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Ex-QB McCain now star for Idaho at receiver

Josh McCain was a QB last season. Now he’s averaging 123.7 yards receiving, ranking seventh in the nation. (Associated Press)
Josh McCain was a QB last season. Now he’s averaging 123.7 yards receiving, ranking seventh in the nation. (Associated Press)

Josh McCain didn’t spend a Saturday afternoon curled up with a book of self-help slogans to decide that life wasn’t going to get better by chance, but by change.

He spent a whole fall of Saturdays.

He spent them doing lost-cause mop-up work as the University of Idaho’s quarterback, or appearing for odd mid-series cameos, or making do with a half-dozen meaningful snaps a game.

You’ve heard this one before, right? Underused and unfulfilled, college quarterback at School A decides to move on to School B where chances are better he’ll get on the field. And, yes, McCain was getting the message that maybe he was destined for something else. So after the end of Idaho’s 2013 football season, he sought out head coach Paul Petrino and asked to transfer.

To wide receiver.

“You read my mind,” Petrino said, or a variation on that theme.

In fact, there may have been a little mental telepathy involved. Petrino and his staff had tossed around the idea of McCain playing receiver for a long time, but they were reluctant to broach the subject.

McCain saved them the trouble.

“I felt like I could make big plays at a receiver spot,” he said. “I just went with my gut feeling and that’s what it was.”

And now everyone sort of wishes that gut would have sent its message before.

The Vandals return home on Saturday to play South Alabama in a Sun Belt Conference game, still looking for their first victory of 2014. But they have managed to find a playmaker. The senior from San Jose, California, is averaging 123.7 yards a game in receptions, ranking seventh in the nation. His five receiving touchdowns have him in a clustered tie for third.

Freshman quarterback Matt Linehan doesn’t really have a favorite receiver – four different Vandals have caught 16 or more passes this season. But it’s possible McCain is 1A. After connecting on a 75-yard scoring pass against Western Michigan, Linehan found him on two more long scores last week against Ohio – one a 34-yard go route down the left sideline that he hauled in with his left hand. Field judge Raymond Daniel apparently was so dazzled by McCain’s catch that he didn’t notice it was a touchdown – something that had to be pronounced on review.

“He goes up and catches the ball so well,” said Petrino. “He’s made some great plays where he’s taken the ball from people, and he’s good with the ball in his hands after the catch.

“He’s played real well – and he can play even better. He could easily have had 200 yards in two of those games.”

And yet a year ago, McCain was Idaho’s second-leading rusher and second-most efficient passer in barely 100 snaps behind starters Chad Chalich and Taylor Davis, missing three midseason games with a shoulder injury.

McCain was a decorated quarterback at both Piedmont Hills High School and DeAnza College, his only dabbling at receiver coming in the Silicon Valley Youth Classic all-star game between his junior and senior years.

“Ran a fade and caught it for a touchdown,” said McCain – who threw for two other scores as the game’s MVP. “All other times, it was just joking around after practice.”

But Petrino knew McCain’s abilities were no joke. He and Kris Cinkovich were still on Arkansas’ lame-duck staff when they started talking with McCain at DeAnza, knowing “there was a chance he’d be athletic enough to be receiver.

“To be brutally honest, we knew we weren’t still going to be at Arkanasas. We knew wherever we ended up, that was a kid that was athletic and a good player and you’d want to recruit him.”

What they couldn’t have known was that he was secure enough not to have his identity wrapped up in being quarterback – or that he’d be such a quick study.

“It really wasn’t difficult at all,” McCain said of the position switch. “It felt really natural out there. Just learning how to change routes in mid-play and learning to read coverages has probably been the most difficult.

“But having been a quarterback, I know where to sit in what holes against different coverages. I know what Matt’s looking for out there.”

Often as not, he’s looking for No. 8.

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