A conference home at last
The Idaho Vandals were FBS vagabonds last season, playing a 12-game independent schedule that was heavy on money games (Florida State, Ole Miss, Washington State) and far-flung trips. This year, Idaho’s travel is still intense – but at least they have a conference home in the NCAA’s top division.
UI rejoined the Sun Belt Conference as a football-only member on July 1. It was part of the SBC from 2001 to 2004 before jumping to the Western Athletic Conference (which folded as a football conference after the 2012 season).
The Sun Belt doesn’t provide Idaho with any geographic ties – the closest team is New Mexico State, another new member – but coach Paul Petrino sees plenty of other benefits.
“It’s big in recruiting, it’s big in having a chance to play for a ring, having a chance to win a league,” he said. “It’s big money-wise, because now you get money from the league so now you don’t have to play as many money games.”
The QB shuffle
Since Nathan Enderle graduated after the 2010 season, seven quarterbacks have started for Idaho. None has developed into the clear, long-term answer at the game’s most important position – at least not yet in the case of Chad Chalich.
In 2011, it was Brian Reader and Taylor Davis. Dominique Blackman, Logan Bushnell and Davis started games in 2012. And last season, Chalich, Davis and Josh McCain split time through injuries.
Chalich is the only one who remains on the Vandals’ roster as a QB, and he’s locked in a tight battle with redshirt freshman Matt Linehan – son of former Idaho QB Scott Linehan.
Petrino said before camp that he’s fine playing both signal-callers against Florida to the start the season. Through the first two scrimmages, Linehan has put up bigger (and slightly better) numbers than Chalich. He’s also been more inclined to go through his progressions and find an open receiver instead of attempting to run.
Unknowns at defensive back
The biggest question for the Idaho defense – indeed one of the biggest questions for the team – is in the defensive backfield.
The Vandals allowed 40 passing touchdowns last year, eight more than any other FBS team. They were especially susceptible to the deep ball – 17 of opposing teams’ TDs through the air went for at least 30 yards.
To shore things up, the Vandals brought in 6-foot-2, 217-pound safety Chris Edwards, a JC transfer who brings size and physicality to the UI secondary. He’ll be joined at safety by sophomore Jordan Grabski and emerging sophomore Russell Siavii.
UI has more depth at defensive back, which should allow it to play more nickel and dime packages. In camp, versatile senior Bradley Njoku has lined up at cornerback, safety and nickelback on the inside.
Putting five or six DBs on the field is a necessity, defensive coordinator Ronnie Lee said, because of the league’s spread offenses.
“A lot of the teams in our league now are going to one back and four wideouts or no backs and five wideouts,” Lee said. “So you’ve got to have more DBs on the field.”
Idaho is still undersized at cornerback. Likely starters Jayshawn Jordan and Delency Parham are 5-9 and 5-11, respectively. The team’s tallest corner, 6-2 Desmond Banks, is expected to redshirt after offseason shoulder surgery.
Stocked defensive line
Before Dezmon Epps was dismissed and Kenny Torrence, a JC signee, didn’t make it to Moscow, wide receiver figured to be Idaho’s strongest position. But now that mantle probably belongs to the defensive line.
With the mid-camp arrival of prized recruit Alfonso Hampton – a space-eating 346-pound nose tackle – the Vandals have four interior defensive linemen with skill and size. And they have depth on the edge, with Maxx Forde, Quinton Bradley, Marius Burgsmueller, Anthony Rice and Zach Cable.
The more Hampton, Quayshawne Buckley and others inside can make a push, the more effective the Vandals’ pass rushers will be – and the more room Idaho’s linebackers, led by Irving Steele and Marc Millan, will have to run free and make tackles.
“If a guy like Alfonso can push the two guards up the field, then the quarterback has no chance,” Bradley said. “We’re all speed rushers, so us getting up the field and the quarterback already having to back up, he’s going to get hurt.”