MOSCOW, Idaho – Facing a series of postpractice interviews recently, Idaho senior wide receiver David Ungerer shucked off his shoulder pads before taking on questions.
The T-shirt underneath the pads would be headed for a rag pile if not for all it has been through with Ungerer. The sleeves are giving up, there is a big rip in the hem, and no amount of laundering is going to get all the football out of it.
“I got my first touchdown in this shirt at Western Michigan,” Ungerer said.
It was the first of six he caught last year for the Vandals. With 39 receptions for 432 yards, Ungerer is the veteran among Idaho’s pass catchers. As the son of a career college football coach, who made a two-year stop at Washington State when Ungerer attended high school, before moving on to Utah State, Fresno State and now Missouri, Ungerer has seen behind the curtain of football.
Brandon Mitchell, Idaho’s receivers coach, is in his first year following two years as a graduate assistant. Ungerer is interested to see what Mitchell brings to the job.
“Being a coach’s son, I know how that stuff works,” he said.
Ungerer is the old soul of the Vandals’ receiver corps. In addition to blocking linebackers who outweigh him by 70 pounds and catching tough balls over the middle as a slot receiver, the Vandals this season are counting on Ungerer to tutor their young wide receivers in the fine points of Idaho’s offense.
They also want him to be an example of how to continue working hard when the later stages of a two-hour practice drain everyone and technique begins to break down and mistakes crop up, and to be the paradigm of getting the job done on the field against more physically imposing opponents.
“He’s definitely a coach on the field,” Mitchell said.
He’s also a vocal leader in practice. Ungerer knows so much about the offense, he rarely has a coach in his ear between repetitions. When Ungerer is on the field, Mitchell said he feels free to focus his attention on the other side of the formation.
Idaho’s roster generously lists Ungerer at 5-foot-9. But while he is beyond dispute short, he isn’t slight. A tattoo celebrating family covers an upper arm. The ink artist had a lot of canvas to work with.
“My dad preached to me I was never going to be bigger than the people I played against, so I had to work 10 times harder and be stronger,” he said.
Mitchell said strength is definitely an attribute. Ungerer is a powerful, long strider, faster than his size would suggest.
“He has strong legs,” Mitchell said. “We want him to convert third downs and to be responsible for blocking those big linebackers.”
Lining up outside last year, Ungerer said he mainly had to separate himself from lanky defensive backs.
“It’s a totally new ballgame,” he said of switching to slot receiver. “I’ve got to be ready to block those big apex linebackers.”
One such target, Kaden Elliss, intercepted a pass in a spring practice this week. He slanted across the field to turn up the sideline, which brought him in range of Ungerer. It was a nontackling drill, but Ungerer bore down on Elliss, who looks every bit of the 240 pounds the roster lists him, and displayed how he would make the play.
Idaho must replace four-year starting quarterback Matt Linehan. As a receiver, Ungerer’s thoughts on Linehan’s successor carry weight. Sophomore Colton Richardson and junior Mason Petrino, whom Ungerer teamed with at Pullman High, have been splitting the majority of reps in spring practice.
Ungerer sees them as examples of different ways to accomplish the same goal. Richardson is a powerful thrower.
“It’s nice going across the middle when that ball gets there a little faster,” Ungerer said of Richardson.
“Mason plays with such anticipation it doesn’t matter. Often he throws before I’m even out of my break.”
Vandals coach Paul Petrino believes the touchdown Ungerer caught against Western Michigan was a watershed in his development. Ungerer has been confident in his abilities since, and it shows on the field.
For the players hoping to replace the three senior wide receivers Idaho graduated last year, Ungerer is the touchstone.
“We’ve got to get them to work as hard as he does,” Petrino said.
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