MOSCOW, Idaho – At a booster luncheon on signing day, new Idaho coach Jason Eck delivered some of college football recruiting’s greatest hits. Like every coach, he extolled the talents of the new players who have joined the Vandals, and he projected how the experienced transfers among them can help Idaho on the field next fall.
Signing his first class to National Letters of Intent is Eck’s initial opportunity to put his stamp on the Idaho program.
But as the Vandals’ new coach, Eck also has to mesh the culture of the players he is bringing in with the existing culture of the ones he inherits.
“All the guys we inherited are our guys now,” Eck said. “We’ve got to love them, believe in them, make them better.”
At the same time, he said he gave the returning Vandals a task.
“We’ve got to do a great job of welcoming guys,” he said. “Players will feel that.”
Anticipated early contributors include Murvin Kenion, a 6-foot, 185-pound sophomore defensive back from City College of San Francisco, where he totaled 15 tackles and an interception in nine games.
Ricardo Chavez (6-2, 180) is a junior punter from Riverside City College in Los Angeles. He set school records twice last season, kicking field goals of 56 and 59 yards. He has kicked five field goals of 50 yards or more in his career.
Devante Keys (6-5, 270) is a junior defensive tackle from Kilgore College in Cypress, Texas.
Brothers Ben and Mathias Bertram are transfers from New Mexico. Ben is a 6-3, 265-pound junior defensive end. Mathias is a 6-2, 220-pound sophomore linebacker/safety. They were scholarship athletes last year but lost that designation after players who sat out the 2019 COVID season returned.
Ideally, Eck wants the Vandals to find most of their players in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Eck’s initial class has three freshmen from Idaho, three from Washington and a pair from Oregon.
From Idaho, the Vandals added 6-2, 195-pound linebacker Cruz Hepburn, from Lewiston; Trais Higgins, a 5-10, 175-pound wide receiver from Nampa; and Jackson Mason, a 6-6, 235-pound tight end from Meridian’s Rocky Mountain High School.
Freshmen from Washington include Chance Bogan (6-3, n/a) from Lincoln High School in Tacoma; Jordan Dwyer (6-1, 170), a wide receiver from Puyallup High School; and Jordan Velasquez (5-10, 190), a safety from Marysville Pilchuck High School. Vandals’ assistant coach Tyler Yelk said of Velasquez “turn on his highlight film and you going to see speed and him coming down ready to smack you.”
Another set of brothers – Jack and Dylan Layne – came to Idaho from Oregon’s Lake Oswego High School. Jack, a 6-2, 200-pound quarterback, was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Oregon. Dylan is a 6-2, 215-pound linebacker.
The Vandals also signed defensive back Ormani Arnold (5-8, 150) from Dominguez High School in Long Beach, California; Ridge Docekal (6-3, 210), a quarterback from Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona; Mitchel Jaskowiak (6-4, 225), a linebacker from Glencoe-Silver Lake High School in Glencoe, Minnesota; Cade Ledesma (6-2, 180), a receiver from Ventura (California) High School ; Xavier Slayton (6-3, 225), a defensive end from Crete-Monee High School in Chicago; Tigana Cisse (6-4, 270), an offensive tackle from McClymonds High School in Oakland, California, who also attracted interest from Ivy League schools; and Anthony Woods (5-11, 180), a running back from Palmdale (California) High School.
“This guy is a breakaway threat every time he touches the football, Vandals’ running backs coach Thomas Ford said of Woods.
The Vandals are looking to the future with their freshmen. They will have the opportunity to play in as many as four games next season without losing a year of eligibility.
“It’s the best rule change I’ve seen in the 22 years I’ve been coaching,” Eck said, “(but) those kids are going to have to really surprise us not to redshirt.”
Eck felt the Vandals held the line on acquiring players who are good enough to win a Big Sky Conference championship. He said a new coaching staff in a short recruiting season did not yield to the temptation to scramble just to add bodies to the roster.
In the Big Sky, Idaho, Northern Arizona and Idaho State play in domes, and with the exception of Montana and Montana State the remaining schools can generally count on playing in good weather all season. That contributes to a league where spread offenses abound.
“We need athletes who can play in space,” Eck said. At the same time, Eck’s experience at South Dakota State, where he was offensive coordinator before coming to Idaho, convinced him the running attacks that are a feature of the Missouri Valley Football Conference ca be a powerful weapon.
“It’s discouraging to the other team when they can’t stop the run,” he said. “I feel pretty good about our backs,” he added of the Vandals.
Idaho began winter workouts this week. Eck said he will use them to try to get a head start on installing schemes for spring football. What he won’t do is challenge his players with dawn workouts “until they start playing games at 6 a.m.”
In this way, Idaho’s new coach may reflect a new era in college football, in which a key to success is keeping around all the players he recruited.
“The player experience is important,” Eck said,” especially with the transfer portal. I don’t believe in going early just to build toughness.”
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