Tomorrow is the first day of spring practice for the Idaho football team, which has plenty of issues to shuffle through over the next month.
The big questions: Will Nathan Enderle keep the starting QB job? Who will replace the production of Eddie Williams? What steps has the defense made to improve?
Keep reading for more in my preview for tomorrow's S-R.
By JOSH WRIGHT
MOSCOW, Idaho – The program's bedrock lineman and elite playmaker have departed. Its top defender is still mending from shoulder surgery. And its pecking order at quarterback is muddled despite the return of a two-year starter.
All these issues are formidable in their own right, but Idaho football coach Robb Akey is comfortable with the progress the Vandals have made so far in the offseason.
Now he expects to see some genuine returns filter through this spring and into the fall.
“I feel a lot better about where this team is headed right now,” Akey said Wednesday. “I’ve got very high expectations for this team, and I expect us to be in a bowl game.”
That heady proclamation came on the eve of Idaho's first spring practice, nearly six months before the club kicks off the season. Today will be the first of 15 workouts, culminating on April 24 with the annual Silver and Gold Game.
Unlike previous years, the scrimmage will be held at the Vandals' outside practice facility instead of the Kibbie Dome, which is undergoing a facelift.
By the time the spring finale arrives, Akey and his staff should be on their way toward reconciling several pressing depth-chart issues. At the top of the list is how the quarterback situation will play out.
Junior-to-be Nathan Enderle has thrown for 3,864 yards the last two seasons. But he also has totaled more interceptions (35) than touchdowns (30) in that time.
Enderle is expected to face bona fide competition from junior-college transfer Brian Reader and Justin Morales, a freshman redshirted this past year.
Akey said he has “a lot of confidence” in Enderle, but he appears intent on letting the trio wage an open battle before the September opener.
“I told Nate, 'We needed to make sure we had the depth situation taken care of,'” Akey said. “I expect him to go win his job and I told Brian and Justin, ‘I expect you to and compete and win the job.’
“I think it’s a very healthy situation at this point in time, and I’m anxious to see those guys get after it this spring.”
Improvement in overall depth has created what are sure to be some interesting tugs-of-war for playing time. The Vandals have at least six running backs in the mix, headlined by two-year starter Deonte Jackson.
The short but sturdy tailback will be pushed by Preston McCarty, Troy Vital, Kama Bailey, Corey White and perhaps Washington State transfer De'Maundray Woolridge, who's had his share of academic troubles in the past.
Akey pointed to receiver and defensive line as two more positions where an increase in experience and numbers should translate into on-the-field success. With freshman and sophomores at key starting spots, Idaho mustered just three wins in Akey's first two years.
“You look at our juniors now (and they) are guys who have played for us two seasons,” the coach said. “They have two years of growing pains under their belt. I think we’re all going to be rewarded for going through some of the growing pains we’ve gone through.”
The Vandals' biggest loss was tight end/H-back Eddie Williams, Enderle's top receiving threat. With the first-team All-Western Athletic Conference performer gone, Akey hinted that the club's multiple tight-end sets might be not as prevalent as they were in the past.
UI also must deal with the departure of center Adam Korby, who started the bulk of games for the past four years. He'll be replaced by Irv Stevens or Guy Reynolds.
Without question, the leader of the offensive line becomes guard Mike Iupati. The 6-foot-6, 330-pound senior-to-be has battled injuries but is the most skilled lineman in the program.
“He’s the cornerstone of that group,” Akey said. “He’s a proven player with great size and strength, and he’s doing a great job.”
Another player coming back from injury is standout safety Shiloh Keo, who will shepherd a secondary that was woeful during last year's 2-10 campaign. All the key faces return, including Virdell Larkins, Isaac Butts and Kenny Patten.
The linebacking crew must also adapt to injuries, in addition to a coaching change. Starters JoJo Dickson (shoulder) and Tre'Shawn Robinson (knee) won't take part in contact drills while the Vandals await the arrival of several possible impact recruits.
Linebackers coach Rob Christoff was hired just this week to replace Al Genatone, who has enlisted in the Army. Christoff joins Eta Ena, the new D-line coach, as the latest members of Akey's staff.
The late coaching changes and uncertainty at crucial positions didn't dissuade Akey from harping on his ramped-up expectations throughout Wednesday's conference call. Even winter conditioning drills, he said, took on a different feel when the staff divided the roster into groups of eight teams, which competed in different drills as if they were games.
If the teams won enough matchups, they became bowl-eligible. And if they went undefeated, they were awarded with what the coaches called a Bowl Championship Series berth.
The goal was to put the players into a postseason state of mind.
“I told them, 'Every time
you go eat dinner or have a steak, put it in a bowl and eat out of a
bowl,'” Akey said. “'I want you to get bowls in your head, that’s
the important thing.'
“I don’t think that’s out of the realm of possibility.”