Idaho O-line rebuilding, but still has some key pieces

Pete Caster/Daily NewsThe left side of the Idaho offensive line prepares for pass protection during a 2019 game against Weber State at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

After the 2019 season concluded, the core of Idaho’s most experienced offensive line in three years walked out the door.

There were 113 career starts between the four graduated hogs — guard/center Conner Vrba, tackles Sean Tulette and Edwin Grande, and strong guard Noah Johnson, a four-year starter and one of the better Vandal O-linemen in recent memory.

“We’ve got some young guys coming in, and we’ve got some guys that have been here about a year,” said junior Logan Floyd (21 starts), the captain in the Idaho trenches. “There’s a lot of competition going on, on the O-line.”

The Vandals are in rebuild mode up front, a position group that remains searching for stability in Year 3 back in the Big Sky Conference.

In 2019, Idaho tied for second-to-last in the BSC in sacks allowed (35), and led the league in total penalties (104). As is the nature of the sport, a fair portion of the yellow laundry could be attributed to the O-line.

“One of the more important things every game is that we don’t beat ourselves,” eighth-year Idaho coach Paul Petrino said. “That’s one of the big things we’ve been talking about. You’re gonna get hustle penalties, but we don’t want any penalties pre-snap.”

As such, UI has placed a priority on smoothing out its O-line, which will most likely feature three completely fresh faces.

Floyd is no newbie. The 6-foot-4, 295-pounder from Utah has been tabbed a Vandal leader. In 2018, he started all year at strong tackle, earning a freshman All-America plaudit from Phil Steele. Floyd filled a hole at center throughout last season, and still graded out as one of Idaho’s best linemen.

Floyd has dropped about 15 pounds. He’s more nimble in pass protection, but has retained his bulldozing strength, said offensive coordinator/O-line coach Kris Cinkovich.

“For him, that’s a good balance of being heavy enough to knock people back, but to be quick enough to handle the pass-protection duties of a tackle,” Cinkovich said. “He’s a confident player. He’s been a good player here from Day 1.

“The kids respect him, and he has a voice. Coach Petrino looks to him in that role also. That’s empowered him. Obviously, the coaches will correct stuff all the time, but when it comes from him, it’s good.”

Lining up beside Floyd, at strong guard, will be junior Matthew Faupusa, who’s started 15 games since breaking out as a rookie in 2018.

“Matt Faupusa is a returning veteran who really took a jump (in camp), and we’re seeing what I think he should look like as a junior, which I think he should be really good,” Cinkovich said.

Over the past five seasons, Idaho has started five rookies on its offensive line. This spring, the Vandals might be adding another one or two to the list.

Freshman Nate Azzopardi (6-3, 275), from the California football hotbed of Junipero Serra High School, is vying for the nod at quick guard. He and junior Darius Archie (6-2, 298) — a three-game starter at guard in 2019 — are battling it out.

Another Californian freshman, Elijah Sanchez (6-5, 275), is in contention for quick tackle, along with Sumner, Wash., native Seth Carnahan (6-7, 295). Carnahan, a redshirt sophomore, got some reps in 10 games last season.

“One thing the pandemic did was buy some young guys more time to get bigger, stronger and more knowledgeable,” Cinkovich said. “That allows us to play them earlier. ... (Azzopardi and Sanchez) have had more time to develop, and I think it’s helped them.”

Petrino concurs. He has hinted that the talent among UI’s O-line newcomers might take some onlookers by surprise.

Riley Straly, a juco transfer two years ago, and freshman Idahoan Greyson Harwood — from Minico High School in Rupert — have also been commended for their work inside.

Cinkovich noted a seven-man rotation has been employed at recent practices. Floyd and Faupusa appear to be locks, as does junior center Chad Bagwell, a 6-6, 298-pounder from Sierra College (Calif.).

Based on the praise from UI’s coaches, Bagwell might be one of the more underrated players on the team, in general.

“We love him. He fits in with us perfectly,” Cinkovich said. “He’s intense and he’s been great.”

With all that’s departed, Bagwell’s leadership qualities have been a welcome addition.

“He’ll stick his nose in and encourage, and also confront when somebody in our group isn’t doing something as they should,” Cinkovich said.

Cinkovich said Idaho’s pass protection has come along well — a good sign, considering transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry tends to be more pro-style, unlike former signal-caller Mason Petrino, who had the legs to escape pressure. Maintaining a pocket will be key.

UI’s run game ranked sixth in the BSC last season at a respectable 165.8 yards per game. A deep corps of ballcarriers returns to help the Vandals’ new-look front along.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.

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