MOSCOW, Idaho – In early March, when the University of Idaho basketball teams were still vying for postseason spots, the Vandals football team gathered at Memorial Gym for a little hoops of its own.
The football players-only basketball tournament was one of several offseason events that UI coaches organized to put the team in a competitive environment months before its season opener at Florida. But that wasn’t the only reason.
Starting his second year in Moscow, coach Paul Petrino wants the Vandals to know each other better away from the practice field and weight room.
“The stronger we build those relationships,” Petrino said, “the better chance you have of winning games in the fourth quarter. The better chance you all fight for each other when it really comes down to it.”
The Vandals open spring practice, weather permitting, this afternoon at their practice field east of the Kibbie Dome, and two of Petrino’s offseason goals – team unity and increased competition – will be major themes.
Idaho has added talent at almost every position, mostly by signing 16 junior-college recruits. The offensive line is deeper. Quarterback Chad Chalich should get pushed by redshirt freshman Matt Linehan. The Vandals’ secondary and defensive line are stocked with raw but skilled players.
Some of the depth won’t be evident until the whole recruiting class arrives this summer. But 10 of UI’s 27 signees enrolled early, and all the new arrivals should see action this spring except for defensive lineman Glen Antoine (shoulder).
“The biggest thing for me that I’m excited about is we actually have competition across the board now,” Petrino said. “There (were) some positions last year where there was probably one guy and he was the starter, and he kind of knew that he was the starter and there probably wasn’t anybody that had a chance to beat him out.”
Beyond a deeper roster, the Vandals’ core group of players has been in Petrino’s system for two years. Most know what to expect when coaches start to install the offense and defense over the course of 15 spring sessions.
It helps that Idaho has four upperclassmen – defensive end Maxx Forde, receiver Dezmon Epps, center Mike Marboe and linebacker Marc Millan – that Petrino listed “right off the top of my head that no question should be leaders for us.”
While few starting spots are set in stone, the Vandals’ most intriguing position battle will be at quarterback. Chalich was the team’s primary QB last season as a redshirt freshman before going down against Arkansas State with a shoulder injury.
If not for his injury, Chalich would likely be the definite starter entering 2014, Petrino said. But he’ll go toe-to-toe with Linehan, the son of former Idaho QB and NFL coach Scott Linehan, who impressed coaches during his redshirt season last fall.
Petrino said the two young QBs will take the same number of snaps throughout spring with the first and second units.
“We’ve got to get them both to be as good as they can,” he said. “Obviously we found out last year, you can’t have enough guys ready to play.”