Hayden Hatten makes quarterbacks look good.
At a University of Idaho practice this week. The 6-3, 210-pound receiver with deceptive speed, uncanny hands and an elite small forward’s spring, loped down the sideline, casually reached overhead at the last moment, plucked a tight spiral out of the air from Mike Beaudry and rolled forward into the end zone to the accompanying hoots from teammates.
Not long after, as C.J. Jordan’s grip on a ball slipped and a pass fluttered toward Hatten like an injured butterfly, he checked his progress on a similar route, came back to the ball and gathered it in as carefully as a firefighter catching an infant tossed from the upper story of a burning building.
Hatten, first team All-Big Sky Conference and a Hero Sports Sophomore All-America, led the Vandals last spring with 43 receptions for 613 yards and three touchdowns in the six-game COVID season in which Idaho finished 2-4. These numbers included 8 catches from Beaudry for 74 yards against UC Davis, in a game where the Aggies came back with 13 fourth-quarter points to overtake a depleted Vandals team missing nine starters, 27-17.
With a 19-17 win against Tulsa and 17-14 defeat of Weber State on its 4-0 resume this fall, 8th-ranked UC Davis is attracting notice as a potential playoff favorite as it looks forward to hosting Idaho Saturday. But Vandals like Hatten, and linebacker Tre Walker, who put in an overtime shift against the Aggies with 19 tackles last March, know how closely the teams are matched.
“We’ve got everybody coming back. There’s no game better for the start of the conference season,” said Walker.
“They’ve got all-conference guys. We’ve got all-conference guys. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing Indiana, Idaho State or whomever. Winning is the only thing that matters,” Hatten said.
The Indiana reference wasn’t just for alliteration. Punt protection and coverage problems doomed the Vandals in a 56-14 loss Sept. 11, but Hatten made 10 receptions for 94 yards and two touchdowns in that game. He injured his sacroiliac joint when a defensive back fell on him, and he missed Idaho’s 42-0 loss to Oregon State. However, following a bye week he says he is back to full speed and eagerly anticipates a matchup with the Aggies, whom he says play to his strengths.
“All they do is play man,” said Hatten. “I’m excited to go.
I know I’m just going to have 23 (Jordan Perryman, like Hatten all-Big Sky last spring, and a Hero Sports preseason all-America second team defensive back this fall) follow me the whole game.”
It’s an aggressive man-to-man defense, according to Idaho coach Paul Petrino. The Aggies like to put their hands on you, he said.
As in every game, Hatten’s first look as a receiver is to the defensive backfield to identify the coverage. That influences how he runs a route, said Hatten. From there, he is supremely confident in his ability to go get a pass.
“I think everybody who goes against me is scared I am going to high-point the ball on them,” he said. Having played whatever sport was in season as a child and having a 6-8 basketball player father, Matt, contributed to his exceptional jumping ability, Hatten figures.
The assertion about high-pointing defenders, though, is delivered not so much with arrogance but enthusiasm. Hatten is simply reveling in his time as a Vandal.
Moscow will never be mistaken for Manhattan, but Hatten, from the decidedly bigger metropolis Scottsdale Arizona, said “what’s so special about this place is there is always something to do here.
“The university has an amazing Greek life here, which is so cool. They come to all our games. It is so unique to have WSU so close. This whole place feels like a college town.”
Hatten and his twin brother Hogan, Vandals linebacker and long snapper, share a house.
“We don’t even lock our doors,” he said. “This is a little slice of heaven.”
Idaho’s Kibbie Dome is frequently disparaged by a segment of boosters who yearn for a bigger stage for the Vandals. Hatten, though, sees a glass half full. Only about a half-dozen teams in the country play home games under a roof, he said. “If you walk in this dome and not have your jaw drop, man, there’s something wrong with you.”
The Hatten brothers came to Idaho as a package deal. Originally, they committed to the Ivy League’s Brown University, in Rhode Island, but a coaching change before they enrolled sent them looking for a new school. Their parents’ only request was that they attend the same university, so they could go to all the games, according to Hatten.
Also, Idaho allowed Hatten to play his natural position. Look at photos from his freshman year, and he is full faced. To enhance his chances of getting recruited, Hatten intentionally packed on the calories to transform himself into a tight end. He and his brother also changed schools their senior year of high school to attract more notice, which forced Hatten to give up catching passes from current Oklahoma Heisman Trophy hopeful Spencer Rattler.
Idaho collects tight ends like some people hoard rubber bands or duct tape, but Petrino allowed Hatten to drop about 20 pounds over the course of a year to play wide receiver, according to Hatten. It’s a move that has certainly paid off handsomely for the Vandals.
In addition to Hatten, Idaho played without three other starters against Oregon State. Standout defensive tackle Noah Elliss, tight end Connor Whitney and running back Roshaun Johnson are all expected to return against UC Davis.
Idaho has also played Beaudry and Jordan through the first three games, and Petrino said he would name a starter for the remainder of the season when Big Sky play began. Jordan seemed to get the majority of reps Tuesday and Wednesday leading up to the UC Davis game, but both quarterbacks got time with the starters.
Zach Borisch, who ran for 205 yards against Eastern Washington last spring as the Vandals’ emergency quarterback, continues to work in the quarterback rotation. His skill set of hunting for a crease in the A or B gap, bouncing off contact, spinning, running with a great forward lean and cutting to daylight also seems to have increased in recent weeks with increased emphasis on throwing intermediate passes.
Without giving away specifics, the Vandals spent time in practice leading up to the game with UC Davis working on gadget plays designed to get the Aggies’ defense on the wrong foot.
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