At last, there’s some normalcy at the University of Idaho.
The Vandals’ football team donned full pads for the first time of the preseason Saturday during its fifth legitimate fall camp practice, and first indoors at the Kibbie Dome.
Afterward, the school circulated a highlight package and a short – but certainly informative – post-workout chat with coach Paul Petrino.
“That’s why you coach, and that’s why you play, so that you can play games and practice live, and have full speed,” said the eighth-year boss, whose team is expected to play a six-game Big Sky-only slate this spring. “That’s what it’s all about. So I definitely think there was a lot of excitement.”
Petrino recapped the session, highlighting key moments and depth-chart developments.
The most head-turning – junior middle linebacker Tre Walker, a preseason STATS FCS All-American, has been getting a look at running back, making him potentially the most intriguing two-way Vandal since Kaden Elliss, the former UI linebacker/tight end who currently plays the former for the New Orleans Saints.
“He had a couple of nice touchdowns,” Petrino said of Walker. He probably had a grin on under his face mask.
It’s not yet exactly known why the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder – a hard-nosed defensive workhorse who’s recorded 179 tackles in just two seasons – might take on an additional duty.
Perhaps it’s the backfield’s depth, which recently took a hit when it was revealed that starting sophomore bruiser Aundre Carter is no longer with the program.
Carter topped Idaho with 615 yards and seven scores in nine games last year.
But the Vandals still have capable runners like muscle-bound Idahoan speedster sophomore Nick Romano, stout junior Arizonan Roshaun Johnson (6-1, 240) and savvy senior Dylan Thigpen.
The three combined for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage in 2019. Johnson compiled 239 yards and two scores before missing eight games with an injury, but he’s at full power now.
Additionally, Phoenix recruit Kaleb Covington (5-8, 162), a redshirt receiver last year, is logging carries as a scatback.
“Ro (Johnson) had a great run down on the goal line, broke like three tackles,” Petrino said. “Nick’s been doing a good job.”
UConn transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry “played really well.” Petrino said the 6-foot-5, 250-pound graduate student impressed in play-action and blitz-pickup periods.
“Good to have a new quarterback get a bunch of reps,” said Petrino, who must replace the experience of two-year starting signal-caller Mason Petrino, his son.
Beaudry, who is evidently in the lead of a three-man race with Union High (Vancouver, Wash.) product CJ Jordan and sophomore Nikhil Nayar, won’t have a weapon quite like All-American Jeff Cotton, now of the Los Angeles Chargers. Yet the pass-catching corps has added and fine-tuned some pieces.
Jermaine Jackson (5-8, 165), a transfer from juco power San Mateo (Calif.), has “been doing a lot of good things,” Petrino said. He could end up as a nice complement to standout junior Cutrell Haywood.
“There was one catch down on the goal line he’s gotta make, but he’s been playing well,” Petrino said of Jackson, who apparently goes by “JJ.”
Sophomore Hayden Hatten (6-2, 214), from Scottsdale, Ariz., has transitioned for good to wide receiver from tight end. He first played wideout in UI’s last game of 2019. Petrino has been pleased with Hatten’s play-making capacities as a big-bodied, sure-handed target.
“I think guys have been doing good, but it really will come down to the offensive and defensive lines, like it does every year,” Petrino said.
In the offensive trenches, Petrino likes what he sees from junior Sierra College (Calif.) transfer Chad Bagwell and Californian freshman Nate Azzopardi, who appear to be vying for starting nods at center and guard, respectively.
“Two new guys I’m anxious to watch on film that I feel like have been playing good (are Bagwell and Azzopardi),” Petrino said.
UI graduated mainstay strong guard Noah Johnson, and had center Conner Vrba elect to end his football career a year early.
Junior Logan Floyd, a former Phil Steele freshman All-American out of Kearns, Utah, will probably flip back to strong tackle after playing center throughout 2019.
“Logan Floyd’s kinda the leader. He’s gotta do a good job there,” Petrino said.
On defense, at least one question has been answered for a secondary that lost the bulk of last year’s contributors to graduation and transfers.
Boise State transfer Ryan Swanson – who rehabbed through an injury at UI last year – has “done a good job playing both nickel, safety,” Petrino said. He’ll presumably start, and beside him, senior safety Tyrese Dedmon is primed to contend for postseason awards.
Up front, Post Falls native Nate DeGraw, an athletic 270-pound junior at tackle, continues to shine after a breakout 2019, in which he started and produced a solid 40 stops.
“Nate DeGraw’s had a great first five days of practice,” Petrino said.
Of course, so have the usual suspects in a front seven expected to be one of the Big Sky’s best.
“You saw some good tackling, you see guys flying around. Tre (Walker) had a couple big hits, (fellow linebacking All-American candidate) Christian Elliss had a big tackle, and I saw 55 (veteran defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford) flying around, making plays and hustling,” Petrino said.
Polished play is a ways away, so penalties were a bit of a concern Saturday – UI was the most-penalized team in the Big Sky last year – though it does help that Petrino’s newcomers are picking up the schemes at a faster pace, considering they have spent several months in “the most Zoom meetings ever known to mankind.”
“But you still gotta get out there and do it,” he said, later adding: “By the time the season is (here) in the spring, they should know it pretty darn well.”
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