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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Successful season lifts optimism as Idaho prepares to start spring football

Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan has missed three practices this week and during that time he spent at least one day in the hospital. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – The University of Idaho Kibbie Dome was as quiet as a church at midweek Thursday. The weight room wasn’t much busier.

The hush obscures the fact there is a new winning-begets-winning vibe around the Idaho football team. Prevailing over Colorado State 61-50 in the Idaho Famous Potato Bowl last December accounts for it, and it will be on public display when the Vandals begin spring football practice Friday.

“Teams that win continue to win,” coach Paul Petrino said at a spring practice kickoff media conference Thursday.

They practice better and work harder in the off season, Petrino added. They watch film more intently and become smarter players.

“There is no question the guys are walking around now with a lot more confidence.”

The Vandals will scrimmage April 10 in Moscow and April 17 at Bengal Field in Lewiston. Spring ball will conclude with the Silver and Gold game in the Kibbie Dome at 6 p.m. on April 28.

The new calculus of Vandals football is in all ways superior to Idaho’s recent history of finding individual wins as rare as gems.

The 9-4 breakthrough season last year, third-place finish in the Sun Belt Conference and bowl victory allow Petrino to “raise the bar.”

A year ago, Petrino was trying to convince players they could expect to win games, he said. Now he’s looking for “15 great practices this spring. Continue to grow, get better.”

Coaches don’t even need to resort to Idaho’s final season in the Sun Belt this year as artificial incentive to spur effort.

“No doubt we want to win the league this year,” Petrino said. … “I don’t know if we talk about it a whole bunch. Just work hard and improve each day.”

A major goal this spring is identifying replacements for three graduated starters on the offensive line. Petrino singled out Zion Dixon, a sophomore from Lake City High in Coeur d’Alene; Jordan Rose, a senior from Freeman High in Spokane; Noah Johnson, a sophomore from Fayetteville (Arkansas) High; and Connor Vrba, a redshirt freshman from Rocky Mountain High in Meridian, Idaho, as likely candidates for playing time.

He said of Dixon and Vrba “there is no question they would be starting if we had to play today.”

In addition to finding seven or eight offensive lineman to count on, Petrino wants to see about a half-dozen receivers sort themselves out.

“We’ve got enough bullets,” he said. “It’s up to them to see about the order as we come out of spring.”

Petrino’s son, Mason Petrino, a sophomore from Pullman High, was recruited as a quarterback, but he will also be working at receiver this spring

Standout senior quarterback Matt Linehan may be growing to the point where he can block for himself. He goes into spring ball at 240 pounds, Petrino said.

“He’s running faster,” Petrino said. “He’s bigger. He’s stronger. He could have an unbelievable senior year. His confidence is way up.”

That said, Petrino still highlighted sophomore cornerback Lloyd Hightower, of Chaparral High in Temecula, California, as the Vandals player who has made the most improvement from last season until now.

The defense generally made significant strides last year that continue to this spring.

“We’re way faster,” Petrino said.

Idaho’s best cornerback, Dorian Clark, a junior

from Baldwin (Florida) High, didn’t even play last year. “He was hurt in fall camp,” Petrino said.

A lack of depth at safety at this point is a bit worrisome, Petrino said. Another former quarterback, Gunnar Amos, a Coeur d’Alene High sophomore, is moving to safety this spring.

But the linebackers “are a great group of athletes,” Petrino said.

Junior Kaden Elliss, of Judge Memorial Catholic High School in Salt Lake City, is a leader among that group. His father, Luther Elliss, who enjoyed a lengthy career in the National Football League, is also Idaho’s new defensive line coach.

Among his position group are seniors Zach Cable, of Hazen High in Renton, Washington, and Aikeem Coleman, of East Mississippi Community College in Hattiesburg. Petrino said both come into spring practice as improved players.

The graduation of four-year kicker and punter Austin Rehkow leaves another big hole for the Vandals to fill, and Petrino wants to get that done this spring. Cade Coffey, a freshman from Lakeland High in Rathdrum, is the early favorite to assume both kicking and punting duties.

The legacy of Idaho’s bowl win is a demonstrably better football team, Petrino believes. This spring he wants to measure the improvement.