MOSCOW, Idaho – Here are two questions to ponder: Would you rather spend your days in eager anticipation of a potentially explosive offense ? Or would you prefer to spend your nights in restful slumber, secure in the knowledge that a veteran, dominant defense can handle any opponent?
Framed this way, Idaho coach Paul Petrino is enjoying sweet dreams.
A Vandals offense that last time out, in 2019, unloaded on Northern Arizona for 60 points and 563 yards of total offense, has passed into history.
Key members of the group are back this spring, but there are enough new starters – most notably at quarterback where Mike Beaudry takes over – that the Vandals must prove they can be as good as they hope to be.
On defense, there is no question. The front seven is loaded. Elite linebackers Christian Elliss and Tre Walker, both preseason Stats Perform second-team All-Americans and All-Big Sky first-teamers, highlight a front seven that returns all its starters and boasts enviable depth.
Old hands in seniors Tyrese Dedmon (free safety) and Jalen Hoover (cornerback) will steady the defensive backfield.
The Vandals have already impressed one observer. Athlon Sports ranks them 24th in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision heading into their season-opening game against Eastern Washington. The ranking will be put to the test immediately. The Eagles are slotted at 12th.
Beaudry, a graduate transfer from Connecticut, gets the keys to an offense that could be one of the Big Sky Conference’s best . Beaudry brings a strong arm and even more impressive football acumen to the Vandals.
“His mind is his biggest strength,” Petrino said.
Cutrell Haywood already has 111 receptions in his two previous seasons at Idaho. He and tight end Connor Whitney (25 receptions for 314 yards and two touchdowns in 2019) give Beaudry experienced targets.
Idaho also features game-breaking speed in newcomer Jermaine Jackson, a junior college transfer. Michael Noil and Sean McCormick move into the receiver rotation, and Hayden Hatten, a sophomore and converted tight end, and Daseau Puffer, a redshirt freshman, have also been impressive receivers in Idaho’s preseason camp.
Nick Romano, the 2019 All-Big Sky kick returner and HERO Sports Frosh All-America, topped 200 all-purpose yards twice in his Idaho debut season, highlighted by a program-best 286 yards against NAU. He leads a deep backfield rotation that features a pair of one-cut power backs in Roshaun Johnson and Dylan Thigpen.
Offensive line may be the biggest question for the Vandals. Logan Floyd is a former freshman All-America and a preseason all-conference pick and has performed more than competently at tackle and center. He’ll open his junior season at strong tackle.
Seth Carnahan, at quick tackle, and Matthew Faupusa, at strong guard, both played extensively in 2019. But junior college transfer Chad Bagwell takes over at center and a true freshman, Nate Azzopardi, is starting at quick guard.
Elliss and Walker, both All-Big Sky in 2019, and Washington State transfer Fa’Avae Fa’Avae open at linebacker for Idaho. They comprise one of the most dominant position groups in the conference, and yet they may be overshadowed by Charles Akanno. As a junior, he was having a big year as an edge rusher with four forced fumbles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks through eight games before suffering an Achilles tendon tear. In preseason, Akanno appears fully recovered.
At the other end, Kayode Rufai is also back after having a season cut short by injury.
Nate DeGraw and Rahsaan Crawford anchor the defensive line as both reliable workers and team leaders, according to Petrino, and Jonah Kim could join that group. He improved notably between his junior year and now.
“He is in so much better shape,” Petrino said.
Senior Jalen Hoover returns at one corner and redshirt junior Wyryor Noil moves into a starting job on the other side, although freshman Arnell Walker has made a compelling case through the preseason to get on the field. Tyrese Dedmon, who contributed 60 tackles and a pair of interceptions as a junior, is back at free safety. Jaxon Woodward who appeared on special teams and who played basketball for the Vandals as a redshirt freshman, moves into a starting role at strong safety.
The Vandals have experienced talent at most of the skill positions. Cade Coffey, who was All-Big Sky honorable mention punter as a junior, will again handle punting and field goals. His long snapper, Cameron Lang, and holder, Connor Whitney, return from 2019. Logan Prescott will take over kickoffs.
Nick Romano, one of the Big Sky’s best, is back returning kicks, as is Haywood returning punts. He’ll be joined by Jackson, the new receiver.