The number 10 holds a good bit of significance for the Idaho Vandals this season. It’s been 10 years since they last had a winning season, and 10 years since they even got off on the right foot with a season-opening win (hard to believe, I know). If that’s not enough, two players who wear No. 10 — QB Nathan Enderle and Shiloh Keo — will be critically important if UI does stage a reclamation.
For more about the Vandals check out my season preview below, which is slated to run in Monday’s S-R.
MOSCOW, Idaho — In five days, Idaho football coach Robb Akey will unveil an on-the-field product that figures to be the most polished since his arrival three years ago.
The defense has never been so rangy and athletic. A stocked supply of skill players is starting to come of age. The defensive line finally has more than a smattering of able (and thick) bodies.
Yes, everything points to a much healthier program than the one Akey inherited after Dennis Erickson’s swift departure in 2006. Nevertheless this fact remains: All the anecdotal progress means nothing unless the Vandals start churning out wins.
“I do like the direction we’re going,” athletic director Rob Spear said last week. “… But nobody’s more anxious than me to get the (program) turned.”
Idaho has stumbled through 1-11 and 2-10 seasons under Akey, with victories coming against lower-tier or bottom-rung programs — Cal Poly, Idaho State and New Mexico State. What’s more, it’s been 10 years since the Vandals last manufactured a winning season — or even bagged their season opener.
Idaho will try to end that dubious streak on Saturday at 5 Pacific, when it plays at NMSU, the only Western Athletic Conference foe that an Akey-led Vandal squad has topped.
For the third consecutive year Nathan Enderle will be the starting quarterback to open the season, and protecting him is an offensive line that meshed nicely through spring and preseason camps.
The unquestioned centerpiece of the O-line, if not the program, is senior left guard Mike Iupati. At 6-foot-6 and a muscular 330 pounds, the Anaheim, Calif., native has recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him last year and should be one of the WAC’s premier linemen.
“The expectations are still high for us,” said Iupati, on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. “We just need to get focused on that goal we have, which is to have a winning season. Everything will come along if we stay focused.”
Beyond Iupati and a few other veterans, the roster is fraught with question marks. The most uncertainty surrounds the defense, which ranked 116th in the nation last year but has been infused with speedy newcomers such as cornerback Matt Harvey and linebacker Korey Toomer.
Akey indicated before fall camp that he wanted to see at least seven defensive linemen emerge, and that seems to be the case. Jonah Sataraka and Michael Cosgrove, two 280-pound interior tackles, have solidified starting gigs while Aaron Lavarias and Andre Ferguson have been productive in the preseason from the D-end spot.
“It’s hard to play defense without a front,” Akey said. “I’m not going to tell you they’re going to be the Wall of China right now, but they’re going to be good enough.”
The offense, meanwhile, will almost certainly be the Vandals’ strongest link. Enderle came out unscathed from a heated QB battle with Brian Reader and has garnered widespread praise for improvement in his footwork and maturity.
Still, if Enderle fails to display better decision-making — he has 35 career interceptions in 21 games — Akey insisted that he won’t have a problem making a switch.
“If there (are) problems and Brian continually does things better, that’s when things are going to change,” the third-year coach said.
Either quarterback will have a wealth of playmakers to target. Five receiving targets, led by Preston Davis and Max Komar, made a mark in camp and at least six running backs seem capable of garnering significant carries.
The No. 1 tailback is Deonte Jackson, who went from 1,175 yards as a freshman to 696 yards in a platoon role in 2008. Still, he and the other backs — including 241-pound DeMaundray Woolridge, whom coaches and teammates have praised — maintain they don’t mind sharing the ball-carrying duties.
“I think we have a very talented group — and a pretty big group too,” Jackson said. “And we all just have that potential to be big playmakers, to give our team that spark to put points on the board.”
Five reasons to think things are looking up for Idaho:
1) After becoming the Vandals’ third head coach in three years, Robb Akey has stabilized the program.
2) Akey isn’t going for a quick fix. Instead of digging through the JC ranks, Idaho is going for lasting results with high school-heavy recruiting.
3) The talent in the trenches has risen. UI isn’t as deep as coaches would like, but Mike Iupati and Jonah Sataraka lead a higher-quality group of linemen.
4) The facilities have improved. Natural light will stream through the Kibbie Dome’s west wall after a summer-long renovation.
5) Two transfers, quarterback Brian Reader and tailback DeMaundray Woolridge, have ratcheted up the competition and skill level in the backfield.
Here are some other interesting quotes that didn’t make the story:
Akey on Enderle’s decision-making: “That’s one of the things he’s doing so well. He conducts the game so well at the line of scrimmage and putting us in the right play, the right protection, things like that. And he did that last year as well. The turnovers? I know that got in his head a little bit, that affected his confidence.”
Jackson on being in Akey’s system for three years: “I think expectations are higher than ever because a lot of us have been here since the Akey era began, and we’re seeing what’s been said finally coming to fruition, you know. The fruit is starting to sprout out and the flowers are blossoming, so we’re seeing all our hard work pay off. I think my expectations keep going up each and every day — just keep pushing hard and reaching further.”
Enderle on the progess being made: “I’m happy with where we’re headed. I see a lot of good things and I see a lot of better things from years past. That’s a positive thing. I like what we’re doing and I like the way our 1 offense is looking.”
Iupati on his NFL prospects: “To me, I need to focus on this year’s (team). Whatever I do this season, I know the scouts will have to look at the tape, that’s why I’m going to bust my ass every week, every game. (If) they like it, they like it.”
Akey on the offense helping the defense: “I think the fact that the offense has improved is going to help that defense also. Our numbers weren’t very good last year. Obviously, they were terrible. It’s embarrassing.
“Our football team, particularly early in the year, didn’t help each other out very well. The beginning of the season when we had the meltdowns that took place, the offense, the defense and special teams had their meltdown at the same time. And all the sudden, the scoreboard was atrocious. And even if we got better during the course the game, it really didn’t matter; the numbers were terrible. And our offense was never able to do something and keep that defense off the field.”