MOSCOW, Idaho – The results are yet to be determined.
In any other year, college football players would go through spring practice, have a couple of scrimmages and a spring game against teammates, take part in noncontact summer workouts but not put on a helmet and pads again until next fall. What they gained playing against each other and retained over the summer would not really be measured until they suited up against an opponent.
Because Idaho opted in to the Big Sky Conference spring season, however, the Vandals have a roster full of players who have real games of experience heading into the summer and preseason camp.
For all the sacrifice, frustration and uncertainty it took to compile an unremarkable 2-4 record, Idaho coach Paul Petrino believes the payoff for playing this spring will have been worth it.
“We never went into one game, with the exception of the first game against Eastern Washington (a 28-21 win), with a whole squad,” he points out. Against the University of California Davis, when nine regulars were out, Idaho started four freshmen on the offensive line. The Vandals led into the third quarter before eventually falling 27-17. Four quarterbacks played over the course of the season, and in none of their losses were the Vandals beaten by more than 10 points. Against playoff-bound EWU in a rematch, Idaho was edged 38-31 with a converted running back, Zach Borisch, rushing for 205 yards at quarterback.
“They fought, learned how to fight, learned how to work hard,” says Petrino of the Vandals’ experience this spring. “We take a lot of excitement into the fall. We had so many guys get so much experience. We know we’re just that far away from winning a whole bunch of games and going to the playoffs.”
Idaho placed 12 players on the Big Sky Conference first, second and honorable mention all-conference teams. It had breakout stars in Hayden Hatten at wide receiver and Logan Kendall at fullback. Both were named All-Big Sky first team. Hatten finished second in the conference with 43 receptions and averaged over 100 yards per game. Kendall was a unanimous selection for his devastating blocking and six pass receptions, including two touchdowns.
Nick Romano, who averaged 26.5 yards per kick return, and Cade Coffey, who punted for a 45.8-yard average were second team all-league picks. Coffey, who made nine of 10 field goals with a long kick of 51 yards, was also the league’s honorable mention at kicker. Offensive tackle Logan Floyd, who Petrino said played a big role in helping freshman linemen get up to speed, was also honorable mention all-Big Sky.
Probably no Idaho player had a better season than linebacker Tre Walker. He was able to play in only four of Idaho’s six games but still led the Big Sky with an average 13.5 tackles per game and had 4.5 tackles for loss. That work made Walker a finalist for the national defensive players’ Buck Buchanan Award.
Walker and senior linebacker Christian Elliss, who averaged 10 tackles per game and is 18th all-time at Idaho with 266 hits, were first team all-conference.
Defensive backs Tyrese Dedmon and Jalen Hoover made the all-Big Sky second team, and linebackder Fa’Avae Fa’Avae, and defensive linemen Jonah Kim and Rahsaan Crawford were all-Big Sky honorable mention.
For all the week-to-week craziness of the spring season, Walker calls it “one of the funnest seasons I’ve played.” After not being able to play in the fall, he said the Vandals relished the opportunity to do so in the spring.
Like Petrino, Walker said despite Idaho’s record the spring was a preview of better things to come.
“We’re on the road to a championship team,” he said, adding the spring season “gave a glimpse of who we are as a program and who we are working to become.”
Even with his personal success, Walker includes himself in the urgency to continue to improve.
“The next Tre is the better Tre. I’m working on that day in and day out.”
Coaching the Vandals this past year no doubt challenged every assumption and tested every protocol Petrino had about preparing a football team. Split-squad practices to limit COVID exposure wore out the coaching staff, he said, and other restricted contact with the team was frustrating. But the Vandals discovered how to better leverage Zoom meetings and video sessions in team preparation, and the game-by-game scrambling to put a competent team on the field as COVID devastated the depth chart taught Idaho how to manage a depleted roster.
“There’s no way we’ll ever go through another season with that many guys out week in and week out, with that much uncertainty,” Petrino said.
He sums up playing through a pandemic and what it means for the future this way: “some things, as you move forward, help you. Some things you hope you never have to do again.”
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