielson said of Nelson. “He wasn’t perfect today, but he made some good throws, and he’s done a really good job escaping the pocket and using his feet.”

Saturday’s scrimmage featured a non-traditional scoring system that awarded points for things such as sacks, three-and-outs, turnovers and explosive plays, as well as touchdowns and field goals.

The defense won by a score of 47-29 after racking up five sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. Linebacker Jake Ripp and defensive tackle Michael Madrie led the defense with four tackles each.