For almost every college football coach, the 15 spring workouts allowed by the NCAA create the challenge of pouring 10 gallons of work into a 5-gallon bucket.
It is no different for the Idaho Vandals. On their second trip through the Big Sky Conference since returning to the conference as a football-playing member, the Vandals this spring need to set the foundation to answer big questions next fall. Idaho begins spring practice Monday and concludes it with the Silver and Gold Game on April 19.
Major things the Vandals must find out:
How close are they to getting faster on defense and tackling better in the open field?
Coach Paul Petrino, at a signing-day event, identified this as Idaho’s most pressing need as it seeks to improve on a 4-7 record, 3-5 in conference. The loss of two anticipated senior starters can’t help. Linebacker Ty Graham and strong safety Denzal Brantley both left the program because of family needs, according to Petrino. They are part of a notable roster turnover of more than two dozen players, although Petrino points out this includes walk-ons who faced the time demands of college football and dim prospects of playing.
Newcomers should help restock the defense. Satchel Escalante, from Scottsdale (Arizona) CC averaged 12.3 tackles a game and has already staked a claim as the Vandals’ new defensive quarterback at safety, defensive coordinator Mike Breske said.
Austin Holt, from California’s College of the Desert, is a quick edge rusher. Jalen Jenkins, from Butte College of California can play both middle and outside linebacker. The Vandals would like to return junior Christian Elliss to outside linebacker, where he played as a freshman, from the middle where he played last year to take advantage of his athleticism and speed.
Idaho must also solve the mystery of stopping mobile quarterbacks. The Big Sky is full of them, and all of them caused the Vandals problems, none more than Idaho State’s Tanner Gueller, who ran for 81 yards and passed for 492 yards and eight touchdowns in a 62-28 win.
Can they run the ball?
Isaiah Saunders graduated, and Tyrese Walker, who rushed for an average of 5.3 yards on 73 carries as a freshman, left the team. But Idaho has a corps of intriguing veterans and newcomers.
Redshirt junior Dylan Thigpen was having a tremendous spring last year until he suffered a leg injury that took him out for the entire 2018 season. Senior Jack Bamis split time between running back and linebacker last season, and redshirt sophomore Roshaun Johnson, 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, appeared in all 11 games last year and rushed 18 times for 99 yards. He could give Idaho the big-back component it had with Saunders. Aundre Carter, a redshirt freshman, tips the scales at 238.
Idaho adds a pair of in-state rushing stars in freshman Nick Romano, the 5A Player of the Year from Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian, and Khalil Forehand, a redshirt freshman from Bishop Kelly of Boise.
Can the quarterbacks stay healthy?
The NCAA permits tackling in 12 spring workouts, which is 12 times Vandals coaches will be holding their breath. Idaho will go with three veterans. Senior Mason Petrino and Junior Colton Richardson shared starting duties last year, and redshirt freshman Nikhil Nayar got into the final game. Petrino played through a shoulder injury last year, and Richardson was knocked out of games twice with head injuries. It underscores Coach Petrino’s insistence that Idaho needs to have all its quarterbacks ready to go into a game. At least they will operate behind a stable line. Eight returning offensive linemen started a game last year, including All-Big Sky guard Noah Johnson. Joining that group is Noah Gunn, from Coeur d’Alene, who spent a year at the Air Force Prep Academy before joining the Vandals.
“It’s phenomenal,” offensive coordinator Kris Cinkovich says of the depth.
How high can they fly?
All of Idaho’s quarterbacks can be confident they are launching passes to guys who can go get them. Last season, Cutrell Haywood and Jeff Cotton accounted for 100 catches (Haywood 51 and Cotton 49) and 13 touchdowns (Cotton seven and Haywood six). Spring practice may disclose whether there is even more ceiling for those two. They will they be supported by returners like redshirt sophomore D.J. Lee and newcomers like Sean McCormick, an All-Nevada selection, envisioned as a slot receiver with the Vandals.
Can lightning strike twice with two tight ends?
During their 2016 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl season, the Vandals benefited from a pair of go-to tight ends, Buck Cowan and Deon Watson. Idaho tried to duplicate that last year with Connor Whitney and Kaden Elliss. But Petrino eventually opted to leave two-way star Elliss at linebacker, where he was needed most.
Whitney returns as a sophomore, and Idaho has freshman Hayden Hatten, from Scottsdale. At 6-3, 218, he is close in size to Whitney, and in announcing Hatten’s signing, Petrino mused about being able to reprise the tight end production from three years ago, this time against Big Sky defenses.
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