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Vandals hope for winning record in Akey’s third year in charge

MOSCOW, Idaho – In five days, Idaho football coach Robb Akey will unveil an on-the-field product that figures to be the most polished since his arrival three years ago.

The defense has never been so rangy and athletic. A stocked supply of skill players is starting to come of age. The defensive line finally has more than a smattering of able (and thick) bodies.

Yes, everything points to a much healthier program than the one Akey inherited after Dennis Erickson’s swift departure in 2006. Nevertheless, this fact remains: All the anecdotal progress means nothing unless the Vandals start churning out wins.

“I do like the direction we’re going,” athletic director Rob Spear said last week. “But nobody’s more anxious than me to get the (program) turned.”

Idaho has stumbled through 1-11 and 2-10 seasons under Akey, with victories coming against lower-tier or bottom-rung programs – Cal Poly, Idaho State and New Mexico State. It’s been 10 years since the Vandals last had a winning season – or even won their season opener.

Idaho will try to end that streak Saturday at 5 p.m. Pacific, when the Vandals play at NMSU, the only Western Athletic Conference foe that an Akey-led Vandals squad has topped.

For the third consecutive year Nathan Enderle will be the starting quarterback to open the season, and protecting him is an offensive line that meshed nicely through spring and preseason camps.

The unquestioned centerpiece of the O-line, if not the program, is senior left guard Mike Iupati. At 6-foot-6 and a muscular 330 pounds, the Anaheim, Calif., native has recovered from a shoulder injury that hampered him last year and should be one of the WAC’s premier linemen.

“The expectations are still high for us,” said Iupati, who is on the preseason Outland Trophy watch list. “We just need to get focused on that goal we have, which is to have a winning season.

“Everything will come along if we stay focused.”

Beyond Iupati and a few other veterans, the roster is fraught with question marks. The most uncertainty surrounds the defense, which ranked 116th in the nation last year but has been infused with speedy newcomers such as cornerback Matt Harvey and linebacker Korey Toomer.

Akey indicated before fall camp that he wanted to see at least seven defensive linemen emerge, and that seems to be the case. Jonah Sataraka and Michael Cosgrove, two 280-pound interior tackles, have solidified starting positions, while Aaron Lavarias and Andre Ferguson have been productive in the preseason from the D-end spot.

“It’s hard to play defense without a front,” Akey said. “I’m not going to tell you they’re going to be the Wall of China right now, but they’re going to be good enough.”

The offense, meanwhile, will almost certainly be the Vandals’ strongest link. Enderle came out unscathed from a heated QB battle with Brian Reader and has garnered widespread praise for improvement in his footwork and maturity.

Still, if Enderle fails to display better decision-making – he has 35 career interceptions in 21 games – Akey insisted that he won’t have a problem making a switch.

“If there (are) problems and Brian continually does things better, that’s when things are going to change,” the third-year coach said.

Either quarterback will have a wealth of playmakers to target. Five receiving targets, led by Preston Davis and Max Komar, made a mark in camp and at least six running backs seem capable of garnering significant carries.

The No. 1 tailback is Deonte Jackson, who went from 1,175 yards as a freshman to 696 yards in a platoon role in 2008. Still, he and the other backs – including 241-pound DeMaundray Woolridge, whom coaches and teammates have praised – maintain they don’t mind sharing the ball-carrying duties.

“I think we have a very talented group – and a pretty big group too,” Jackson said. “And we all just have that potential to be big playmakers, to give our team that spark to put points on the board.”