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Idaho Football

2022 football preview: Under new maestro Jason Eck, Vandals look to speed up the tempo and produce a winning tune

Linebacker Fa’Avae Fa’Avae anchors the Idaho defense under new coach Jason Eck.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review; Staff photo illustration)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

They do not lack confidence.

Recently, in advance of their season-opening game against Washington State on Saturday, the Idaho Vandals under new coach Jason Eck were practicing specific game situations.

In one of these, quarterback Gevani McCoy took a snap under center, retreated a couple of steps and dropped to a knee in a win-preserving victory formation.

Since their 9-4 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl winning season in 2016, the Vandals have been unable to post a winning record and were 4-7 a year ago. But a new coach always trails optimism in his wake, and Eck has come to Moscow with a vision of what it will take to reawaken what he calls the “sleeping giant of Idaho football.”

Idaho opens with a pair of imposing challenges, the Cougars from the Pac-12 and Indiana from the Big Ten. After that, the Vandals return home to entertain Drake in the first of five home games.

In Eck’s first season, Idaho appears to favor speed rather than size at most positions. It is not the worst thing to be in the wide-open Big Sky Conference.

Side A (offense): The Vandals are loaded with players who can make something happen with the ball in their hands. Idaho returns Terez Traynor, its leading receiver, who had 50 catches for 737 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. Hayden Hatten, an all-Big Sky performer from the 2021 spring season, is back from an injury that limited him to four games last year. Indiana remembers him. He scored both Idaho touchdowns in a 56-14 loss to the Hoosiers last year.

Idaho also has capable tight ends in Alex Moore and Connor Whitney.

The Vandals can attack with a deep corps of running lacks, led by power runners Aundre Carter and Roshaun Johnson. Elijah Cummings and freshman Anthony Woods provide speed out of the backfield.

Three quarterbacks split time in camp and each has shown flashes. C.J. Jordan and McCoy both had game experience at quarterback last year, and are joined by South Dakota State transfer J’Bore Gibbs.

The offensive line is anchored by third-team all-Big Sky left tackle Logan Floyd, who is joined by Abe Christensen, Nate Azzopardi, Beau St. John, and Morningside University graduate transfer Jason Hahlbeck.

Side B (defense): Idaho hopes to rotate a half-dozen down linemen across a three-man front to provide consistent pressure. Senior Nate DeGraw provides experience, and newcomer Tuiumi Aiono is a stout, 325-pound presence in the middle. The Vandals will also employ a rush defensive end in a two-point stance who can drop into coverage. Juliano Falaniko, a graduate transfer from USC, and senior Leo Tamba have been working there.

Idaho is sound and deep at linebacker with Fa’Avae Fa’Avae, who made 76 tackles including four for loss last year, anchoring the unit. Notre Dame graduate transfer Paul Moala and Mujeeb Rufai should join him as starters.

Jeremiah Salaam, Tommy McCormick, and newcomer Murvin Kenion III should be mainstays in a secondary that will be snugged up tighter to receivers than Idaho fans were accustomed to seeing in recent seasons.

Extras (special teams): Ricardo Chavez will handle the punting, PATs and field goals. Logan Prescott will kick off. Nick Romano, second-team all-Big Sky kick returner from the spring 2021 season, is back.

Surprise hit: Freshman speedster Anthony Woods rushed for 1,584 yards and 24 touchdowns as a high school senior in Palmdale, California. In preseason camp with the Vandals, he showed how he was able to do that.

Producer: This is Jason Eck’s second tour through Moscow. He was the offensive line coach for Idaho in 2004-05 and the Vandals’ tight ends coach and run coordinator in 2006.

As offensive coordinator, he took Minnesota State Mankato to the NCAA Division II championship game in 2014 and South Dakota State to the 2020 Covid-season FCS championship game and the semifinals in 2021.

Eck led one of the top 10 FCS offenses at SDSU, and he was the American Football Coaches Association FCS assistant coach of the year in 2019.

Album review: Anything north of .500 would be reason to celebrate in Eck’s first season. A retreat from last year’s 4-7 record would be cause for concern. The ceiling for the Vandals this year is probably eight wins.

Prediction: 6-5