Life being what it is, the University of Idaho isn’t going to get sympathy because the Vandals were forced to abandon the Football Bowl Subdivision after 22 years, and return to the Football Championship Subdivision and the Big Sky Conference when the Sun Belt Conference canceled their membership in 2017.
Rather, for their new Big Sky colleagues, the recently FBS Vandals are a good skin to hang on the wall.
But Idaho isn’t automatically a victim. While institutional memory among players 18 to 23 years old probably doesn’t run too deep, UI coach Paul Petrino was an assistant during part of the Vandals’ heyday when they won six Big Sky titles between 1982 and 1992. Can he re-create that aura around the program? Propose a theme for the inaugural year back in the Big Sky?
“We ran this league two decades ago. We’re back. Nothing’s changed.”
To fulfill it, though, may require taking on Big Sky foes like a Sun Belt team.
Offense: “We have to be able to run the ball in the fourth quarter. That’s how you protect a lead,” Petrino said.
The responsibility rests with senior Isaiah Saunders, redshirt freshman Roshaun Johnson, redshirt junior Jack Bamis, and potentially a newcomer, freshman Tyrese Walker. Saunders was Idaho’s second-leading rusher last year with 506 yards, averaging four yards a carry. He, Johnson and Bamis give Idaho horsepower on counter plays between the tackles that are a feature of its ground game.
The offensive line returns three starters, led by Noah Johnson, a STATS FCS and Phil Steele’s Preseason All-America guard. Johnson is coming off a pair of shoulder surgeries but is expected to be ready for the opening game against Fresno State on Sept. 1. Sean Tulette, a starter at quick tackle, has also been working at center this year, and senior Irving Schuster started three games last season at strong tackle. The line was too often beaten by Sun Belt defenses. But it comes back a year older and more skilled.
Petrino complimented its ability to get combination blocks on run defenders in preseason live action. Also, in his estimation, the line gets a bit of a break now.
“The biggest talent difference between the Sun Belt and the Big Sky is the defensive line,” he said. “The Big Sky is good, but there are bigger guys on the defensive line in the Sun Belt.”
A pair of quarterbacks with disparate talents will play for the Vandals, at least early. Junior Mason Petrino and sophomore Colton Richardson came into preseason camp looking like they traded 20 pounds – to the benefit of each.
Extending pass plays by moving laterally and being a credible running threat are Petrino’s strong suits, and Richardson excels in quick drops and powerful throws to small targets in the short and intermediate passing game.
If any Idaho player brings national attention to the Palouse this season, it will almost certainly be iron-man linebacker/receiver Kaden Elliss. The 6-3, 240-pound senior, a preseason STATS FCS and Phil Steele All-America, is the face of Idaho’s philosophy to get difference makers in games on both offense and defense. As a tight end, slot receiver and wideout, Elliss caught seven passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns last season in a role that expanded as the weeks unfolded. Now he is joined by freshman Connor Whitney. As tall as Elliss but 40 pounds lighter, Whitney was never overwhelmed in preseason camp by playing both tight end and linebacker, and in scrimmages Idaho ran plays where both were on the field as pass receivers at the same time.
Other young receivers poised for a breakout year are redshirt freshmen Cutrell Haywood and D.J. Lee, sophomore Brandon Luckett, and juniors Jeff Cotton and Josh Ellingson, who doubles as the Vandals’ holder.
Proven senior leadership comes from David Ungerer. The Pullman High product caught 39 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns a year ago, including a highlight two-touchdown game against Missouri.
Defense: The Vandals need to replace a pair of star performers in the front seven. Defensive tackle Aikeem Coleman and linebacker Tony Lashley were all-Sun Belt first-team picks in 2017. Both graduated, although Lashley is playing a year as a graduate transfer at Boise State.
“Replacing Aikeem is the biggest thing, his production against the run,” Petrino said.
Senior Ben Taliulu and junior Cameron Townsend were standouts on the defensive line in spring ball. Redshirt junior Aaron Boatright caught Petrino’s eye this fall and steady senior D.J. Henderson has recovered from off-season surgery to anchor the middle of Idaho’s defensive front.
Linebacker was the strength of Idaho’s defense last year. Led by Kaden Elliss, who made 15 solo tackles for loss in 2017, and All-Sun Belt honorable mention senior Ed Hall, who led Idaho with three interceptions, the Vandals will be solid again.
“We don’t have quite the depth we had a year ago, so we need to stay healthy,” Petrino says.
Redshirt sophomore Charles Akanno, junior Ty Graham and sophomore Christian Elliss will have key roles, with Elliss moving to middle linebacker to replace Lashley.
There is returning talent throughout the secondary as well for the Vandals. Senior Dorian Clark and junior Lloyd Hightower return at cornerback. Sophomore Jalen Hoover started 10 games at safety in 2017 and made two interceptions. Redshirt junior Denzal Brantley moved from running back to safety last year. He played only two games before suffering a season-ending injury but made eight tackles. He was also hurt last spring. When he’s on the field, though, he’s a hitter.
“He comes down with a force,” Petrino said. “He could have a great year.”
Special teams: Phil Steele Preseason All-America Cade Coffey, a redshirt sophomore, returns as Idaho’s outstanding kicker and punter. He won’t have to kick off this year. Noah Croninger, a redshirt junior who is good enough that Petrino wants to get him playing time, will handle kickoffs.
Coaching: Going into his sixth season as Idaho’s head coach, Petrino is dipping into his past. He was an assistant with the Vandals from 1992-94, when Idaho won a Big Sky championship and made three FCS playoff appearances. Career coaching highlights include the 2016 campaign when the Vandals went 9-4 and won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and changing the Vandals’ culture in the classroom. From an Academic Progress Rate that left Idaho ineligible for the postseason in 2014, the Vandals’ APR has climbed steadily. Idaho posted a 2.91 grade point average last semester, the second-highest in team history.
This season, Petrino will be in the spotlight for another reason. As he leads the Vandals through the transition from FBS to FCS football, Petrino will be closely watched by schools on the cusp of the Division I subdivisions. A successful campaign by Idaho might prompt others to contemplate a similar move.
When it looks at Montana State, Idaho might almost see itself. The Vandals until this year were a Football Bowl Subdivision team, and the Bobcats have 11 FBS transfers. Idaho is fast, but the former FBS Cats have seen that kind of speed.
MSU was 5-6 last year but returns 14 starters and expects to reap the benefits of a two-year rebuilding project. The Bobcats were dealt a setback when junior quarterback and preseason second-team All-America Chris Murray was forced to sit out 2018 to concentrate on academics. However, by the time the Vandals face the Bobcats Oct. 13 in Bozeman, Murray’s replacement, Travis Jonsen, one of the FBS transfers who began his career at Oregon, could be up to speed. This is not a team to dismiss, even if it starts the season slowly.
In 2016, when the Vandals went 9-4 and won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, they opened with Montana State in the Kibbie Dome and eked out a 20-17 victory. It wasn’t that long ago.