At his first news conference Monday, new University of Idaho football coach Jason Eck was still a bit light on his knowledge of the Vandal fight song, played during his introduction. His sing-a-long seemed to consist of “I-D-A-H-O, Idaho, Idaho, Go, Go, Go” and an eager grin.
But in terms of awakening what he calls the “sleeping giant” of Vandals football, Eck has already developed sharp insights. He hit all the right notes about players being mentally tough, accountable on and off the field and getting Idaho’s fans invested in the program. Beyond such boilerplate, Eck came back several times to the importance of keeping players fresh through a long season.
“We want to be intense, but in small enough doses that we’re not wearing everybody down. We want shorter, intense practices,” he said. Coaches are always eager to install a bigger game plan. However, Eck said, “it’s the kids who have got to make all the plays. Being fresh is more important than knowing one more thing.”
It apparently worked for South Dakota State University, where Eck was offensive coordinator before coming to Idaho. The Jackrabbits played in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision finals last spring, narrowly falling to Sam Houston State 23-21, and they were back in the semifinals this fall, losing to Montana State 31-17 on Saturday.
Eck said one aspect of developing the Vandals, who finished their fifth straight losing season at 4-7 overall and 3-5 in the Big Sky Conference, into consistent winners is to shape strategy and tactics around the team’s talents rather than imposing a predetermined system on players.
“You’ve got to build around what you can do on offense and defense,” he said. “It has to be personnel-based.”
That said, Eck, a former offensive lineman at Wisconsin and a line coach, said “football starts at the line of scrimmage.”
While his overall goal is to build Idaho teams on a foundation of high school players from the Northwest, with contributions from California, Arizona and possibly the Midwest, Eck said contemporary coaches must also be adept at using the transfer portal to fill personnel needs.
He said he met with the current team via Zoom Sunday, and he has watched game tape from this season. He pointed to the Vandals’ close losses to playoff team UC Davis (27-20) and FCS finalist Montana State (20-13).
“I don’t think we’re that far off,” he said. “The cupboard is not bare.”
In his first spring at Idaho, Eck said, he wants to be able to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the players whom he knows only through Zoom and videotape so far and to be able to give them a blueprint for summer workouts and preseason camp.
“It will involve a lot of good teaching, a lot of installing base offense and defense,” he said.
Idaho signed only two players in the early signing period. The spring semester begins Jan. 12, and, Eck said, “we will begin recruiting Jan. 13.” However, he plans to be deliberate between now and then in building a staff.
“We want to make sure we get the right hires,” he said.
Eck plans to meet with current Vandal assistant coaches Tuesday. A college assistant coach himself for more than 20 years, Eck said of the holdover staff, “I’ve been in their shoes. It’s a tough situation. … I want to be honest with them about where they stand.”
In 2019, Eck was honored by the America Football Coaches’ Association as the FCS Assistant Coach of the Year. He was SDSU’s offensive coordinator the past three years, and the Jacks averaged 32.5 points per game during that span. Eck also coached SDSU’s offensive line in 2016-18.
Prior to that, he served one season as offensive line coach and run game coordinator at Montana State in 2015 and was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for Minnesota State Mankato when the Mavericks won back-to-back Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championships. In 2014, the Mavericks advanced to the NCAA Division II championship game.
Eck also coached at Division II Winona State (2007-08), at Ball State of the FBS Mid-American Conference (2009-10), at Hampton of the FCS Big South Conference (2011), and at Western Illinois of the MAC (2012).
After serving as a graduate assistant at both Wisconsin and Colorado, Eck spent three years as offensive line coach at Idaho (2004-06) under former coaches Nick Holt and Dennis Erickson when the Vandals played in the FBS Sun Belt Conference and Western Athletic Conference.
Erickson, who posted a 32-15 record with the Vandals in 1982-85, kicked off more than a decade of dominance in the Big Sky Conference and subsequently the Big West Conference when Idaho transitioned to FBS football for two decades. Eck was Erickson’s offensive line coach when he returned to coach the Vandals for a season in 2006. Eck plans to renew Erickson’s ties with the Vandals. He said Erickson will meet with the team this spring.
The Vandals, who moved from FBS back to the Big Sky and FCS football in 2018, retain much of the staff support they had in FBS. Idaho has a full-time video coordinator and five academic support personnel for athletics, Eck noted. South Dakota State, by contrast, moved up from Division II to FCS in 2004. It has a only part-time video coordinator and three academic support people. But with fewer resources than Idaho, the Jackrabbits have been in the FCS playoffs 11 times.
“That’s part of why I think there is such opportunity here,” said Eck.
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