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Idaho Football

‘It’s the world we live in’: Jason Eck evaluates new-look Idaho football roster after transfer window

Idaho head coach Jason Eck talks to his players during a time out in the first half of a playoff game on Nov. 2 at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Colton Clark The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – It’s been an eventful couple of months for coach Jason Eck and his Idaho football team.

In early December, the Vandals concluded one of their best seasons in program history, bowing out of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in the quarterfinal round.

During the following weeks, Idaho’s roster took a big hit from the transfer portal, which claimed several star players. A few Vandals coaches also left the program.

So, Eck spent the next month juggling “a combination of recruiting, player development and staff-building.”

Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s recap the Vandals’ offseason so far and take a look ahead at who might be occupying key roles for Idaho’s 2024 squad.

Idaho wide receiver Terez Traynor catches a touchdown against Montana State. Traynor, the Vandals' No. 3 receiver last year, entered the transfer portal after the season.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho wide receiver Terez Traynor catches a touchdown against Montana State. Traynor, the Vandals’ No. 3 receiver last year, entered the transfer portal after the season. (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)

Key departures

The Vandals lost about a dozen notable players to graduation following the 2023 season. The most significant – superstar receivers Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson.

“I think both of those guys are going to be pros,” Eck said of the All-Big Sky standouts.

The more concerning news at the start of the offseason – Idaho lost a handful of its top players to the transfer portal.

Quarterback Gevani McCoy, a two-year starter and All-Big Sky first-team pick last season, went to Oregon State.

Tailback Anthony Woods, who had a conference-high 16 TDs and landed on the All-Big Sky first team last year, pledged to Utah.

Cornerback Marcus Harris, one of the best defensive backs in the FCS in 2023, is headed to Cal. Ormanie Arnold, the Vandals’ No. 2 cornerback last year, transferred to Cincinnati. Former starting safety Murvin Kenion III will play for Big Sky foe Sacramento State next season.

Terez Traynor, Idaho’s No. 3 receiver last season, transferred to Tulane.

Linebacker Xe’ree Alexander, who shined as a true freshman in 2023 and seemed poised for a great career in Moscow, will suit up for Central Florida next season.

“It’s the world we live in,” Eck said of the portal and the lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals that transfer players pursue. “We had five guys go to Power Five schools. That’s NIL – that’s getting money.”

Eck holds no grudges against the players who left Idaho for fruitful opportunities. Those players will presumably receive NIL payouts and have a chance to boost their stock while showcasing themselves on a national stage.

The number of Vandals who signed with larger programs “speaks highly of (Idaho) and how we’re doing things,” Eck said.

“It says a lot about the talent we’re developing,” the coach added. “We’re getting those guys better. We improved those guys to the point where they got those offers.

“Obviously, it’s not as fun as the old days, when you would develop a player and you have them for four or five years. But it’s the world we’re living in and it’s something we have to adjust to.”

Eck is hoping that Idaho’s supporters will embrace the new normal and “get involved to help our players.

“The majority of guys leaving had great experiences here, but the opportunities were too great to pass up,” he said. “I’m hoping we can continue to grow and get more people involved with NIL. We can’t match (Power Five programs) dollar for dollar, but if we can do something for players, maybe that would add to the quality of life, help them stay Vandals.”

Eck is a realist – a forward-thinker of sorts – when it comes to this new age of NIL and the transfer portal. He has come to terms with the fact that his teams will likely change significantly from year to year.

“There’s always going to be change,” Eck said. “You gotta adapt.”

Instead of “building a program that’s going to last a long time,” Eck understands that he now must “look at how to build the best team for next year.

“Your team is going to have a much more transient nature than it used to be,” he said. “It’s the intersection of the transfer portal and name, image and likeness. … Program-building might not be as important now as team-building.”

Offseasons are more hectic now than in years past. There’s more urgency to recruiting. Eck spent the past month filling holes on his roster, and finalizing his staff.

Along with the player turnover, the Vandals also had some movement in their staff.

Defensive coordinator Rob Aurich left to coach edge rushers at San Diego State. Running backs coach Thomas Ford took the same job at Oregon State. Outside linebackers coach Kapono Roy Asuega is also gone for undetermined reasons.

Former Washington State Cougars wide receiver Orion Peters transferred to Idaho this winter.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Former Washington State Cougars wide receiver Orion Peters transferred to Idaho this winter. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)


Idaho completed its staff earlier this week, announcing two new assistants.

Deontae Cooper, a former standout running back at Washington, will mentor Idaho’s tailbacks. Cooper spent the past five years as the head coach at Highline High in Burien, Washington.

Hunter Hughes will coach Idaho’s outside linebackers and nickels. Hughes spent six years as the head coach at Division II West Texas A&M before a short stint in the USFL as the New Orleans Breakers’ defensive backs coach.

He’ll work under new defensive coordinator Dan Jackson, who was hired in late December. Jackson, a former longtime assistant at South Dakota State – where he worked alongside Eck for four years – worked in the powerhouse SEC over the past two seasons, serving as defensive backs coach at Vanderbilt.

Jackson and Aurich come from the same coaching tree and share defensive ideologies, Eck noted, so the Vandals won’t have to overhaul their defensive schematics.

“There will be carry-over from what we did in the past, which is what I wanted,” Eck said.

The Vandals’ defensive system may look the same, but there’ll be several new faces occupying key roles.

Replenishing the cornerback position was a must for Eck, who brought in three FCS transfers.

Weber State transfer Abraham Williams is the most intriguing of the new cornerbacks. The senior logged 33 tackles and an interception last season.

But Williams is known most for his special-teams contributions. He earned All-Big Sky first-team recognition and All-American honors in each of the past two seasons for his kick-returning abilities. Williams returned four kicks 100 yards for touchdowns in 2022, and added another 100-yard return TD last year. He’ll replace Jackson as Idaho’s star speedster in the return game.

Northern Iowa transfer Corey Thomas Jr. will presumably adopt a starting role with Idaho. The senior had 44 tackles and two picks last year. KJ Trujillo, another senior transfer, posted 40 tackles and 10 pass break-ups over the past two seasons at North Alabama.

“They can hopefully fill the void left by Marcus and Ormanie leaving,” Eck said.

The receiving corps needed some immediate help, too. The Vandals bolstered that unit with the addition of Washington State transfer Orion Peters, a quick slot receiver who appeared in 15 games over the past two years, recording 138 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore was in contention for a starting spot ahead of the 2023 season, but Peters was hampered by injuries, according to Eck.

“He can hopefully pick up some of the slack left by Hayden and (Jackson) graduating,” Eck said. “He’s real fast. We’ve tested some speed things over the past few weeks and he’s one of our fastest players.”

Nate Thomas is another impact transfer who will contribute immediately for a position group that needed help this offseason. The junior tailback, a compact runner at 5-9 and 205 pounds, totaled 398 yards and five TDs at South Dakota last year. He landed on the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2021 after posting 717 rushing yards and five TDs.

“He’s a proven FCS running back,” Eck said.

Idaho will look to shore up a few positions through the portal this spring, perhaps adding experience at linebacker, receiver and safety. But Eck has confidence in his returners at many of the starting spots.

Idaho Vandals quarterback Jack Layne, left, warms up next to Ridge Docekal on Aug. 11, 2022, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Idaho Vandals quarterback Jack Layne, left, warms up next to Ridge Docekal on Aug. 11, 2022, at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, Idaho. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Top holdovers

Idaho seems to be settled on its starting quarterback for 2024.

Sophomore Jack Layne was sharp in two starts over the past two seasons in relief of McCoy. The Oregon native showed impressive potential in his one start last year, throwing for 275 yards and tying a single-game program record with six TD passes in the Vandals’ 63-21 rout of Idaho State on Nov. 18 in Moscow.

“I’m very confident in Layne,” Eck said. “You can probably see our confidence in him, because we haven’t gone into the portal to get a quarterback. … I think he’s proven it on the field. Really, our best game on offense last season was when Jack Layne played quarterback.”

At tailback, the Vandals will promote a few youngsters into playing roles, and the team is set to return Elisha Cummings, who totaled 566 yards and six touchdowns from scrimmage in 2022 but sat out last season due to eligibility issues.

The receiver position could use some help this offseason, but Idaho may have a new No. 1 target in sophomore Jordan Dwyer, who recorded 328 yards and four scores last year.

“Dwyer can make a big jump, from being our third or fourth receiver to being more of a No. 1 guy,” Eck said.

The Vandals feel comfortable with their personnel on the offensive line, a group that featured plenty of promising young players in 2023.

The same can be said of the defensive front.

“I don’t think the offensive line and defensive line are positions where we’re targeting to add players to help us next year,” Eck said. “You have to develop your offensive linemen. … I think our defensive line has a chance to be really special.”

Idaho brings back eight defensive linemen who saw significant playing time last year. Eck is expecting big things from defensive ends Malakai Williams and Keyshawn James-Newby, both of whom struggled to stay healthy last year.

The Vandals will be young at the linebacker position, but several underclassmen played considerable roles in 2023.

Though the cornerback position has been remade, the Vandals will enjoy experience at safety. Seniors Tommy McCormick and Kyrin Beachem have proven themselves capable over the past few years.