MOSCOW, Idaho – At the start of a season, optimism abounds. For almost any team.
At Idaho, it is also getting an external push. Athlon Sports has ranked the Vandals 24th in its Football Championship Subdivision preseason poll. Some coaches might recoil from such expectation, especially the coach of a team that went 5-7 the last time anyone was keeping score, in 2019.
It may be a measure of the Vandals this spring that their coach, Paul Petrino, is embracing the accolade.
“I think it’s great,” Petrino said. “I think any time you get that, it helps motivate them, give them a great reason to go out on the field and work hard to get it.”
Having more depth than any Vandals team since 2016, when Idaho won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, fuels Petrino’s willingness to accept the preseason ranking.
Idaho has a proven running attack, speedy receivers, and an experienced, talented front seven.
Petrino points out, however, the Vandals’ first two games are against 12th-ranked Eastern Washington and UC Davis, which finished just out of the poll.
The Vandals also have a big-armed quarterback to enhance their overall prospects.
Petrino is willing to indulge comparisons between new starting quarterback Mike Beaudry, a graduate transfer from Connecticut, and Kaden Elliss, now a linebacker and special teams stalwart for the New Orleans Saints.
Elliss lined up at a couple of linebacker positions for Idaho between 2015-18. He was also an edge rusher, a tight end, a slot receiver, and on at least one occasion – when he grabbed his helmet and raced onto the field after realizing the Vandals were short a man – a blocker on the extra-point attempt.
“They are very similar in how much they like to study the game of football,” Petrino said of Beaudry and Elliss.
Petrino said Elliss would seek him out to get an offensive coach’s perspective on defense.
“I would say Mike is exactly the same way,” Petrino said.
“He loves football. Other guys have a big arm and are strong, but they are not 100 percent committed. They don’t really like to study the game.”
Beaudry’s enthusiasm for studying football, plus the fact he is a graduate transfer and mature, has allowed him to hit the ground running as a team leader, Petrino said.
Beaudry calls his opportunity with the Vandals a second chance at a right decision.
“I visited here a couple of years ago. I love this state,” he said.
When Beaudry entered the transfer portal, Idaho took note.
“The coaches here reached out,” Beaudry said. “It just seemed like it would be a great fit. … It has exceeded my expectations. … I would make the same decision 100 times over.”
Beaudry sees a tightly bonded team, beginning with the quarterbacks.
Redshirt sophomore Nikhil Nayar is the only one with experience, having appeared in two games over the past two seasons. Beaudry dropping in as a graduate transfer may have robbed Nayar of a chance to start.
“He has gone out of his way to help me,” Beaudry said of Nayar.
Both are mentoring talented freshman C.J. Jordan.
“We’re really trying to help him,” Beaudry said. … It’s a unique quarterback room, especially this year, it’s very unique. But I think we are doing a great job of helping each other. Trying to make each other better.
“Being together as a band of brothers is what makes championship teams. I feel that 100 percent here.
“I thought I loved football before. Now, I love it to a whole other level.”
This is an echo of what Tre Walker is experiencing on defense. The junior linebacker, a HERO Sports sophomore All-America and All-Big Sky second-team member in 2019, sees the same team unity Beaudry does.
The Vandals missed out on football last fall when FCS schools elected to postpone the season until late winter and spring. The last game Idaho played was a 60-53 win against Northern Arizona on Nov. 23, 2019.
Having to turn inward as a team for such a prolonged period because of quarantining to ward off COVID-19 had some benefits.
“(That) has been a blessing in disguise,” Walker said. “It has helped us build character and brotherhood on the team.”
The Vandals are less than three weeks away from taking their ranking out for a test drive when they host EWU on Feb. 27 in the Kibbie Dome.
For the first time in more than a year, they are practicing to play football for real. The realization is motivating this preseason.
“The first time you hit somebody, it wakes your body up,” Walker said.
“Overall, it’s fun, exciting. It gives me the jitters and goose bumps thinking about it right now. I just can’t wait.”
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