We’ve got two Idaho football-related stories to pass along. The first is a notebook I filed after the Vandals’ scrimmage heading into Friday’s Silver and Gold game. And the second is a profile of Mike Iupati, the former UI guard who looks to be a sure-fire first round pick in next week’s NFL draft.
Read on for both pieces.
First, here’s my scrimmage notebook:
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – After another spring scrimmage in which touchdowns were noticeably scarce, Idaho quarterback Nathan Enderle suggested that perhaps the coaching staff had something to do with the offense’s futility.
“You know, they put us in a couple situations where it’s not very easy to score touchdowns – 2-minute situations with a minute left on the clock where you can’t expect to get a touchdown every single time,” Enderle said Saturday.
A few minutes later, coach Robb Akey reminded reporters what Enderle and the rest of Vandals accomplished late last December in Boise.
“These (late-game scenarios) were easy compared to the last time these guys all got together and did that thing,” said Akey, alluding to Idaho’s improbable last-second drive to win the Humanitarian Bowl.
Entering the final week of spring practice, the Vandals are still trying to settle into an offensive rhythm. They managed just two touchdowns during Saturday’s brief, early morning run-through after getting shut out for most of last week’s intrasquad scrimmage.
Much of the inconsistency can be traced to a reworked offensive line. UI must find four new starters after last year, and it hasn’t helped that two key newcomers on the interior of the line – Tevita Halaholo and Sam Tupua – have missed time this spring with injuries.
Tupua, a junior-college transfer, sat out Saturday with a bruised knee. The severity of his injury won’t be determined until the swelling goes down, Akey said.
As it has for most of the spring, the Vandal defense had a clear advantage Saturday, registering six sacks and an interception of backup QB Brian Reader during the intense 75-minute session. Enderle spent much of the morning scrambling outside the pocket but still completed 9 of 15 passes for 86 yards.
The soon-to-be redshirt senior, a three-year starter, had a stellar 2009 season with nearly 3,000 yards and a 61.5 completion percentage. The success came after he prevailed in a drawn-out competition with Reader last fall.
But he still feels pressure with a capable backup behind him.
“I think the guys on the team see me more as a leader than they did last year at this time,” the 6-foot-5 Nebraska native said. “But I still got to compete, and (Readers’s) a really good player. I need to show up every day to keep my spot, and he knows that and I know that. The coaches make sure they let us know that. It’s definitely nothing to trivialize.”
In the past, Enderle often deferred to teammates with more boisterous personalities when it came to taking a leadership role. Since the end of last year, though, the QB’s focus has shifted.
Akey could notice the change as soon as spring practice began.
“I saw more of the general taking place,” the coach said. “He’s grabbing guys, getting them directed to where they need to (be). And that’s something that you’re going to get out of a senior quarterback. And for Nate to be doing that, that’s him taking another step forward. I’m happy about that.”
KEY PLAYERS MISSING
In addition to not having Tupua, the Vandals were without starting defensive lineman Michael Cosgrove (burst bursa sack). He sustained the knee injury early in the scrimmage and could have returned, Akey said.
Wideout Maurice Shaw also didn’t scrimmage. He’s been away from the team while dealing with undisclosed off-the-field issues. Akey expects him back for the final week of spring.
And here’s the Iupati piece:
MOSCOW, Idaho — If Thursday night unfolds like many expect it to, at some point Mike Iupati will take a call from a National Football League franchise and quickly see his face — straggly beard, dark ponytail and all — splashed all over ESPN.
It will be a life-altering moment for sure. But becoming a first-round NFL draft pick won’t just impact Iupati. It should also brighten his parents’ outlook.
Aposetolo and Belinda Iupati have felt a deep financial strain since moving their family from American Samoa to Southern California nearly a decade ago. The cultural and language barriers at the start were one thing, but Aposetolo also tried to eke out a living as a mechanic.
“It’s tough to live down in California,” says Mike, the third of four children in the family. “It’s very expensive. This is a great opportunity to help them out. They’ve been sacrificing a lot since we got here.”
The Iupatis came to the U.S. to access better schools for their kids, and soon Mike – who was 14 when the family landed in Los Angeles – blossomed into an imposing lineman despite not having played organized football in Samoa.
As his profile grew at the University of Idaho, Mike hoped he would be able to at least lighten his parents’ burden as a professional athlete. Yet now, in rarefied air for an NFL prospect at his position, Mike’s plan is for his father to retire after he signs his first lucrative contract.
The 6-foot-5, 331-pound guard hopped from one major airport to another over the last few weeks — visiting 10 teams in all — in what amounted to a series of demanding job interviews. At each stop, he underwent extensive physical exams and met with coaches and management.
The traveling reminded Iupati of college recruiting visits, only this time he has no control of where he’ll end up. His only gut feeling is that he will be a first-rounder – a pretty safe hunch it appears.
Most draft analysts have Iupati pegged as a top-20 pick. Getting drafted that high would be unusual for a guard, but his nimble feet, long arms and large frame have some teams thinking he could slide to tackle with a little seasoning.
“I think he has potential to play tackle,” Idaho coach Robb Akey says. “I really do because he’s athletic enough. He’s got the feet to be able to do that. He’s a big, strong man who can move that way.”
“I’ve never played tackle,” Iupati says. “But I know I’ll be a great tackle if I get … an opportunity to learn it.”
So why wasn’t Iupati the Vandals’ left tackle the past few years? The short answer is that UI coaches felt he was more valuable at left guard, where he could be a lead blocker or pull if the Vandal ran to the right side.
“He could have been a great left tackle for us,” Akey says. “But at the same time, by playing him at guard, we could use him both ways. We want to run the ball left, he’s there. We want to run the ball right, we can pull him. You’re not pulling your left tackle.”
Just as quarterbacks and left tackles typically get plucked early in the draft, guards and centers are viewed by scouts as mid- to late-round options. It’s been three years since a guard went in the first round, and last year the first guard wasn’t drafted until the 51st pick.
But Iupati is clearly not an ordinary interior line prospect. At Idaho he was a devastating downfield blocker. Once in open space, Iupati used his agility and strength to toss aside linebackers and defensive backs.
“Mike’s a hell of an athlete,” UI left tackle Matt Cleveland says. “He’s 330 pounds and he moves like a tight end. He’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s got good feet. I think he can do whatever he wants to.”
Pro coaches and personnel directors apparently agree. The National Football Post, citing NFL sources, reported last week Iupati is so coveted that he’s expected to be drafted in the first half of the 32-pick first round.
Even if he doesn’t go that high, he’s almost sure to be the first Vandal taken in the top round since Ray McDonald went to the Washington Redskins in 1967 with the 13th pick.
Akey plans on relishing the rare exposure Iupati and the Idaho program will garner as the draft’s first round moves from its traditional early Saturday time slot to Thursday evening (4:30 PDT) on ESPN. After Iupati is selected, snippets of footage from his playing days will be shown and future recruits will get a glimpse at what’s possible at UI, Akey says.
Iupati and Akey embraced after UI’s scrimmage on Saturday morning, and Akey told his former star player to get ready for 1,000 phone calls Thursday night. More importantly, though, Iupati is focused on making a solid first impression with his new employer – and helping his parents financially.
“I’m just going to take care of my family first,” he says, “and then take care of myself too for the long run.”