MOSCOW, Idaho – Idaho suffered a rude awakening in its return to the Big Sky Conference last year. The Vandals went 3-5 in the league, 4-7 overall. Teams with strong-armed, mobile quarterbacks destroyed them. Idaho State’s Tanner Gueller threw for eight touchdowns and 492 yards in a 62-28 win. Eastern Washington’s Eric Barriere lit up Idaho a 38-14 victory.
That’s how the Vandals played in the 1980s and 1990s when they ran things in this league with six Big Sky championships with the likes of Ken Hobart and Doug Nussmeier at quarterback. They may not have that kind of multiple threat this season, but their challenge is to figure out how to score more points and to play better defense against league foes whose quarterbacks are adept at playing in space.
1. How many quarterbacks will see action for Idaho this year?
The Vandals play two quarterbacks. That’s a given. Over two springs and a season, senior Mason Petrino and junior Colton Richardson have been 1 and 1-A. In neither the charged environment of games nor the controlled setting of practices has either demonstrated he is significantly better than the other. This is not likely to change. A question is whether Nikhil Nayar can play himself into the rotation. Richardson and Petrino were beset by injuries last year, so there are never too many quarterbacks. Nayar, a redshirt freshman, looks outstanding in drills. He has not yet consistently transferred that competence to 11-on-11 situations.
2. Who will emerge as the No. 1 running back?
Idaho has eight running backs on the roster, but the featured job could come down to one of the kings of spring. With the graduation of Isaiah Saunders, there is an opening for a reliable big back who can force defenses to respect the ground game. Johnson, a 245-pound redshirt sophomore, dominated this past spring. Before him, Thigpen had an outstanding spring in 2018 until he seriously injured a knee in the final scrimmage. He sat out spring practice this year to recover. But the 218-pound redshirt junior is cleared to return.
3. How UI keep opposing quarterbacks under pressure?
Redshirt freshman linebacker Charles Akkano (6-1, 251) and redshirt junior Austin Holt (6-3, 245) finished spring workouts on a high note with two sacks each in the spring game. Junior Christian Elliss (6-3, 224) and Tre Walker, a 6-1, 238-pound sophomore, each recorded seven tackles in that game. Newcomers Coleman Johnson (6-0, 240), the freshman brother of All-America guard Noah Johnson, and Kayode Rufai, a 6-4, 260-pound redshirt junior, may vie for the starting nod at edge rusher.
4. Who runs the secondary?
Coverage breakdowns last year when quarterbacks took off were the Vandals’ Kryptonite. Davontae Ginwright, an 11-game starter at Western Michigan before transferring to Idaho for a final season, or Satchel Escalante, a junior college transfer from Casa Grande Arizona, may be counted on to be the steadying presence on the back end of the defense.
5. Who emerges behind Cutrell Haywood, Jeff Cotton at WR?
Redshirt sophomore D.J. Lee made 14 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown last year and used his speed to gain a team-leading 14.2 yards per catch. Redshirt freshman Michael Noil got into three games for the Vandals last year, and Pullman High product Jed Byers, a redshirt freshman, took advantage of a short receiver rotation in spring ball to get a multitude of reps and catch nearly everything thrown his way.
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