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Idaho makes strides in firming up its defense

MOSCOW, Idaho – The defensive line seems capable of withstanding the toll of a 12-game season. The linebackers are battle-tested and, in the words of their coach, can “flat run.” And the cornerbacks are perhaps starting to respond to Robb Akey’s criticism.

Does that mean the University of Idaho defense is poised, finally, for a breakthrough? Even defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Mark Criner can’t be sure. But he sees progress.

“The way I try to gauge it is, are we ahead of where we were a year ago?” Criner said during final preparations for Thursday’s season opener with Bowling Green. “Well, I think most definitely.”

Since Akey arrived before the 2007 season, the Vandals have been retooling their defensive personnel and looking for incremental progress. Last year, it seemed to be there at times – but the defense’s performance was far from consistent.

UI won six games, the second most since 1999, but it failed to string together consecutive victories.

The same inconsistency was evident in preseason camp, and not just from the defense. The up-and-down play worries Akey, who came to Idaho after being longtime defensive assistant, but not as much as you might think.

“As I look at it, I think the fact that both sides have had success at different points in time, that tells me something,” he said. “If it was one-sided, you’d be a little bit more concerned, I think.”

The defense, Akey said, “got their eyes opened up in the second scrimmage when our offense got after them. … So I think the consistency would probably be the one thing, if there’s one thing you want to see.”

Idaho has given up 50 points or more at least once every season since 2004. And up until last year, the Vandals ranked in the bottom 10 in scoring defense in the FBS since Akey arrived.

One thing those teams lacked was a deep, bankable crew of defensive linemen. This year, UI should stay fresher with a five-man rotation for two interior spots – led by tackle Michael Cosgrove and nose guard Karel Kearney – and at least four defensive ends that coaches feel confident playing.

“If we can be strong in the front, that makes it easier on those other guys,” Akey said. “If we can be strong in the pass rush, it helps those corners. If those guys are strong in the run game, that really helps your ability to stop the run.”

The Vandals don’t have the same depth at linebacker, but they have strong leadership in senior middle linebacker Tre’Shawn Robinson – a defensive captain – and veterans to occupy the outside two spots.

Criner considers seniors Homer Mauga and Korey Toomer and junior Conrad Scheidt on equal footing at outside linebacker. “Come Bowling Green, you’re going to see all three of those guys playing a lot,” he said.

The biggest question mark for Idaho is in the secondary. During the WAC’s media day, Akey singled out the cornerbacks – a group headlined by Aaron Grymes and Matthew Harvey – saying they had to play better. And he’s repeated that message throughout camp.

In an effort to shake things up and make room for two promising true freshmen – safety Bradley Njoku and corner Dion Bass – senior nickelback Kenneth Patten will see reps at strong safety and James Randall has moved from safety to linebacker. Neither had played at their new positions before a few weeks ago.