MOSCOW, Idaho – In Aaron Lavarias’ first year at Idaho, it was the linebackers who seemed to have everything figured out. They were the ones who told the newcomers on defense – and they were almost all newcomers back then – where to be on the field, what to do, which way to go.
They also happened to perform at the highest level, for a while at least.
“Then maybe it was … the defensive line doing really well,” said Lavarias, a fifth-year senior defensive end. “Then the secondary would do really well. We were on and off, hot and cold, all the time.”
Three weeks into this season, the erratic play and frustration of past years for the UI defense is hardly mentioned. Maybe that’s to be expected after the Vandals (2-1) came within a garbage-time touchdown from UNLV last week of notching their second shutout in three games – after going 12 years without one.
Idaho is tied for the second-most takeaways in the nation with 11. It has nine quarterback sacks after averaging just more than one per game last year. And it is 38th nationally in total defense after ranking 107th last year and 116th in 2008.
Why the sudden turnaround?
“It comes just with confidence in one another and trust in one another,” defensive assistant Patrick Libey said. “Finally, it’s just starting to click. I’ll tell you what, when these guys start, that confidence just snowballs.
“I mean, they expect to get takeaways,” he added. “They expect to get the ball. They expect to get stops in the red zone. They expect to get to get stops if their backs are against the wall.”
Indeed, the Vandals have been the stingiest team in the nation in the red zone, allowing only two touchdowns in eight possessions inside the 20-yard line. That success has spilled over from spring and fall camp, when goal-line stands were almost everyday occurrences.
Following season after season of roster upheaval and new personnel, nearly every member of the defense has at least one year of experience with the coaching staff. The Vandals lost just one defensive starter from last year – safety Jeromy Jones – and have since added speed and depth at key areas.
That stability and familiarity are just two of many reasons Idaho players and coaches point to when asked about the early season success.
“This is the first time ever since I’ve been up here that we have numbers like this,” starting cornerback Isaac Butts said. “And we have people that can play, that can compete for jobs.
Butts mentioned Aaron Grymes, a sophomore whose play suffered last year after a broken hand but now leads the Vandals in tackles and has 2.5 tackles for loss. Last week against UNLV, he supplanted Kenneth Patten as a starter opposite Butts.
“Every time he got in the ballgame, he showed up,” coach Robb Akey said of Grymes. “You felt his presence. He’s hitting people and he’s playing full speed and he’s covering well.”
The improved coverage of Grymes, Butts and others in the secondary has allowed UI to become more aggressive and creative in trying to get to opposing quarterbacks. The Vandals have stuck with the same basic schemes under defensive coordinator Mark Criner, but they’re now able to send more defenders on blitzes.
“It’s having trust in the secondary to cover their man, trust in the linebackers to hit their right gaps, and trust in the D-line to fill the right gaps too,” said Lavarias, who had two sacks last week. “It’s just a trust that we’ve developed.”
Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild, whose team hosts UI on Saturday afternoon, has noticed the major leap the Vandals have taken. When the Rams played in Moscow last year, Idaho gave up two quick scores and fell behind 14-0 – a trend that haunted the club throughout 2009.
No longer does that seem to be an issue, though.
“This will probably be as good a defensive team as we have played,” Fairchild said. “From a personnel standpoint and a production standpoint, this will be the best defense in our first four games.
“They fly around, they play extremely hard, they pursue the ball, they tackle well.”