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2021 football preview: Sharpened by playing through extreme circumstances, Idaho hopes to emerge with a new edge

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

If playing through an unusual six-game spring season after seeing the fall 2020 campaign erased by COVID-19 taught the University of Idaho Vandals anything, it is this: preconceived notions are a relic of a pre-pandemic era.

Because of injuries and COVID protocols, in their six games, in which they finished 2-4, the Vandals used four quarterbacks. In a 27-17 loss against University of California, Davis, Idaho played with an offensive line made up entirely of freshmen in a game where nine starters were absent. Sweeping roster adjustments were a weekly feature. Only in their first game, a 28-21 comeback win against Eastern Washington, did Idaho have its full complement of players.

The experience allows the Vandals to take the field this fall with a roster laden with players who have actual game experience and who know starting the season on the bench is no guarantee you will end up there. This has increased the intensity and anticipation of preseason camp in a year in which Idaho hopes to cash a check written in the scrambling, adjust-on-the-fly tests of February, March and April.

Challenging for a Big Sky Conference title has been a goal since Idaho returned to the league and Football Championship Subdivision football in 2018 after two decades as a Football Bowl Subdivision program. Sharpened by what they went through last spring, the Vandals may have enough of an edge to accomplish that goal.

Necessity forced them to become adept at assembling an ever-changing puzzle just to put a team on the field. Their roster encompassed a seemingly endless variety of pieces last spring. The great question this fall is can they make all those pieces look like the picture on the box?

Key pieces

Tre Walker, LB: Quarterbacks spur debate, offense delights, but if defense wins championships, it all starts for Idaho with the All-America linebacker Walker (6-1, 240), a junior. He continues a tradition of stellar linebacking for the Vandals and is the Big Sky preseason defensive player of the year. Walker led Idaho with 54 tackles in just four games last spring.

Jalen Hoover, CB: Vandals coach Paul Petrino also points to the senior cornerback Hoover (5-9, 175) as a key defender. He earned second-team all-Big Sky honors last spring, and Petrino says Idaho is relying on him at both cornerback and nickelback.

Logan Kendall, RB: Kendall, 6-3, 270 junior from Cheney, was a unanimous pick as first-team all-Big Sky fullback. A devastating blocker, he expanded his role last spring to catch six passes for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Kendall also doubles as a tight end and has played on the defensive line in short yardage situations. In that capacity, no one runs over him, Petrino says.

Logan Floyd, OL: The 6-4, 298-pound junior gives Idaho crucial depth at a pair of offensive line positions. Honorable mention all-Big Sky after the spring season, Floyd has started at both tackle and center. His ability to smoothly move into the latter role for early games as Chad Bagwell continues to recover from an illness is essential for the Vandals. Petrino also notes Floyd, who is both technically sound and physically strong, got even stronger over the summer.

Filling in the blanks

Quarterback: The Vandals are hard on quarterbacks. Not since Matt Linehan was MVP of the Vandals’ victorious Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in 2016 has anyone locked down the position. Last spring, Idaho used four in its six games. This fall, senior Mike Beaudry (6-5, 248) and freshman C.J. Jordan (6-3, 209) are vying to start. Petrino said both will play through the early games, and he plans to name a starter before Idaho begins league play at UC Davis. Redshirt sophomore Zach Borisch (6-0, 187), who filled in as the Vandals’ fourth quarterback with an eye-popping 205 rushing yards in Idaho’s rematch with EWU, will have a wildcat package tailored to his strengths and will see the field regularly, according to Petrino.

Redshirt sophomore Nikhil Nayar, who came on in relief to lead Idaho to a win over Southern Utah with a touchdown pass to Cutrell Haywood in the spring season, remains on scholarship but will no longer play due to a lower leg injury.

Offensive line: The Vandals have size but are young. Petrino says the team is still working to establish a reliable rotation.

Strong safety: Petrino says there is a starting job open at strong safety. Arizona State junior transfer K.J. Jarell (6-1, 180), sophomore Sean McCormick (5-9, 176) and redshirt sophomore Jaxon Woodward (6-1, 200) are the choices there.

Solving the Puzzle

The Big Sky is a passing league, and Idaho is acknowledging that on both sides of the ball. The roster is deep with pass catchers.

Redshirt junior Haywood (6-0, 217), redshirt sophomore Michael Noil (5-8, 169) and sophomore Hayden Hatten (6-2, 210), a breakout star last spring with 43 receptions for 613 yards and three touchdowns, are experienced returners. They will be joined by newcomers Mekhi Stevenson (6-0, 189), a UNLV transfer, Terez Traynor (6-4, 212), a Western Kentucky transfer and Alex Moore (6-6, 216), a redshirt freshman.

Sophomore Nick Romano (5-10, 211), second-team all-Big Sky kick returner, and freshman Elisha Cummings (5-8, 170) are targeted with passes from the backfield, and Idaho can play tight ends for days. “Tight end is one of our strengths,” Petrino says. Junior Connor Whitney (6-3, 233) leads the unit. He caught 10 passes for 119 yards last spring. Kendall regularly lines up at the position, and newcomers like Montana transfer Trase LeTexier (6-3, 250) and freshman Jake Cox (6-3, 230) add depth.

Idaho plays multiple defensive fronts, and a three-man front with a loaded secondary to challenge Big Sky spread offenses is a featured look. Hoover, redshirt junior Wyryor Noil (6-0, 1289) and senior safety Tyrese Dedmon (6-1, 196), second-team all-Big Sky, lead the unit.

Redshirt sophomore Logan Prescott will kick for the Vandals this year, and Oregon State transfer Caleb Lightbourn will handle the punting.

To assemble all those pieces into a successful season “the wideouts need to make big plays,” says Petrino. “The quarterbacks need to be consistent. We need more consistent play up front from the offensive side of the ball, and we need more consistent secondary play.”