Idaho football practice

Idaho quarterback Jake Luton, right, and Matt Linehan, who has an injured foot, work out during the first day of spring practice on Thursday at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

(Updated with defensive notes/quotes)

The Idaho Vandals were kind enough to hold their first spring football inside the Kibbie Dome on Thursday afternoon, saving reporters from having to stand outside in the pouring rain and struggle to take notes while the team runs around and helmets and shorts on the SprinTurf.

After practice the three team members we spoke with -- linebacker Kaden Elliss, center Steven Matlock and coach Paul Petrino -- were “excited” to start spring camp and hope to “get better every day,” which is really all they could say following a fairly uneventful day of non-contact drills.

As usual, I threw together a story for Friday’s paper. Also, here are a few brief notes and quotes from the first session of 2016.

The next two practices are closed to the media, so this is all I’ll have until Monday night.

We’ll start with the offense...)

Quarterback

Matt Linehan was on the field -- rolling around on a medical scooter, not throwing passes. Jake Luton took almost all of the reps in the skeleton and team drills. Gunnar Amos served as the backup, though many of his “team” reps featured handoffs and other various running plays.

Here’s what Petrino had to say about Luton: “It helped since he had so many reps with them last year. It felt comfortable for him. It’s going to be a really big spring for him because he’s going to get so many more reps and get that much more comfortable.

“There were a couple times he was late on a couple reads. There were a couple reads where he went the wrong way, but that’s why we practice. He’ll get better at that every day.”

Receiver

The three I saw the most were Callen Hightower, the team’s second-leading receiver in 2015, Jacob Sannon and junior college transfer Alfonso Onuwar. David Ungerer, who missed nearly the entire season with a foot injury, was in the mix as well with the starting unit.

Early observation: Hightower is fast. He took a reverse about 50 yards down the sideline and the whole play was basically a blur. Again, there were no pads and the defense couldn’t really do much other than shadow him once he hit the sideline, but still, it was pretty impressive.

Another observation: Onuwar is going to have a big impact this season. He’s 6-foot-1, 185 pounds and a decent leaper. He caught a few deep passes from both Luton and Amos, and had a leaping grab over recently converted cornerback Calvary Pugh during a skeleton drill.

“He made some good plays,” Petrino said of Onuwar. “He did a nice job going up and taking them. That’s something he did on tape well. He was swimming a little bit on some of the plays, not knowing what to do, but we can teach him that. He made some nice plays, no question.”

Running back

As expected, Aaron Duckworth, Isaiah Saunders and Denzal Brantley were the top guys, but it’s hard to evaluate the running backs much without pads. Petrino likes to ride the hot hand, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the “starter” changes almost every week.

It’s worth noting that Jack Bamis, a Spokane native who redshirted last year, is now a linebacker. He’s still listed as a tailback, but he wore a black defensive jersey Thursday and worked mostly with Eric Brown and first-year inside linebackers coach Troy Purcell.

Offensive line

The most notable absence was two-year starter Jordan Rose. No word on his absence (or any absences, for that matter). The lineup of five I saw the most was: Darius Peterson, Calvin White, center Steven Matlock, Mason Woods and Patrick Johnson.

This group will likely shuffle all through camp, so I wouldn’t read much into the first-day rotation. Tanner Mauseth, Zion Dixon and Colton Thrasher saw their share of reps as well. I imagine that only Matlock, Rose and Woods have secure spots at this point, with the other positions up for grabs (which is how they’d prefer it, really).

“Up front we got some good guys, we recruited really well this season,” Matlock said. “I feel like we got some good talent. I’m excited to get out there and get better. We got a few guys coming back and a few new guys rotating in with the first group, but we have a close bond as O-linemen, so it’s always fun playing to each other.”

Tight end

No surprises here, and I don’t expect there to be unless there’s an injury to either Deon Watson or Trent “Buck” Cowan, who were the two primary players at tight end Thursday. Watson caught a beauty of a long ball over the middle from Luton, which was the only real highlight play from this unit.

Position coach Al Pupunu is apparently dealing with some knee issues, so he drove a cart to each drill. Maybe Linehan should try that instead of the scooter?

Now for the defense...

Defensive back

The surprise here was Jayshawn Jordan, the team’s (presumably) top returning cornerback who missed all but three games last year with a thigh contusion. The redshirt senior ran with the first-team as a safety opposite Russell Siavii. The first-team corners were Dorian Clark and D.J. Hampton, who I’d expect to remain there as long as Jordan stays at safety.

“Now he can play nickel, he can play safety, he can play corner. He’ll be part of all different spots,” Petrino said of Jordan.

Jordan Grabski rotated in and out at the other safety position. Elijah Williams did, too. Easley Simmons, a freshman, Desmond Banks, Sedrick Thomas, Kashan Greene, Tarik Littlejohn (who’s listed as a linebacker) and Calvary Pugh (formerly a receiver) were the reserves. Grabski had an interception off of a batted pass during a team drill Thursday, but I couldn’t see who the quarterback was (I think it was Luton).

Armond Hawkins, who played safety, linebacker and cornerback at various points last season, watched practice from the sideline with his shoulder in a sling. He’s listed as a cornerback.

The notable absence here was Kendrick Trotter, a junior college transfer who was moved around a lot in the defensive backfield last year before finding a home on special teams. Trotter recently had surgery on an undisclosed injury. His timetable to return is unknown.

Cornerbacks coach Aric Williams doesn’t like to name starters, as an attempt to keep the competition level high. Safe to say, though, that Siavii’s spot is secure, and Jordan’s likely is, too. I expect Clark, Hampton, Hawkins and Trotter to be in the mix all offseason.

Linebacker

Kaden Elliss, a sophomore, is the only returner with any significant playing experience in this group. Don’t call him the leader of the unit yet, though, because he’ll disagree.

“I believe leadership is earned, and I think it’s earned each year,” he said. “I don’t want to go in believing I’m a leader, I want to earn it this year.”

Either way, he is, at least for now, the unit’s best player. He appeared in all but one game as a freshman and led the team in solo tackles with 57.

This is the group that has the most growing to do, having to replace three starters from last season (Broc Westlake, Marc Millan and Chris Edwards). That’s probably why Petrino brought in Troy Purcell as an inside linebackers coach once ex-QB coach Bryce Erickson left for Lake City High School.

“What’s nice about (having Purcell) is we’re able to focus on the inside linebackers’ jobs and the outside linebackers are able to focus on their jobs,” said Elliss, an outside linebacker. “It’s nice bringing in some new expertise. It’s also a new viewpoint. It helps us get down our steps because we’re not the same and prior to this we’ve been practicing the same. Now we’re separate and it’s good.”

Mike Linehan, Emmanuel Jones and Ed Hall were the other starting linebackers Thursday. Expect some fluidity at this position as well. Jones is a senior who was a solid reserve last season, and Linehan is just a redshirt freshman, so it will be interesting to see how those two come along in the spring. Hall actually made one start last year when Millan was suspended.

Monday should be the first day of full pads, so I’ll try and have more from coach Eric Brown and Purcell after that session.

Defensive line

Same goes for the D-line. Once they throw on some pads it’ll be easier to evaluate this group and see if they’ll be able to replace hefty tackle Ryan Edwards and potentially NFL-bound Quinton Bradley (who was in attendance Thursday). That starting unit included a mix of Glen Antoine, Kevin White and Tueni Lupeamanu.

Khalin Smith, Leonard Hazewood and Kevin Shelton all rotated at the BUCK linebacker spot. I tend to rope them in with the defensive line because they start with their hand on the ground and nearly all of them are most productive when rushing the passer. Hazewood was pretty decent in coverage last spring, for what that’s worth.

Smith is fun to watch. He joined the team in late August as a tight end, then converted to the “Dark Side” midway through the season. At 6-5, 245 pounds, he’s speedy and effective as an edge rusher. He’ll also get the team fired up after a big defensive play, the only player to have that type of enthusiasm, at least on Day 1.

Special teams

Austin Rehkow is the punter and the kicker. That won’t change. Ever.

The punt returners were Pugh, Ungerer, Onuwar and Reuben Mwehla. No telling who the starter will be by the Sept. 1 season opener against Montana State.


Michael-Shawn Dugar can be reached at (208) 883-4629, by email to mdugar@dnews.com or on Twitter to @MikeDugar.

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