Preparations for the 2011 football season get under way for the Idaho Vandals today with a 3:30 practice. We'll have a report from the first day of fall camp. But until then, check out our advance for today's paper and our extended 2011 preview post below — with six storylines to follow through camp for Robb Akey's crew.
The Vandals, coming off a 6-7 season, were picked sixth in the WAC preseason polls. Akey, of course, sees things differently. As he's quoted in my story, he expects a bowl bid (hey, maybe it will be The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl). And he expects to compete for a WAC title.
He hopes his team has a “big ol' chip on our shoulder” after getting picked near the bottom in the eight-team league. Another source of motivation is how last year ended — without a second straight trip to the postseason, largely because of a missed tackle near the end zone in a 23-20 loss at Fresno State and another close defeat at Colorado State.
“I’ve had a bad taste in my mouth as soon as last season ended,” Akey said Tuesday. “I mean, I still wake up in the middle of the night and I see that Fresno play. In fact, I cussed (Fresno coach) Pat Hill out when I saw him in Vegas last week because of the outcome of that game — being that close.
“I sense that aggravation is there with some of my players, because I’ve heard some of the comments they have made.”
With camp starting, here's a rundown of the key storylines to follow for the Vandals leading up to the Sept. 1 opener against Bowling Green:
How will Brian Reader respond as the full-time starting QB? The senior has been with the program for three years, so he's comfortable with the system and personnel around him. But before this past spring, he's always had Nate Enderle in front of him.
Reader started two games with Enderle ineffective or hurt in 2009 and saw action late in other games. In fact, Akey often brings up Reader's play in a come-from-behind win at San Jose State in '09. “It’s not like you’re throwing a guy out there to the wolves that’s never done it before,” Akey said. “There’s a guy that knows what’s going on.”
Reader is more mobile than Enderle but doesn't throw the deep ball as well. The Vandals loved to stretch the field — particularly up the seams with tight ends — the last two years. That might change a bit with Reader at the helm and a different mix of receivers and tight ends.
Can the offensive line and running game click? Last year the Vandals ranked 118th in the FBS (out of 120 schools) in rushing with 88 yards per game. Deonte Jackson was the leading rusher, but the departed tailback mustered just 442 yards.
Neither Jackson nor Princeton McCarty found many open holes last year, a fact that must concern new offensive line coach John McDonell. But the O-line should be better. Three of the five starters are back — tackles Matt Cleveland and Tyrone Novikoff and guard/center Sam Tupua. At least four others will compete for two spots, including redshirt freshman Mike Marboe (he could play center or guard), Bilal Liggins, Jordan Johnson and Guy Reynolds.
That list doesn't include JC transfers A.J. Jones and Brady Lisoski. Akey said Tuesday that Lisoski will report as soon as he finishes a class he needs to pass to qualify.
“… Within that group of guys, I expect we’re going to find a couple guys that are ready,” Akey said. “I would expect there might be a little bit of depth to come with that also.”
Johnson appeared in spot duty last year and seems to be a strong candidate to play more this season. He missed four weeks of the spring with broken ribs. Meanwhile, Marboe impressed coaches last year as a freshman and could be the starting center come Sept. 1.
Somebody's got to replace Robert Siavii — who will it be? Siavii was poised for a monster senior year at linebacker for the Vandals. But he'll miss the season after hurting his knee during the spring game. The good news: Idaho has depth at linebacker — lots of depth.
Expect to see plenty of Conrad Scheidt and Korey Toomer, and possibly Jeremy Bediako. Last week Akey said Scheidt was competing with Siavii in spring for a starting spot. He also mentioned that Toomer will be in the mix. Bediako, from The Netherlands via Boise, made several big plays during the spring.
What about the secondary? If there's been one consistent weakness during Akey's tenure — and before — it's been struggling defensive backs. This year the core of the secondary returns, with one big exception: Shiloh Keo.
Aaron Grymes, Kenneth Patten and Matthew Harvey have experience at corner; two of those three will probably open the season as starters. Then again, JC transfer A.J. Annelus was with the team in the spring and could supplant one of them. I'm sure Akey would love to see him at least push one of the incumbents.
Also, don't forget about Dion Bass, the younger brother of UI tailback Ryan Bass. He's a true freshman listed at just 5-foot-9. But one Vandal player told me Dion is so athletic and gifted that he can play this year if he wants to.
“Obviously we need to play better in the secondary, especially at corner,” Akey said. “I know that. And the kids know that too.”
At safety, Gary Walker and Quin Ashley are almost guaranteed to be the starters. Trey Williams and James Randall should be the main backups, and Akey also mentioned true freshman Bradley Njoku, who at 6-2, 200 pounds has already made an impression on his teammates.
Which new faces will emerge? We already hit on a few names. But perhaps the best candidate is Ryan Bass if he can get his academic situation in order (he was finishing up a class earlier this week to be eligible, but Akey expects him to practice Thursday). Bass appeared to be the No. 1 tailback at the end of spring.
Other candidates: defensive tackles Aaron Lazaro and Dontae Scott. The Vandals have had trouble getting contributions from JC transfers in recent years, but they could be the exception.
The most important position to watch in fall camp is … My pick: wide receiver. The Vandals lost their top three receivers/tight ends (Eric Greenwood, Maurice Shaw and Daniel Hardy) from a year ago, so there's a lot of uncertainity here.
Justin Veltung is the obvious choice to step up as a starter, while Preston Davis and Armauni Johnson are right there too. Landon Weaver could see quite a bit of time as a slot receiver, and it will be interesting to see if speedster Jayson Washington gets any meaningful reps.