MOSCOW, Idaho – Heading into their first scrimmage Saturday afternoon, Idaho coach Paul Petrino would like to see his Vandals “tackle well on defense,” and “break tackles on offense.”
One way or another, Petrino is going to come away from the exercise unhappy, he said, acknowledging the perpetual condition of football coaches.
But in the early sessions of preseason camp, veteran receivers Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood have played lights-out, and the secondary has begun to rise to the challenge. From whatever angle it is viewed, Idaho’s glass might really be half full.
Following practice Friday, Petrino pointed to the play of redshirt senior Davontae Ginwright, a transfer from Western Michigan, at free safety. An unfortunate feature of games in last season’s 4-7 campaign was opposing receivers running free behind the coverage. Ginwright, who is lanky and athletic, is a quick study and is rapidly learning the defense, Petrino said.
“Most important, when he’s in deep third, he’s in deep third,” Petrino said. “He doesn’t let people get by him.”
Ginwright and junior Tyrese Dedmon are vying to start at the position. A pair of transfers, junior Satchel Escalante, who went through spring practice with the Vandals, and Mujeeb Rufai, a redshirt freshman and Boise State transfer who is going through his first camp with the Vandals, are emerging as the top contenders to be the other safety.
“There’s a lot of good competition back there,” Petrino said.
Petrino also pointed to freshman cornerback David Eppinger for delivering a highlight tackle this week. Improved open-field tackling has been on Idaho’s check list since last spring.
Cotton, a senior, is important enough to Idaho’s offense that he is wearing a gold jersey, a signal that he is not to be tackled in practice by eager defenders. His route running and ability to get free in the secondary have been impeccable, and he has routinely made catches when he looked to be covered.
“Jeff has worked hard to be great,” Petrino said. “He’s worked hard at all the little things.”
Idaho’s offensive line has won the majority of battles with the defense. The situation might change when Noah Elliss (6-foot-4, 347 pounds) gets in pads to join the defensive line next week. The redshirt sophomore transfer from Mississippi State missed the first few days of practice with a foot injury.
He also missed out on a contest that broke new ground for the Vandals.
Noah and junior linebacker Christian Elliss are among a half-dozen sets of brothers playing for Idaho. Petrino’s practices are typically not big on light entertainment, but he closed a session several days ago with an order, “Get the brothers out here.”
With the remainder of the team providing an enthusiastic cheering section, Idaho’s brothers took part in a punt-receiving contest, including senior All-America guard Noah Johnson (6-4, 299). To wild acclaim, Johnson settled under a punt as though he had been returning them his entire life.
“My dad (Bob Petrino Sr., Carroll College’s winningest coach over a 28-year career) probably rolled over in his grave,” Idaho’s Petrino said. “But it’s a new generation. The whole time, I was saying, ‘Sorry, dad.’ ”
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