Running back Dylan Thigpen isn’t bitter, and his manner doesn’t suggest that he nearly lost his career.

Over a year removed from a frightful 2018 spring-ball injury — in which he tore just about everything in his right knee — the redshirt junior can’t contain his quips and grins. He’s just happy to be back out there, even if Tuesday was only another of the Idaho football team’s early fall-camp practices.

He’s glad to be a leader. And to instruct during intermissions. And to call out any youngsters lagging behind on playbook knowledge, too.

“I remember coming home to my apartment (after the injury) and being worried that I wouldn’t be able to come back,” said Thigpen, a 5-11, 214-pound balanced runner. “(My surgeon) told me there was a chance I might not be able to come back out here again.”

Only “strict rehab” and “grit” would propel Thigpen back onto the turf. So “I followed it to a T,” he said, referencing a long and pained period during which he was forced to sport a straight-leg brace, prohibiting any movement.

This summer, he was at last cleared to play. And like that, he’s a veteran for the Vandals.

“Since I’ve been here for four years, I know a thing or two, so I’ll make sure (the young backs) come out here and they’re prepared,” he said, that same smile still painted on his face.

Thus far, Thigpen’s been setting a good example. On Tuesday, during UI’s fourth day of fall camp — and second day in shells — Thigpen scored a few times around the edge, a couple on run-pass options; he gashed the front seven up the gut once or twice, and exhibited that rapid, single-cut style he prides himself on.

He might be UI’s most well-rounded runner, though he’s still building himself back up. Some of the in-play senses, like quickly “getting my wind back,” or making sure he “follows the blocks again,” remain in development.

Luckily for him, UI has a committee of runners Thigpen likened to the 2016 bowl team’s, a comparison in the same vein as those bestowed upon the O-line.

“This team is very (tight-knit), everyone’s really hungry to win,” said Thigpen, 10 pounds heavier than a year ago. “The new running backs … a lot of them juke a lot. Kiahn (Martinez) is a little juker like (Cowboys’ receiver) Tavon Austin. Nick (Romano, from Rocky Mountain High) is extremely fast, probably one of the fastest guys out here.”

Since fall camp began earlier this week, the common rotation of running backs has consisted of the following: a sophomore, four freshmen and a junior. Thus far, sophomore bruiser Roshaun Johnson leads the way, with freshman Aundre Carter and Thigpen right behind. Romano and Martinez are the two true freshmen who’ve gotten the most looks in full-team drills.

It’s a far cry from the vet-led RB staffs of the past few years, featuring program notables Aaron Duckworth and Isaiah Saunders. Nevertheless, RB coach Brian Reader says the rookies are partially offsetting the lack of experience through their advanced football knowledge. Additionally, this is as well-rounded — skill-wise — and deep collection of backs.

To put that to use, the Vandals have stretched the playbook, with certain schemes designated for certain runners. Some are appointed pass-protection and others are primarily flats receivers, for example. Throughout the week of practice, much of UI’s offense has prioritized check-down RB receptions and contact along the sideline. These have procured yards, but have made getting a read on the quarterback competition more tricky.

“(The RBs) really need to be better in the passing game, that’s huge,” said Reader, also noting that UI’s got enough talent spread about to divvy up the orders, so there’s not one guy, like Saunders last year, with too much weight on his shoulders.

There is a common denominator between the backs — they’re all running those run-pass options now like it’s nobody’s business.

Such plays ravaged the Vandals’ defense last year, so they might as well take a page out of the enemies’ books.

Said first-year inside linebacker coach Jamie Schultz, that’s as much for the defense as it is for the offense. The linebackers are as solidified as possible at this early juncture, and that group needs to stay fit and ready to cover that kind of play.

“That effort sideline to sideline is gonna pay off,” Schultz said. “You just try to have those guys in a little better shape … you gotta make sure they’re able to go 10 plays in a row in under a minute. That’s what this new-age offense is.”

Schultz and Co. have spent “all spring” and “all summer” getting comfortable with those RPOs, alignments and checking out of the wrong formations. For every time the RBs slashed through the backers Tuesday, there’d be a clean pop for payback not long after.

“From last year to this year, the defense finally came together. We brought that juice to practice, we’ve brought that juice to just playing,” said sophomore linebacker Tre Walker, a burgeoning leader who’s gained 20 pounds since November. “(Schematically), you’re more free, you can flow to the ball and not think about it as much. Just go make plays.”

Walker went on to commend the quickness and positive energy brought by juco transfers like Jalan Jenkins and Robert Miller, slighter speedsters who are bound to turn into mainstays. Miller was competing again Tuesday after suffering leg cramps Saturday.

Those new players, the extended film study and the freedom to flow, Walker noted, could make for more effective gap shooting. To Schultz, it’s the maturity that shines through.

“A lot of guys got pressed into service last year … they know what it takes to have a successful defense now,” he said. “The transfers brought in a renewed energy and effort too, that I haven’t seen in a while.”

Notes and observations

— In comparison to ’18, there are eight new starters with the first-team defense. Returning are linebacker Christian Elliss, corner Lloyd Hightower and D-tackle Rahsaan Crawford. At corner, Sedrick Thomas and Jalen Hoover have been in a battle, and at free safety, Davontae Ginwright and Tyrese Dedmon are trading reps.

— It seems Crawford will be continuing the trend of UI playing defenders as fullbacks. The 300-pound D-tackle got a few reps as a lead blocker.

— Overall, it wasn’t the most crisp day at the SprintTurf. At least six wide-open passes were dropped and more than six false starts/offsides penalties were committed. Coach Paul Petrino might have a sore throat today.

— The Vandals ended practice with a new and humorous camaraderie-boosting activity — sibling punt returners. The Johnsons, Lees, Noils and Rufais took turns catching punts from Cade Coffey. Even when the linemen were up, none were muffed, so practice was stamped closed.

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

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