Pegging a starting RB not an easy task

Running back Kiahn Martinez (21) finds a hole during the Vandals' practice Saturday afternoon.

There are five hypothetical “pegs” in the Vandals’ running backs room, and as of Saturday, they’re in file.

It’s a scrupulous daily method position coach Brian Reader uses to make sense of where all the backs are. A good rep equates to a “peg up.” If a runner were to “loaf a play,” then his peg moves a hole down.

“We’re taking it as it goes, practice by practice, rep by rep,” Reader said. “They all got about the same amount of reps (Friday), and they all competed.

“That’s the stress right now — just compete.”

Throughout Saturday’s mini scrimmage at the Kibbie Dome — Friday’s was closer to a legitimate one — the pegs stuck in place. The amalgamation of variously faceted runners equaled out in most regards, as it has for two weeks now. It was especially noticeable in the group’s low pad level and ability to identify sparse rifts in Idaho’s hulking D-line.

In other words, the mix of freshmen Nick Romano, Kiahn Martinez and Aundre Carter; sophomore Roshaun Johnson and junior Dylan Thigpen are neck-and-neck.

“If you went back between Tuesday and (Friday), Nick caught five touchdowns and Thigpen was the leading rusher between the two days,” UI coach Paul Petrino said. “But Roshaun and Aundre both ran for three or four touchdowns both days and ran people over to get to the end zone.

“And Kiahn has made as good of runs as anybody all camp. So yeah, there’s a possibility that you play ’em all.”

Each in different situations, apparently. The 240-pound Carter — the top pass-protector, Petrino noted — said he’s encouraged by the all-around nature of the committee, and sees the packed group as conducive to tailored game planning.

For instance, a team that leans on its front seven might be susceptible to ground-and-pound for a chunk of a series, “get ’em tired,” then “break one outside,” Carter said.

The past two days, the youngsters flashed in the flats. On one rep, Martinez, comparable to a young Aaron Duckworth (2014-17), exhibited a certain speedy sideline balance uncommon last year. He pulled off a slight maneuver, throwing a would-be tackler aside. Then, he abruptly lowered a shoulder into a safety for a couple of extra yards.

“Kiahn’s really quick, he hits the hole really fast and he’s got more power than you’d think,” Petrino said of the 5-foot-7, 186-pounder from Denver. “Duck was a little more bowed up. Kiahn doesn’t necessarily look that way, but he runs that way.”

Romano, who benches more than 400 pounds, lined up with Martinez — on the other side of quarterback Mason Petrino — when UI brought out its first team for Penn State scheming. On the first snap, Romano was motioned left, where he chopped behind receiver Jeff Cotton. After play action to Martinez, Petrino threw one to a wide-open Romano, who was streaking the sideline.

That’s been one of Romano’s prime functions.

“(Nick is) the best guy to get out and running,” said Paul Petrino of the 5-10, 203-pound, 2018 5A state MVP from Rocky Mountain. “Nick does the best job of running routes and catching it, and he’s pretty good at protection.

Reader said he’s seen a distinct jump in effort from the more experienced backs, owing that to those “hungry freshmen … nipping at their heels.”

Johnson and Carter pride themselves on pass protection and tackle shedding. They’re two of the team’s better lifters — “you can see it in their running styles,” Reader said — which translates to between-the-tackles success.

Based on the past two scrimmages, Carter might have an upper hand, just by virtue of his blocking and yards accrued after contact.

“Just keep running hard, get my pad level down and no one can bring me down,” said Carter, a Starke, Fla., product.

It could be the first time in years Petrino’s starting running back won’t be set until a few games into the season. However, the coach sees some merits — injuries can’t be too crippling to the committee, they will be less fatigued and certain backs could fare better against specific teams.

Johnson, though right in the thick of the competition, said the more the merrier.

“We’re versatile. We’ll definitely have a bunch of backs playing this season,” he said. “The past couple of seasons, we’ve had that one dude, then another dude comes in and gets a couple carries. I think we’ll be able to share the carries and get the job done as a squad, committee.”

NOTES

— Since UI ran about 100 plays of live tackle Friday, this scrimmage was about 70 percent focused on special teams. Punter/kicker Cade Coffey booted a 68-yard punt and hit a 45-yard field goal. About 25 minutes were devoted to onside kicks alone.

— The coach affirmed quarterbacks Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson will rotate the first few games, but not likely similar to last year. The coach said he might alternate by quarters or series, and hopes to have a full-blown starter named by the time the Vandals play Eastern Washington on Sept. 21.

— The past two days, the offense has knotted it back up. Twitchy receivers and backs have succeeded in garnering 10-plus-yard gainers in open space, much to Petrino’s liking.

— Juco transfer buck linebacker Austin Holt left the team more than a week ago for unspecified reasons. UI’s edge-rushing positions are uncommonly deep this year, but Holt’s absence means the Vandals lose some depth and finesse on the outside.

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

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