MOSCOW, Idaho – The theme has held from the early moments of spring practice to the final scrimmage of fall camp Saturday: The Idaho defense has been more relentless, more technically sound than in any time in Robb Akey’s tenure.
All the apparent progress, though, has come in practices and scrimmages – not exactly the most accurate barometer for a group that was the Vandals’ biggest weakness in 2009.
So what can fans expect come Sept. 2 against North Dakota?
“We’ve worked our tails off,” senior safety Shiloh Keo said. “Everyone’s gotten a lot bigger, stronger, and faster and smarter on the field. And that’s going to show. I really believe it will.”
Keo’s message came after another airtight defensive performance Saturday. Playing in front a handful of fans inside the Kibbie Dome, the veteran unit held the offense to two touchdowns – the first on a series that started at its 5-yard line – and came up with three interceptions and a forced fumble.
Bringing back 10 of 11 starters from last year has helped. But there’s more to the preseason success, defensive coordinator Mark Criner said.
“The biggest deal is we have competition at positions, and those guys that are back have a lot of experience,” he said.
Criner pointed to linebacker and the secondary as prime examples of improvement because of enhanced depth and talent.
As many as six players could rotate in and out of three linebacker spots this fall. Junior-college transfer Homer Mauga has impressed the coaching staff enough to push for a starting outside spot, while Criner also praised sophomore Conrad Scheidt, who’s recovering from a concussion.
Mauga and Scheidt will try to bolster a unit with four established veterans – JoJo Dickson and Robert Siavii, who had an interception and forced fumble Saturday, and middle linebackers Tre’Shawn Robinson and Spokane product Paul Senescall.
“We finally have a depth chart behind us,” Keo said. “A lot of young guys have been getting reps over the past few years, and that’s really pushing a lot of older guys.”
Keo headlines a secondary that’s been infused with more quickness and athleticism. Gary Walker will be UI’s only new defensive starter after replacing the departed Jeromy Jones at safety.
Matt Harvey, Tracy Carter and Thaad Thompson, a safety who joined Idaho last week, have little or no experience but should provide Criner with the ability to interchange parts when going against different packages.
Akey made official Saturday what had become clear over the past week or longer: Idaho’s starting offensive line is set, and it includes the same five players who have been taking nearly all the first-team snaps during camp.
Matt Cleveland, the lone returner, will anchor the line at left tackle. Sam Tupua, listed at 372 pounds but playing smaller than that, will be left guard and Clell Hasenback is the team’s center.
On the right side, guard Tevita Halaholo and tackle Tyrone Novikoff – both of whom saw some action last season – will take up the right side.
Akey said receiver Preston Davis, recovering from offseason knee surgery, has a chance to play in the opener. “I wouldn’t bet against him,” the coach said.
Defensive linemen Aaron Lavarias (knee) and Charles Smith Jr. (hand) missed the scrimmage. Both should be ready next week. Smith will play with a cast on his right hand.
Dickson (shoulder) and Scheidt should also return next week to practice.