Coming into the year, Max Komar might have been a tad overlooked in Idaho's receiving corps. But the senior has been an explosive playmaker so far -- particulary on third downs last week vs. San Diego State.
Click below to read more about Komar, Idaho's thriving passing game, and notes from around the WAC.
MOSCOW, Idaho – The observation came from Max Komar, a senior whose words carry some definite weight. He’s been apart of Idaho football for four years, after all, so he knows a thing or two about the Vandals’ recent travails.
Especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“Last year you saw big plays happen so rarely (with) our offense,” Komar recalled this week.
That’s not the case so far in 2009 for a program that looks to be awaking from a decade-long slumber. In fact, the roots of the Vandals’ early success can be traced, in part, to a downfield passing game that is suddenly flourishing.
One telling number for Idaho (2-1) as it enters Saturday’s non-conference matchup at Northern Illinois (2-1) is quarterback Nathan Enderle’s yards per attempt. Last year he averaged a meager 6.1 yards for every throw, and this season it’s spiked to 8.2.
Komar is a big reason why. The 5-foot-11 Auburn, Wash., product has been UI’s most productive receiver, and most of his 257 yards have come in meaty chunks. He’s averaging 21.4 yards per catch, easily the best among a burgeoning wide receiver unit.
“His maturity, his experience is really helping him out,” Enderle said of his veteran target. “I feel comfortable with him out there. Being with him for three years now, I really know what he’s doing, what he’s thinking. And it helps us connect sometimes when other receivers wouldn’t be able to make the same play.”
That comfort level has come not just from experience, but also from diligent work over the summer. Komar, in particular, focused on refining his route running – a trait vital to receivers who spend most of their time in the slot.
“We’re pretty much on the same page with me in the slot,” Komar said. “Last year I wasn’t in the slot very much, but all the work we put in the off-season and during fall camp, we just got used to me in the slot.”
With the departure of all-Western Athletic Conference H-back Eddie Williams, the Vandals have opted for more three and four wideout sets over two tight end formations. That’s enabled Komar to see the field more and offensive coordinator Steve Axman to look for ways to crank out bigger yardage through the air.
In Axman’s book, big plays account for at least 10 yards. The Vandals had 15 such plays in last week’s win over San Diego State and 17 at Washington.
Part of the improvement from a woeful 2008 campaign is more freedom given to Enderle to change calls at the line of scrimmage. Last year he stuck mostly with run-play audibles, but now it’s not uncommon to see him barking changes for several seconds in pass formations.
Komar also has a bit of leeway once he lines up and reads various coverages from the defense. Since he’s usually in the slot, which covers inside and over-the-middle routes, Komar relies on his football acumen when picking an appropriate route.
“He really is a good inside slot receiver,” Axman said, “and he’s really good at route running and feeling the space the field and finding holes. And there’s a great connection with him and Nathan.”
The early results are nice, Komar said, but he’s more interested in the ultimate prize for the Vandals – a long-awaited bowl berth.
AROUND THE WAC
While the Vandals have been a pleasant surprise so far, it hasn’t been pretty for much of the WAC. Take away Idaho, Boise State and Hawaii, the combined record of conference members is 3-13. … San Jose State (0-3) appears to have a nice respite this week by playing lower-division Cal Poly after facing USC, Utah and Stanford. But coach Dick Tomey isn’t so sure. “It’s an even game going in,” he said. … Idaho is showing that a good recipe for improvement is standing out is rush defense and turnover margin. The Vandals lead the WAC in both categories.
Komar had some interesting comments that didn't make it into the story about Northern Illinois. While the Huskies have been rock-solid so far in knocking off Purdue (and almost beating Wisconsin), they have a much more standard defensive alignment than SDSU. "San Diego State, they’re throwing a lot of junk at us. Northern Illinois is pretty basic — they just line up and play their style of football. On offense I’ve heard they run the ball a lot. On defense they pretty much stay in a base cover 4 or mix it in with a little Cover 2, Cover 3. It’s pretty basic football, but they just do their job. They do it real well."
Axman, meanwhile, raved about Enderle's quarterback IQ when I spoke to him earlier this week. His smarts are a big reason why coaches have given him so much control at the line of scrimmage. "He’s able to handle that because he’s so bright ... . Yes, we’re doing more audibling; we’re assigning our pass protection certain ways. We’re calling certain types of plays that work best with the coverages we’re seeing, so that’s really a luxury that you don’t get (with other QBs.)"
Here's an interesting comment from NIU coach Joe Kill about Idaho's big-play capabilities and Enderle: "They are very multiple on offense and we have to continue to play good defense. We can't give up the big play. We have to continue to play physical football. We played physical versus Purdue. We have to come out with that intensity. We challenged our kids last week and we have to challenge them to comeback and do the same thing this week. Their quarterback is a very accurate passer. The biggest thing I worry about, on the offensive side of the ball, is recognition to what they're doing to us defensively. We need to do a good job of recognizing what they're doing and when they're doing it."