MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho Vandals playing two quarterbacks has been closely watched and widely debated through the preseason and first game, against Fresno State.
Its mirror image in the defensive backfield has hardly drawn notice. Redshirt junior Denzal Brantley and sophomore Jalen Hoover are the Vandals’ starting safeties.
“They are the quarterbacks of our defense,” defensive coordinator Mike Breske said. “They’ve got to understand the game. They make all the calls in the backfield. That affects the corners and the linebackers,”
The disparate skills of quarterbacks Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson are the high-octane fuel for arguments about which one should emerge from their situation and become the starter. The Vandals employ two safeties, so any controversy surrounding them is internally focused because sometimes the safeties see the game differently.
“They’re almost like a husband and wife out there,” Breske said. “At times they’ll get to arguing about who should listen to who. Both should know the calls. They just want to be right.”
In the pair of them, Idaho has a mainstay of its defense. Brantley moved to safety from running back in spring 2017.
“He took to it like a fish to water,” Breske said.
Brantley started two games last fall. On the first defensive series against UNLV, he tore a triceps tendon. It rendered him essentially one-armed. Without telling coaches he was hurt, Brantley played the entire game, then had season-ending surgery.
“It was an unbelievable effort on his part. He didn’t say a word,” Breske said.
Hoover was a precocious freshman who was expected to get in on 10 to 15 plays per game.
“Jalen is a student of the game,” Breske said. “He’s in here all the time looking at film, asking questions.”
With Brantley hurt, Hoover had to start the remaining 10 games. He finished the season with two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
“My first game starting, I had to feel the speed of it. But that came in the first couple of snaps against Western Michigan,” Hoover said.
For the remainder of the season, he never worried about being up to the job.
“(Having Brantley on the sideline) really helped me see everything on the field,” Hoover said. “Him being a great leader helped me understand the game.”
Brantley was injured again last spring. At about 205 pounds, he is an accomplished and enthusiastic hitter. On the play in which he was injured, he struck on the head and knocked out. He spent scary minutes prone on the Kibbie Dome turf.
“That’s still kind of on my mind now and then,” Brantley said.
But a guy willing to play a game with one functional arm gets through lingering worries about incurring another head injury by trusting good tackling technique. “I just know I’ve got to keep my head placement to the side,” he said.
With all he has been through physically, Brantley still embraces football as more than just a route to a college degree.
“I enjoy it. I’m kind of blessed to have the opportunity to play football,” he said.
In Idaho’s scheme, unless the defensive backfield is covering the field in quarters, Hoover, at a speedy 185 pounds, is the free safety in deep pass coverage. Brantley, the strong safety, comes forward to cover short pass routes and bring down running backs.
“He’s Kam Chancellor. I’m Earl Thomas,” Hoover said.
The pair of them, unique as they are, bring value to the Vandals not just as football players but as people.
Brantley is a sociology and criminology major with a psychology minor.
“I like learning about people, and how the mind works,” he said.
Brantley is also outgoing enough to appreciate the chance to take the Idaho brand to a local elementary school.
“They have that smile and those bright eyes,” he said. l “I tell them keep working hard and you’re going to be able to accomplish what you want in life.”
“Denzal is a very caring person,” Breske said. “The guys just respect the hell out of him. He genuinely cares about everybody on the football team.”
Hoover is an architecture major.
“I do not like blood or needles, and I’m not going to be an astronaut,” he said.
Even as a sophomore, he can go on at length about the satisfaction in introducing light and warmth into a room with sunlight and the use of textures like wood and brick. He can envision a future in which he designs homes that his mother, a Realtor in Mississippi, sells.
“His mom and dad are totally in his life,” Breske said. “I don’t worry about him at all. It’s all about school and football with that kid. I think he has a social life, but I’m not really sure.”