MOSCOW, Idaho – This is the sort of thing that can only happen in January in an indoor stadium.
After the pandemic wiped out play in 2020, Idaho opened football practice Friday accompanied by a jazz ensemble rehearsing high above the football field in the Litehouse Center in the Kibbie Dome.
A soundtrack of mellow horns and brushes sweeping across drumheads mirrored the silky execution of the intermediate passing game by the Vandals’ first-team offense against defensive reserves .
As they get ready for the opening game against Eastern Washington Feb. 27 in the dome, several storylines are developing in the Vandals’ preseason.
How quickly will Mike Beaudry take command of the offense?: After several seasons of going with multiple quarterbacks, Idaho coach Paul Petrino has already settled on a starter for this year.
Beaudry, a graduate transfer who played five games for Connecticut before getting injured, took every snap in the 11-on-11 portion of practice.
“I thought the offense did a lot of good things,” Petrino said. “There was some good execution, some nice throws and catches and some runs. Execution looked pretty good. … For the first day I thought it went well. I was excited.”
In the workout, Beaudry did not do any of the designated QB running that’s typically a part of UI’s attack, but Petrino said that’s still in the playbook.
The Vandals are loaded at receiver: The loss of Jeff Cotton, who moved on from Idaho to the NFL Chargers’ practice squad this past season, shouldn’t hinder the Vandals.
Cutrell Haywood, who caught 60 passes for 570 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, returns. Haywood looked as adept as ever in the first practice, and he was surrounded by teammates who appeared just as accomplished.
Hayden Hatten, who is moving from tight end to wide receiver as a sophomore, has had a good fall and early winter, Petrino said.
In junior college transfer Jermaine Jackson and redshirt freshman Kaleb Covington, Idaho has speed that should test any Big Sky Conference defense.
Nick Romano headlines a talented backfield: As a freshman, Romano was the Big Sky’s first-team kick returner. He rushed for more than 100 yards twice, including 154 against Northern Arizona. Romano appears to be a bit bigger but just as quick.
Dylan Thigpen, who returned from a career-threatening knee injury as a junior to average 4.88 yards on 57 carries, is back as well.
In the initial practice, sophomore Khalil Forehand stood out with his explosive first step .
“It feels great to be back out there,” Romano said after Friday’s session. He predicted the way Idaho uses all its backfield talent will be to “ride the hot hand.”
Charles Akanno seems to have fully recovered: Until suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the eighth game in 2019, Akanno was having a monster year as an edge rusher with four forced fumbles, 13.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He may be the only player in America who benefited from the COVID 19 pandemic derailing the Football Championship Subdivision’s 2020 fall season.
“I was very lucky to have that happen,” Akanno said.
The extra months he spent in the weight room and stretching has given Akanno confidence he is completely healed from a serious injury.
“I feel ready to go,” Akanno said after Friday’s practice.
Although he was working against backup offensive linemen, and nobody was in pads, Akanno looked as quick off the ball and spent as much time in the backfield disrupting plays as he did when he was doing such things for real for the Vandals.
What accommodations have the Vandals made to playing after fall?: Through the remainder of preseason camp, Idaho must clarify its starting lineup in the defensive backfield and on the offensive line, Petrino said.
Because of the COVID protocols, the Vandals have divided early practices to minimize traffic on the field.
“Right now, we kind of have separate practices,” Petrino said. “For the first two days, we kind of broke it up with an offensive practice and a defensive practice.
“When we get shoulder pads on Sunday, we’ll go ones-on-ones and twos-on-twos.”
The format has allowed him to spend more time than he normally would with the defense.
“I kind of like that,” Petrino said.
The Big Sky not only moved football to late winter and spring but had to rework its schedule after Portland State, Montana and Montana State announced this month they would join Sacramento State, which said in October it would not play. That’s why Idaho and EWU are meeting twice. Going with the flow during the ongoing pandemic is just something the Vandals have to do.
“Eastern is one of the best teams in the conference,” Petrino said. “We get to play them twice. Do whatever the league tells you. Be excited and happy about it. We are going to do our very best. We’re going to game-plan to win every single game … and try to win a championship.”
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