MOSCOW, Idaho – This time two years ago, Brian Reader was the scout team quarterback at the University of Arkansas, biding his time to get a crack at the ferocious defenses of the Southeastern Conference.
“That was an experience in and of itself,” Reader said this week.
So was what happened next. Shaken by coach Houston Nutt’s decision to step aside, Reader left Arkansas – where he was a redshirt walk-on with preferred status – and hopped cross-country to play at a junior college in his native Bay Area.
It was a risky move on the surface, and the QB was unsure if he would get another chance to play FBS (formerly Division I-A) football. But here he is, a day away from perhaps starting his second consecutive game for the 7-3 Idaho Vandals.
“Finally to get to Division I where (I’m) playing right now, it makes you appreciate things,” Reader said.
It’s been a winding collegiate journey for the 6-foot-3, 220-pound sophomore, who was first discovered by UI when running backs coach Jeremy Thielbahr stumbled upon him. In need of a JC quarterback, the Vandals pounced quickly and Reader enrolled at Idaho in January.
In evaluating Reader, two things stuck out to Vandal coaches: His junior college, Monterey Peninsula College, went 10-0 in the regular season under his direction, and he had three years of eligibility.
“We felt kind of fortunate that we were able to find him, to be honest with you,” quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith said.
Smith went on to rattle off Reader’s strengths – his ability to step in quickly, a strong work ethic, a keen understanding of the game – before making this observation: “I think he could be playing in the Pac-10.”
That’s heady praise, but Reader’s presence since spring camp has been vital to the Vandals’ out-of-the-blue turnaround. His duel with Nathan Enderle for the starting role sharpened Enderle’s approach – and helped UI’s offense blossom in the process.
Enderle missed last week’s 31-21 loss to Fresno State with a shoulder injury and is a game-time decision for Saturday’s clash at No. 6 Boise State (9-0, 4-0). But before he was sidelined, the redshirt junior was having his finest season – 2,404 passing yards, 15 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 62.2.
Those numbers are a byproduct of improved offensive line play, more experienced wide receivers and an effective three-headed rushing attack. Yet having Reader to push him has also been a factor.
“That’s been good for our group and I think it shows with our play,” Smith said. “It’s made Nate better.”
Reader recovered from a forgettable first half against Fresno State (2-of-10 passing, 29 yards) to engineer a compelling rally, turning a 24-0 affair into a two-score game. During the frantic fourth quarter, the backup showed something to Smith.
“There were a lot emotions, at home, great crowd, national television – that’s all new experiences you can’t really simulate in practice,” the sixth-year assistant said. “But I thought he played pretty well. … Sure, he could have done some things better, but I expect him to play well this weekend.”
All eyes on Moore
Headlining Boise State’s nationally second-ranked scoring offense is quarterback Kellen Moore, who has tossed 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions. The skinny sophomore’s pinpoint accuracy has dictated a change in Idaho’s coverage schemes, defensive coordinator Mark Criner said.
Part of the tweaking will involve bringing cornerbacks closer to the line of scrimmage to keep Moore and BSU receivers from feasting on short and intermediate routes.
“You can’t let them stay in a rhythm,” Criner said. “Once they stay in a rhythm (and) you let that quarterback be in a rhythm, boy, he does a lot of good things.”
The Vandals’ pass defense, ranked 76th in the nation, should get a boost with the expected return of cornerback Isaac Butts (hamstring). He has missed the last two games, and in his absence, freshman Aaron Grymes has been targeted often by opposing quarterbacks.
“We’ve got to get a little confidence back in that young man,” coach Robb Akey said.