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Vandals coach Paul Petrino hopes to see steady progress throughout season

Head coach Paul Petrino watches his team during Idaho’s Silver and Gold Game on  April 19  in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Head coach Paul Petrino watches his team during Idaho’s Silver and Gold Game on April 19 in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MOSCOW, Idaho – The business of constructing an identity for the Idaho Vandals begins Saturday when they practice as a team for the first time in the 2019 preseason.

It is a project that they hope will be complete when they leave the field after the opening game at Penn State.

As players in T-shirts and shorts were checking in for the start of this venture at the Kibbie Dome on Friday, coach Paul Petrino said he wants the game against the Nittany Lions to reveal a team that is tough and hard-nosed, ready to compete every time it plays.

Following a disappointing 4-7 campaign when they returned to the Big Sky Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision a year ago, the Vandals hope to punch above their weight in the early season against the likes of Penn State and Wyoming, gain at least a split in home games with early league foes Eastern Washington and Weber State, and, according to Petrino, have “the back part of the schedule be like our bowl year when we ran the table.”

The Vandals won their final four regular-season games in 2016 and went on to beat Colorado State 61-50 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Part of that involves settling on a starting quarterback. Through a pair of springs and a season, senior Mason Petrino and junior Colton Richardson have shared the position, with neither definitively beating out the other.

This year, by the time the Vandals face EWU on Sept. 21, Petrino said he wants to have a set starter.

As it begins this year, Idaho can count on a strong, deep offensive line led by preseason All-America guard senior Noah Johnson and redshirt junior center and guard Conner Vrba. The Vandals have two of the Big Sky’s top wide receivers in redshirt sophomore Haywood Cutrell and senior Jeff Cotton. Freshman Kevin McGuire, who might have competed for playing time behind them, injured a knee this summer and will redshirt, Petrino said.

The Vandals welcome back Dylan Thigpen, who missed last season with a knee injury. He joins a deep running back corps led by redshirt sophomore Roshaun Johnson.

“(Thigpen) is in the best shape since he’s been here,” Petrino said.

Idaho’s summer conditioning put a greater emphasis on running than it has in the past as the Vandals shape themselves as a wide-open Big Sky team.

“We’ve got to become better at tackling in space and beating people in space,” Petrino said.

The defensive line needs to be rebuilt. There is solid depth at linebacker with returners Charles Akanno, Tre Walker and Christian Elliss, who all played last year, along with redshirt junior Austin Holt, who was one of the breakout players in spring, Petrino said.

Petrino is also looking for a secondary leader to emerge among three new safeties. Junior Satchel Escalante went through spring practice with the Vandals. Davontae Ginwright is playing a final season at Idaho after three years at Western Michigan, and redshirt freshman Mujeeb Rufai Is in the mix.

Rufai, whose brother Kayode is on the team, is among five sets of brothers at Idaho, including Hogan and Hayden Hatten; Warrior and Michael Noil; Noah and Coleman Johnson; and Christian and Noah Elliss.

“It’s kind of cool,” Petrino said. “It tells how good of people we have here when younger brothers want to come here.”

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