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Lineman Cleveland turns heads

MOSCOW, Idaho – Nearly four weeks into spring football practice, the depth chart at a few key positions has yet to be hashed out for the University of Idaho. One area, however, has been defined from the start.

And one player in that unit has clearly garnered the most buzz.

The Vandals’ new offensive line has coalesced nicely since late March, with the biggest head-turner of the group being left tackle Matt Cleveland.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder missed last season after a gnarly leg injury in fall camp. So far, he looks to be fully recovered after breaking his left fibula, dislocating his ankle and tearing a ligament in a preseason practice.

Cleveland and his fellow linemen again drew praise from coach Robb Akey after Saturday’s scrimmage, which took place in picture-perfect conditions at Idaho’s outdoor practice field.

Entering the final week of spring practice, the Vandals’ running attack continues to be the most reliable way for the club to move the ball. Deonte Jackson and Princeton McCarty combined for 96 of the team’s 166 rushing yards behind a line that excells in run blocking.

“We definitely know that’s our strength and we pride ourselves on our run game,” said Jackson, who galloped for a 17-yard touchdown and caught a 29-yard TD from Nathan Enderle.

Like Akey, Jackson sees a high degree of maturity and promise in Cleveland. The tackle has grasped one of the most demanding positions on the field while not being sure how his leg was going to hold up.

And to think, he’s only 19 years old.

“He’s been playing physical, he’s been assignment correct,” Akey said. “Technique-wise, he’s been good, and he’s still in the grand scheme of things pretty young.”

A major litmus test for Cleveland, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall, came in the Vandals’ first practice with pads this spring. He and the coaches were curious about his health and demeanor.

“The first day I was a little skeptical to see how my leg was going to do, and … I had a pretty good day,” said Cleveland, of Kent, Wash. “And so my confidence grew and it’s still growing.”

There’s still progress to be made, though. The line’s pass protection has been suspect at times, with the low point of spring ball coming in Thursday’s practice, Cleveland said.

Nonetheless, the defense registered just four quarterback sacks Saturday after getting to the QBs 10 times in last week’s scrimmage.

“The offensive line responded to the challenge of getting the quarterback protected better from what it was last week and even during this week of practice,” Akey said. “So I thought that was a very good thing.”

The O-line’s solid work came without stalwart left guard Mike Iupati. He’ll be held out the rest of spring practice with cartilage in his knee that needs to be scoped. Tyrone Novikoff took his spot Saturday and should start in Friday’s Silver and Gold game, which begins at 5:30 p.m. at the practice field.

Enderle holds lead

Enderle spent most of the time with the No. 1 offense and has a sizable experience advantage over transfer quarterback Brian Reader.

But is Enderle the leader in the QB race?

“Right now, Nate’s still in front of him and Nate’s got more experience,” Akey said. “So I’m telling Nate, ‘You should stay in front of him.’ ‘Brian, you should pass him up.’ And we’re going to keep that going. It’s been very healthy with those guys.”

Two linemen hobbled

Defensive linemen Oga Faumui and Fonomanu Sekona finished scrimmage on crutches after apparent knee injuries. Akey said he wasn’t sure if they’ll be back before the fall.

The Vandals were already thin on the line

“We’re going to perform better in the interior of our defensive line, but right now I don’t think we’re playing well enough in there,” Akey said. “So that kind of helps the offense run the ball a little bit better also.”