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Jeff Cotton, Lloyd Hightower exemplify Idaho Vandals’ improvement

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 23, 2019, 5:52 p.m.

Idaho Vandals head coach Paul Petrino watches his team during a practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Vandals head coach Paul Petrino watches his team during a practice on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

MOSCOW, Idaho – Freshmen streaming from orientation in Memorial Gym to a concert on the lawn Friday signaled both the imminent start of the academic year at the University of Idaho and the close of fall camp for the Vandals football team concluding practice several hundred yards away.

From now on, Idaho will be into a regular-season routine of preparing for upcoming opponents, beginning with Penn State Aug. 31. But as the team leaves behind running endless reps of the same plays every day, punctuated with several scrimmages, head coach Paul Petrino came away from that grinding exercise feeling he has something to work with.

Consistent execution was elusive, as it always is, Petrino said.

“(But) our effort, attitude and toughness has improved greatly. I like the attitude of this team,” he said.

For the offense, the player who most came to work every day was senior wide receiver Jeff Cotton. In his final shift of preseason camp, he delivered two highlights in the form of deep fade receptions for touchdowns from quarterback Mason Petrino. The second came after Cotton refused to give up on a long throw, ran it down and snagged it with one hand over redshirt freshman Jagger Jacobi, who was covering.

Cotton lines up all over the formation, outside and in the slot, to the boundary and open field. In addition to having him take cornerbacks deep, Idaho gets him open by motioning him across the formation and sometimes running counter action for him. He is a first-look target for QBs Petrino and Colton Richardson, who continue their two-year competition at quarterback.

“Mason has made way more big plays (than previously),” coach Petrino said of his early analysis. “Colton is beginning to understand the protections and the scheme.”

Both quarterbacks will probably play in Idaho’s first three games against Penn State, Central Washington and Wyoming. But coach Petrino wants to settle on a starter by the time the Vandals begin Big Sky Conference play against Eastern Washington, Sept.21.

Playing with two quarterbacks is all sophomore tight end Connor Whitney knows.

“The only thing different is the cadence,” Whitney said. “They are similar in how they throw the ball.”

Mason Petrino’s arm strength has improved, Whitney added. Richardson has always had plenty of that.

The quarterbacks looked less dominant in the preseason than they did last spring. It’s because Idaho’s defense is significantly tighter, and coach Petrino changed his strategy.

“I didn’t call as much easy stuff,” he said. “I challenged them a lot more this fall.”

Against the Nittany Lions, Idaho could see a Big Ten version of itself, a team that spreads the field and throws, the coach said.

“They are not the old Penn State they used to be. They do not necessarily play like a typical Big Ten team. They do not line up with two backs and push it down your throat,” he said.

One key defensive starter who will cope with this is senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower, who comes off a strong junior season in which he made 44 tackles, 3.5 for loss, intercepted a pass and returned a blocked punt for a touchdown.

If anybody would seem to be “there” as a player, Hightower is. Yet his battles in preseason camp – often with Cotton – have raised his ceiling.

“His confidence is up,” Petrino said of Hightower. “He believes in himself. He has a swagger about himself. One play does not destroy him.

“When you’re confident, you can play with a clear mind.”

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