EAGLE, Idaho – The last time we saw the Idaho Vandals in real pads and helmets and surrounded by fans was in November. And it was, well, depressing.
Paul Petrino, fired earlier that week, was coaching in his final game as Vandals head coach. His half-million-dollar buyout was looming and his replacement was unknown.
Making things more bizarre, the coach on the other sideline – Idaho State’s Rob Phenice – had also been canned that week, but coached on in a meaningless rivalry game.
Holt Arena that day was full of apathy, the absolute red devil of college football programs.
“It was a weird atmosphere toward the end of last season,” Idaho sophomore quarterback CJ Jordan said, “just because we all knew or felt what was going to happen.”
The Vandals ended up winning, but the usual rivalry celebrations and talks of a more prosperous next season were muted by Petrino’s departure, the egregious tab he ran up and what felt like an Everest-sized gap separating Idaho and the Big Sky’s elite.
But on Saturday, even if the gap is just as massive as it was six months ago, it doesn’t look as daunting.
All because the Vandals are changing.
They have a new coach in Jason Eck, the hip, Jordan-1-wearing leader who has already proven to be Petrino’s complete antithesis. How much? Players on Saturday talked about the addition of music at practice as if they had been gifted Lamborghinis.
“It feels more like a family atmosphere,” Jordan said. “The coaches are asking us (about life) outside of football and how we’re doing mentally. … He cares about us a lot and we really appreciate that.”
The Vandals have a new quarterback. Fans don’t know who it’s going to be, but they know who it’s not – last year’s top options Mike Beaudry (graduated) and Zach Borisch (moved to receiver).
The forthright Eck, however, spilled the quarterback competition standings after a spring game in which no one under center wowed.
“The first two guys, CJ and Gevani (McCoy) have kind of separated from the other two (Tyler Webb and Macloud Crowton),” Eck said. “We gave Gevani the first (reps) today with the ones. He’s probably a tad ahead, but it’s very close between those guys. That battle will be ongoing.”
They have a new spring game location – at least this year. With renovations underway at the Kibbie Dome, the Vandals trekked south for their annual showcase, holding Saturday’s Spring Game at Eagle High and appealing to their massive Treasure Valley fanbase.
The have real momentum. Of course, that’s an easy thing to say during a new coach’s first spring game, but the optimism stretches past a fans’ love of Eck’s jovial personality.
A number of high school coaches in Idaho have been impressed with how the new-look Vandals have hit the recruiting trail, helping Idaho secure the No. 2 class in the Big Sky in 2022.
“We really want to be strong in the Northwest,” Eck said. “You look at the three metropolitan areas that are within driving distance: Seattle/Tacoma, Portland and Boise.
“We have to dominate those areas. We have to get all the best players on our campus.”
The Vandals seem to have a bright future. It’s present is less certain.
Idaho finished 4-7 last season, ninth place in the Big Sky. If that wasn’t bad enough: The combined records of the four squads they beat – including Division II Simon Fraser – was 8-33.
Idaho has a long way to capture its first conference title since 1998.
Saturday proved that. Balls were sailing into the sky. The offensive line got mauled. There was a missed 27-yard field goal at one point. It got ugly in what was technically scored as a 61-26 win for the defense.
Which makes sense, since the bright spot was the defensive front, anchored by redshirt senior linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae. On the line, the Vandals have developed great depth, including sophomores Kemari Bailey and Aamarii Notice, senior Nate DeGraw and former College of Idaho lineman Leo Tamba, who missed all of last season with a back injury that almost forced him into retirement.
“They just work together,” Jordan said. “Our defense is great and I love it.”
There was a lot to love on Saturday.
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