It was a much livelier practice than expected for the Vandals this afternoon, and most of the credit goes to former Idaho star Mike Iupati. We've got a full recap and details of a season-ending injury to one of Idaho's defensive backs before the Silver and Gold game on Saturday.
First, here's the story for tomorrow's paper:
By Josh Wright
MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho football team was deep into its final practice before Saturday’s spring game when Robb Akey felt a tap on his shoulder. It was former Vandal star lineman Mike Iupati, now of the San Francisco 49ers, who decided to spring a surprise visit on his old coach and teammates.
“I turn around and there’s a mountain standing there,” Akey said after Thursday’s workout. “I jumped up and gave him a hug and I started crying.”
Akey put a sudden stop to practice and rounded up his players so that Iupati, who helped guide Idaho to a Humanitarian Bowl triumph in 2009, could give an impromptu address to the team.
San Francisco’s first round pick from a year ago didn’t disappoint.
“He spoke straight from his heart,” Akey said. “It was absolutely awesome, and it was a great message he delivered to our football team about enjoying the opportunities you have.”
For the current Vandals, the last opportunity to work out as team with coaches on hand before fall camp is the Silver and Gold game on Saturday morning at 10. A rash of injuries and miserable weather – something UI has endured with the Kibbie Dome closed for renovation – have been the stories of spring.
Iupati, though, provided a pick-me-up with his quick return to Moscow.
“Oh, the guys, they loved it because … he’s an NFL player, a first round draft pick,” linebacker Tre’Shawn Robinson said. “He’s a Vandal alum now. He makes his presence known. The guys miss him. He was a good leader.”
Akey didn’t know Iupati was back on campus until the 330-pound guard approached him at practice. After the two caught up and Iupati was about to leave, Akey asked him to talk to the club.
“He’s done what they aspire to do, and he’s telling them how much he misses college and college football,” the coach said. “I just hoped our guys listened to that because he certainly exemplifies the work it takes to get to that level.”
Akey has been pleased with the progress UI made this spring, particularly since so many fresh-faced players have had to fill voids left by hobbled veterans. Although most of the injuries aren’t expected to stretch into fall camp, there’s one big exception.
On Saturday safety Thaad Thompson, expected to compete for a starting spot, sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a one-on-one drill. The knee injury will require surgery and most likely force the 6-foot-3 senior-to-be to sit out the 2011 season.
“Everyone else is going to be back,” Akey said of the other injured players. “That’s the one that’s going to make you puke.”
Thompson's injury is obviously a blow. He was in a three-man rotation at safety, with Gary Walker and Quin Ashley, that had been performing at a high level.
“He and Quin were both playing very, very well,” Akey said. “And Gary was having a great spring. So I was looking at three safeties who were really doing well. That’s going to impact us. One of those two were going to be a starter. All three were going to play a lot and he was going to play on special teams also.”
Stepping in now at backup safety will be sophomore-to-be Trey Williams and freshman James Randall, who redshirted last year.
Said Akey, “What I’ve liked is the way Trey Williams and James Randall have been responding. They’re doing well, and it’s time for them to start getting in the mix. They’ve been showing well. We’ve got four safeties and those guys are going to be able to do some things. They’re both going to play specials teams for us also. We’ve still got a two-deep there.”
Here's what Robinson, a leader of the defense and starting MLB, said of Thompson's injury: “It’s a big loss. We’re going to miss him, but we’ve got guys who can back him up, Trey Williams and James Randall. … Everybody knows what they’re doing now. It’s good thing to have depth.”
I also asked Robinson about the defense's performance this spring. Will it be better than last year? “Oh, most definitely,” he said, “because the guys have been around and they know what they’re doing. Compared to last year at this time, we’ve made more progress in terms of knowing plays, knowing blitzes, things like that since I’ve been here.”
If one position has been especially ravaged by injuries this spring, it's been the offensive line. Left tackle Matt Cleveland is still out, and the Vandals were down to what appeared to be one right guard on Thursday — Bilal Liggins. The first five at practice were Tyrone Novikoff (RT), Liggins (RG), Sam Tupua (C), Mike Marboe (LG) and Kyle Salm (LT). The second five, at least at the end of practice, were Spencer Beale (LT), Dallas Sandburg (LG), Guy Reynolds Jr. (C), Liggins (RG) and Salm (RT).
“We got a lot of youngsters, a lot of inexperienced guys a lot of reps this spring,” Akey said. “So you’re building the future. You’re building your depth as well.”
Akey talked about dealing with the shuffling with a new O-line coach, John McDonell. For the most part, he said, it hasn't been a huge change.
“There’s some tweaks. It’s still our offense, but there are some tweaks that Coach McDonell has brought on board. They’re dealing with a new position coach. I think that’s gone fantastic, to be honest with ya. And I think they’ve responded great to him. I think he has responded great to them. It’s a new beginning for everyone of them. He’s done a great job.”