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It could be a game of ‘Guess Who’ for Idaho when it comes to defense with the addition of several talented newcomers

It was a painful lesson, but in their return to the Big Sky Conference a year ago, the Idaho Vandals learned there is no such thing as extraneous turf. It all has to be defended. It can all be exploited on offense.

With teams that wanted to line up and hit, like 25th-ranked North Dakota and Portland State, the Vandals were able to hearken back to their Sun Belt Conference days and prevail. But opponents like Eastern Washington, Idaho State and Montana State that featured elusive quarterbacks and wide-open passing games were able to expose Idaho’s defense, and the Vandals’ offense could not match the outpouring of points.

Fast-forward to this season, and it is lesson learned, say Idaho coaches. Head coach Paul Petrino has consistently pointed to the Vandals’ need to dominate games in space, both on offense and defense. This year’s team looks built to run.

“It’s a quarterback-oriented league, with athletic quarterbacks. They are more run first and throw the ball second,” adds defensive coordinator Mike Breske. Playing in such an environment, “it’s not about height and weight. It’s about athleticism,” he says.

What’s included

Seven years into Petrino’s regime, the Vandals are 23-48. The record reflects rebuilding a downtrodden program, beginning in 2013, the high of a bowl win against Colorado State in 2016, and leading the transition from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Football Championship Subdivision last year.

A team built to contend in the Big Sky featuring a defense able to exert pressure up front and cover in the secondary, a pair of elite receivers in Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood, a robust and experienced offensive line, enough quality running backs to practically start a different one every game, and an All-America kicker/punter in redshirt junior Cade Coffey highlight the Vandals’ game board.

How to play

Last season, the Vandals routinely used two quarterbacks until injuries to Colton Richardson gave the job to Mason Petrino. This year, coach Petrino wants to name either his son, a senior, or Richardson, a junior, as the starter by the time the Vandals head into Big Sky Conference play against Eastern Washington on Sept. 21. Whoever emerges will enjoy the protection of a deep, solid offensive line anchored by senior All-America guard Noah Johnson and last year’s freshman All-America tackle Logan Floyd, who has been working at both tackle and center through the preseason.

At stake is developing a consistent, effective delivery system for one of the Big Sky’s better receiving corps, featuring a pair of elite wide receivers in senior Cotton and redshirt sophomore Haywood. A year ago, Cotton caught 49 passes for 656 yards with seven touchdowns and averaged 13.4 yards per catch. Haywood caught 51 passes for 489 yards with six touchdowns. Through fall camp, those two have used past performance as a springboard to be even more dominant in practices and scrimmages.

Add contributions from sophomore tight end Connor Whitney, who caught 13 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown in 2018 and wideouts like DJ Lee – whose 14 catches last year included a 28-yard score against Idaho State – Jante Boston and Michael Noil, and a deep stable of running backs, and the Vandals have a chance to be mentioned in conversations about the Big Sky’s high-flying offenses.

How to win

For all the improvements when they have the ball, the Vandals might be even more effective when it comes to stopping teams.

It starts on the defensive line with a pair of imposing tackles, Jonah Kim and Noah Elliss. “That’s 700 pounds of beef up front,” defensive coordinator Breske said. Boise State transfer Kayode Rufai has emerged as the probable starter at defensive end. Quarterbacks who escaped Idaho’s rush last season to make plays downfield against an overwhelmed secondary won’t find it easy to get away now.

Linebacker was a Vandals strength a year ago, when New Orleans Saints seventh-round draft choice Kaden Elliss starred. Idaho has a chance to be good across the second level of defense again. Tre Walker looks comfortable at middle linebacker, allowing Christian Elliss to move from the middle to the preferred outside linebacker position he played as a freshman. Charles Akanno is back. He played in 10 games as a redshirt sophomore last year and made 30 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two sacks at Eastern Washington. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Perry could expand on his special teams role from last year and work into the linebacker rotation. Newcomers Robert Miller, Jalan Jenkins and freshman Sully Shannon have all stood out at times in the preseason.

Led by senior cornerback Lloyd Hightower, whose 13 pass breakups last year ranked third in the Big Sky, the secondary is deeper and faster. Jalen Hoover has moved from safety to corner. Coach Petrino says it is a more comfortable fit for him, allowing Hoover to exploit his athleticism. Senior Sedrick Thomas got a start against North Dakota last season but missed the Vandals’ final two games with an injury. He is back and has been alternating with Hoover at corner.

Idaho got a windfall in Western Michigan graduate transfer Davontae Ginwright. He appears to have claimed the starting position at free safety. Junior Tyrese Dedmon, who made 12 tackles and had a pair of pass breakups as a sophomore, and transfers Satchel Escalante and Mujeeb Rufai should all see lots of time in the secondary.

If these Vandals have truly improved enough to challenge in the Big Sky, they won’t have to wait long to show it. Idaho opens its conference season Sept. 21, when it welcomes defending Big Sky champion Eastern Washington to the Kibbie Dome.

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