BOISE — Ezra Cleveland had big goals for himself as a football player growing up.
“He always wanted to see somebody walking down the road with his jersey on and his name on the back,” said Ezra’s mother Shawna Cleveland. “I said ‘well I wear those every day’ and he would say, ‘it’s not the same mom.’”
Ezra Cleveland didn’t specify if the jersey would be from a college or NFL team. He may one day soon have a chance at both.
The 6-foot-6, 309-pound redshirt sophomore left tackle has emerged as one of the top players at his position in not just the Mountain West, but all of college football. He has started 23 games in a row for the Broncos over the past two seasons and has by all accounts, been very impressive in protecting Brett Rypien’s blindside.
“He’s a special player,” Boise State offensive coordinator Zak Hill said. “He’s athletic. He can run like some of our tight ends. Being that big and that agile on his feet and he’s a physical guy – we’re lucky to have him. He’s a role model for those guys. Ezra is a great player and it shows. He’s a next-level guy.”
Cleveland was born premature but still weighed 11 pounds. He was regularly the big kid in his class growing up, but didn’t really shoot up the scale and growth charts until the summer before his junior year of high school.
“He was always tall, but literally one summer he just shot up and I was like ‘oh my goodness,’” Shawna Cleveland said. “He would come up to me and say, ‘I’m almost as tall as you mom’ because I am 6-foot, and before I knew it he was like ‘Yeah I’m taller than you now.’ I was like ‘what just happened?’ Now I’m really looking up at him.”
Ezra Cleveland played four sports growing up: football, baseball, wrestling and basketball. As he continued to grow he realized that football would be his ticket to a college scholarship — and maybe one day a professional career. The question was whether he’d play offense or defense.
He played some tight end growing up but mostly played along both the offensive and defensive line. Some college programs recruited him for defense. The Broncos and former offensive line coach Scott Huff wanted him for offense.
“Clearly, I was growing throughout high school and just getting bigger and bigger and for offensive line you need size,” Ezra Cleveland said. “I talked it over with my parents and they thought offensive line and with the people here at Boise, we felt (playing offensive line at Boise State) was the best situation for me.”
It didn’t take Huff long to see his potential. Barely a few months after arriving on campus, Huff warned reporters to “look out” for Cleveland in the future. Despite redshirting that fall as almost all incoming freshmen offensive linemen do, he showed enough in his first summer and fall camp with the program that he was seen as an eventual star.
“Sometimes you can just tell when guys have that ‘it’ factor,” Huff said recently. “And he does.”
Left tackle is seen as the harder, more prestigious spot of the two tackle spots because of the challenges of protecting a quarterback’s backside. Many will start on the right side early in their careers and then bounce to left tackle after they gain the needed knowledge and experience.
It could have very easily been that way for Cleveland with many expecting returning starter Archie Lewis to play left tackle and the then redshirt freshman Ezra Cleveland to be at right tackle in 2017. But with Lewis out for the spring due to injuries, the Broncos put Cleveland at left tackle, and they elected to keep him there heading into last season.
Cleveland ended up starting all 14 games at left tackle — a rarity for freshman along the offensive line — and played 1,008 of a possible 1,011 snaps according to Pro Football Focus. It was the most of any freshman lineman in the country and the ninth-most of any offensive lineman regardless of year.
“He’s one of those guys that knows he’s good and he’s got that confidence out on the field like nobody is going to beat me,” Hill said. “At times you can really see him take over and dominate and is athletic enough to recover from some things and still get ahold of guys. He’s a special one.”
This year he was a preseason All-Mountain West selection and has played 660 of a possible 691 snaps so far. The only reason Cleveland doesn’t have more is the Broncos had blowout wins against Troy and Connecticut in the first two games and wanted to get the backups some playing time. He’s also allowed just two sacks in 383 snaps of pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He is constantly doing something to improve and he just keeps getting better,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “That’s a credit to his work ethic, that’s a credit to his mentality and that’s a credit to what he does in the film room and how he prepares himself.
“Ezra, as far as a competitor, is as good as we’ve had. As far as a teammate he’s as good as we’ve had. As far as a guy to coach, as good as we’ve had. He’s just one of those guys that ever since he’s been here he has done really everything you’d hoped for as far as getting himself ready to play.”
At a position that rarely gets noticed, Cleveland has received plenty of positive praise and attention. Pro Football Focus recently rated him as the top performing left tackle in all of college football two weeks in a row for his performances against Colorado State and Air Force.
An NFL agent told the Idaho Press that the redshirt sophomore would be a late-round pick if he entered the 2019 NFL Draft (he’s eligible since he is three years removed from high school). The agent said another solid season as a junior would propel him into being a likely first or second round pick in 2020, which would be the more likely option.
Boise State’s last five multi-year starters at left tackle were all NFL Draft picks and all started in the NFL. That list includes Daryn Colledge, Ryan Clady, Nate Potter, Charles Leno Jr. and Rees Odhiambo.
So the question is shifting from whether Cleveland will extend the streak to six to when it will happen and how high he will eventually get drafted.
“It’s really exciting,” Shawna Cleveland said. “My whole family is really excited about it. They kind of jokingly fight about where he’s going to go. My brothers are Seahawk fans and Jim (Ezra’s dad) has family in New England. I get goosebumps thinking about it and sometimes I get so excited I want to cry. I’m an emotional person.”
Ezra Cleveland admitted that playing in the NFL “has been a goal of mine since I was a kid” but said he’s given the possibility little to no thought.
“I take it week by week and Fresno State is in our path right now and that’s what I’m focused on,” he said.
The likely scenario is for Cleveland to come back for his junior season and then consider a jump to the next level about this time next year. But he’s got bigger things to worry about right now, starting with Friday’s 8:15 p.m. battle with the Bulldogs. The Broncos need a win to stay alive in the Mountain Division race.
Cleveland will have to do something Friday he’s never done since he arrived at Boise State — make up for two personal foul penalties he received last week against BYU for pushing players after the whistle.
“I just have to do better than that,” Cleveland said. “There’s a fine line between after the whistle and before the whistle where you don’t get the penalty. I just have to be better than that.”
Off the field, Cleveland rooms with fellow offensive linemen Jake Stetz and John Ojukwu and they spend their little time away from football playing Xbox. The current game of choice is Black Ops 4.
“I would say I’m a jokester when people get to know me,” Cleveland said. “I’d like to say I have witty humor, but sometimes it’s not like that.”
Shawna expanded a little more on just the type of person he is.
“He is pretty much the same guy in the pads and out,” she said. “He’s very quiet. Growing up he was quiet and didn’t like to bring attention to himself, which is weird because he played sports and stuff. He’s the same guy. He’s really funny when he does talk. He has me laughing all the time. But he’s just quiet. He doesn’t like to talk to people and I don’t know why.”
Ezra Cleveland has let his play on the field do the talking for him — and it’s been speaking loudly as of late. Boise State’s offensive line has improved following a slow start and Cleveland has been a big reason why. He brings the group into the film room on Monday’s with running back Alexander Mattison for extra work, and has become a leader of the offensive line.
It’s been a quick rise for Cleveland from a redshirt on the scout team to the best player on Boise State’s offensive line in just two years. The scary part? He’s just starting to come into his own.
“In one word, I would just say comfortable,” Cleveland said. “When I first got here I was a little on edge and wanted to prove myself, but I got to know everyone and I’ve settled in and hunkered down and I’m just doing what I do best, and that’s play football.”
Something he’ll likely do for years to come.