Showing a strong front seven

In this Oct. 5, 2019, file photo, Tre Walker, center, and Christian Elliss, right, push Weber State running back Josh Davis out of bounds during the first quarter of a Big Sky game at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

One of Tre Walker’s favorite characteristics regarding Idaho’s front seven is how little he has to worry about anything besides his individual performance.

The Vandals’ shell-shattering junior is flanked from his post in the middle by three other linebacking stalwarts. On a well-stocked defensive line ahead of him, all of 2019’s standouts are back.

The All-American candidate and team captain can feel at ease knowing there are few, if any, weak spots in the UI defensive box.

“Everybody has the same experience as you. Everyone has the same mindset as you,” said Walker, a vicious downhill hitter and the Big Sky’s most prolific returning tackler (138 last season). “It makes it way easier to execute your job knowing that everybody around you is executing their jobs just as well.

“It helps us play at a high speed, a high tempo, and we’re playing way better than we’ve ever played in the years I’ve been here.”

Much has been made of UI’s defensive front in the lead-up to its delayed spring season, which kicks off at 3 p.m. Saturday against No. 12 Eastern Washington at the Kibbie Dome.

Football Championship Subdivision pundits have placed reasonable expectations on the Vandals to at least contend for the postseason, citing the group as primary reasoning.

Rightfully so. A whopping 16 linebackers and defensive linemen return with either Division I starts or significant reps under their belts. It’s the deepest Idaho has been in that area since 2016 — a 9-4, bowl-winning season — according to eighth-year coach Paul Petrino.

“We have depth in every position, and everybody is just as good. Everybody plays at the same type of level and intensity,” Walker said.

It’s not only that Idaho is two- and maybe three-deep in several spots. A few Vandal starters are among the most talented defenders of Petrino’s tenure.

There’s Walker, who was lauded last season by HERO Sports as the best sophomore in the FCS at his position. With the motor and agility of a running back, the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder is a fierce blitzer, a sideline-to-sideline tackler and a challenging blocking assignment.

“... Just trying to build the culture at this school. I want to win, first and foremost,” he said of his goals. “I’m trying to be dominant, the best linebacker in the conference.”

Walker’s compatriot at the strong side might have something to say about that last bit.

Senior Christian Elliss was Idaho’s lone first-team All-Big Sky position player a season ago. The crafty 6-3, 233-pounder is a sure tackler, who prides himself on an unwavering work ethic, and has a knack for dissecting offensive tendencies and reacting promptly.

Elliss is big and versatile enough to rush the edge too. He paced UI with 4½ sacks, tacking on 12 1/2 tackles for loss and 104 total stops in 2019.

One could make the argument that Elliss — the brother of Idaho product/current New Orleans Saint Kaden Elliss, and son of 10-year NFL veteran/Idaho D-line coach Luther Elliss — is the most well-rounded and pro-ready of all the Vandals.

HERO Sports tabbed him as the BSC’s top overall NFL prospect in December.

Petrino noted the two have fine-tuned their pass coverage, and defensive coordinator Mike Breske said Idaho will make use of their athleticism with an adaptable, free-flowing approach this year.

“We want to take advantage of their assets, and speed is one of them,” he said. “We’re going to be a little bit more flexible.”

That could mean more edge-rushing for Elliss, and more exotic blitzes for Walker.

“They give us the opportunity to fly around and make plays, and we’ve got a lot of playmakers in our linebacker corps,” Walker said.

Another star, game-altering senior edge-rusher Charles Akanno (6-1, 247), returns from an Achilles injury sustained in October 2019. In eight outings, he piled up 3 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles, eight pass break-ups and 13 1/2 TFLs — leading the league with 1.69 per game.

Akanno, a national defensive player of the week once in 2019, appears healed up, and has regained his striking blend of grace and brute power that made him such a handful for opposing tackles last season.

“It’s great to have him back out there playing and doing good things,” Petrino said.

“When you go Charles, Christian and Tre, I mean, those are three of the better players that we’ve had around here for a long time.”

UI stayed local in inking a new weakside linebacker, who looks primed to make an immediate impact. Junior Washington State transfer Fa’avae Fa’avae has been commended a number of times by Vandal coaches. He appeared in 18 games for the Cougs, predominantly on the edge.

“He has a chance to be really good for us,” Petrino said.

Primary linebacking backups will include speedy sophomore Sully Shannon and true freshman Derek Tommasini, from Eagle High School. Shannon was a relied-on reserve in 2019, and Petrino said Tommasini, 2019’s Class 5A Southern Idaho Conference defensive MVP, is versed beyond his age.

Senior Leonick Tamba fared well in Akanno’s stead last season, racking up 7 1/2 TFLs.

In the trenches, Idaho is bursting with options and experience. Senior nose Rahsaan Crawford, a 300-pounder, remains the heartbeat of the D-line and a team-wide vocal leader, and junior Post Falls native Nate DeGraw (6-3, 270) is beginning to share those duties too after a breakout 2019.

“Those two are your guys that are gonna bring their lunch pails every day and just work their tails off,” Petrino said.

A handful of contributors will see time in the rotation. Senior Jonah Kim (6-3, 320) was at times a load at tackle in 2019. Petrino pointed to Kim when asked which D-linemen made the most considerable jump this offseason. UI also is hoping to unlock the potential of former four-star Mississippi State signee Noah Elliss (6-4, 347).

At defensive end, 6-4, 260-pound senior Kayode Rufai will get the nod for his second season in Moscow since transferring out of Boise State.

“It starts with your defensive line in terms of how productive we’re gonna be on defense,” Breske said. “We’ve got a lot of guys up front that have taken a lot of reps. The more that can contribute, that are physically and mentally ready, the better off we’ll be.”

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

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