MOSCOW, Idaho – The big picture of a 79-7 rout aside, Charles Akanno can look at Idaho’s season-opening loss to Penn State with some satisfaction.
Five tackles, two for loss, a pass breakup and a forced fumble against the 15th-ranked team in the country is not a bad day’s work.
The image of Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford, in the initial shaky series of his first game as a starter, made Akanno grin after practice in the Kibbie Dome several days later. Some of Akkano’s expertise as a pass rusher was involved in Clifford’s uncertainty.
The Vandals’ buck, a hybrid position that is part defensive end and part outside linebacker, Akanno is allowed to provoke havoc with quarterback pressure and is expected to be a steady presence in short zone pass coverage. It is a position Idaho’s redshirt junior began playing as a sophomore after a stint at outside linebacker, and it is one he has embraced.
“It was a smooth transition, and I started liking buck,” Akanno said.
“It’s a great position on defense. Sometimes I’m attached to the line. Sometimes I’m in coverage.”
At all times, he must maintain the big picture of what a play is trying to accomplish and what he must do to disrupt it.
“Charles has come a long way,” said Luther Elliss, the Vandals’ defensive line coach.
Elliss said Akanno has taken on the challenge of being a defensive leader and has thrown himself into learning his role as a buck in both broad strokes and fine.
“He has talent. That makes him easy to coach,” Elliss said. “He has heart, desire, and he wants to be one of those guys you can depend on all year.”
As a veteran, Akanno sees himself as a stabilizing force on a young Idaho defense.
“Every day I try to encourage everybody,” he said. “If there is a breakdown on a play, you can always fix it on the next play.”
Akanno points to his ability to quickly read keys and react as a major area where he has grown.
“I can just play fast, have fun,” he said, and his personal duel with opposing offensive tackles is a source of delight in games.
“Mostly, I know what they are doing,” Akanno said.
Akanno, the kind of person who sets individual goals, said he wants to lead the Big Sky Conference in sacks and tackles for loss this season.
“He can do that,” Elliss said, adding that Akanno doesn’t let personal achievement take the place of the team’s needs.
“He knows sometimes we run things for other guys, and he doesn’t mind doing the dirty work to make it happen.
“In his mind, he thinks he can still get a sack.”
Akanno is also convinced the Vandals, with depth at defense, size up front and improved quickness and tackling in the secondary, are better equipped to deal with last year’s nemesis, mobile quarterbacks. Idaho State’s Tanner Gueller lighting up Idaho with 492 yards passing for eight touchdowns and 81 yards on the ground was the most painful example of that.
“This year, we are ready for running quarterbacks,” Akanno said.
The Vandals go from playing Penn State in front of 104,527 fans to opening at home against Division II Central Washington Saturday evening in the Kibbie Dome. The matchup is unlikely to fill the dome’s 16,000 seats, even though the Wildcats were 8-3 a year ago.
A sign of Akanno’s maturity as a football player is his promise not to let a venue or an opponent determine effort, whatever tackle he lines up against.
“I’ll still treat the guy the same, no matter who it is,” he said. “We’re not going to play down to an opponent. We’re going to play everybody hard.”
The reward for Akanno is in reaching the quarterback for a sack.
“I think that’s the best feeling ever,” he said. “The only thing better is if it is a sack-fumble. That’s the ultimate goal.”
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