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WAC notes: UI special teams a sore spot

After the link you can find an early look at my WAC notebook that will run in Friday's S-R. The story focuses on Idaho's special-teams play -- which hasn't cost the Vandals a game yet, but coaches are clearly concerned.

Click below for more.


Josh Wright

MOSCOW, Idaho — They seem a lock to finish with the most wins of any Idaho football team this decade, and a bowl berth appears to be a solid bet too.

But if there has been one troubling trend for the Vandals this fall, it’s been suspect special teams play.

Misadventures in kick coverage and the return game have cropped up throughout the first month of the season for Idaho (4-1). So far the club has been able to mask the issues with a high-octane offense and opportunistic defense.

Yet co-special teams coach Patrick Libey acknowledged that improvement has to be made in the third phase of the game.

“We’re inconsistent is what we are,” said the third-year assistant, who shares duties with Jeremy Thielbahr.

Entering Saturday’s clash at San Jose State, the Vandals are last in the Western Athletic Conference in net yards per punt (30.5), despite a healthy average of 45.8 yards from Bobby Cowan. That disparity comes from opponents unleashing lengthy returns — a glaring issue in wins over San Diego State and Northern Illinois in particular.

Most of the time, Libey said, the Vandals have been in proper position. But a few missed assignments and wrong lanes taken by coverage men have skewed the numbers.

The rocky play can be partly attributed to the Idaho coaching staff making a concerted effort to give freshmen experience on special teams. Linebackers Jared Heston and Conrad Scheidt and cornerback Aaron Grymes have been a few of the newcomers that have seen consistent special-team minutes.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys, (but) we’ve got some starters playing on them too,” coach Robb Akey said. “My goal had been that maybe some of those young guys might be able to take over for some of (the starters).”

Akey mentioned first-team linebacker JoJo Dickson, who is on the punt team despite the coaches’ strong desire for someone to assume his role so Dickson can get valuable rest.

But even with the toll Dickson and others are taking, Akey said it’s possible that he’ll shift more veterans to special teams if problems persist.

Nevertheless, Libey credited his unit for making several key plays in last week’s win over Colorado State. The biggest was a blocked extra point from Jeromy Jones that helped preserve the stirring victory.

Similar turnarounds

It wasn’t long ago that San Jose State staged a football revival that Idaho would be happy to replicate. From 2003-2005, the Spartans failed to eclipse the three-win mark. Then in 2006, SJSU was the surprise of the WAC and finished 9-4.

Spartans coach Dick Tomey see similarities between his 2006 team and Idaho’s this fall.

“They’re much like we were a couple years ago,” said the fourth-year coach, whose team is 1-3 entering the 5 p.m. conference showdown with UI.

“I think we had a bunch of guys who hadn’t won. And when we started winning, we liked the feeling. We didn’t want to lose it, and we kept it up and won nine games.”

Tomey was glowing in his comments this week about Vandals, winners of three straight and just one victory shy equaling the 2000 squad’s high mark for wins this decade. Quarterback Nathan Enderle’s progress, he said, has helped make them one of the top two teams in the WAC.

“The biggest thing is their players believe they’re going to win,” Tomey said. “They believe they’re going to overcome whatever happens to them.”

Akey appreciates fans’ intensity

Akey was taken aback by the boisterous atmosphere at the Kibbie Dome last week against Colorado State. He credited UI students, who came out in droves, for getting the club jazzed up well before the game started.

“They were awesome. They were fired up,” Akey said of students, “and we were just warming up. This was an hour before the game.”

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