As restrictions begin to loosen incrementally, and student-athletes start trickling onto campus at the University of Idaho, the timing felt right to talk through some recent developments and future prospects with eighth-year Idaho coach Paul Petrino.
A normal year vs. 2020
Petrino would be heading UI’s team camp for collegiate hopefuls, which has grown from a couple hundred entrants in the coach’s first two years, to now around 700 per summer.
The camps — one a humongous, week-longaffair, and the other an individualized, one-day event — have turned up dozens of future Vandals, and represent a bump in pay for UI assistant coaches.
“That’s really unfortunate,” said Petrino, who started the annual tradition. “We’ve really built it up, so it’ll be nice to get it back next year.”
Around mid-June, the Vandals typically are tasked with weightlifting and conditioning drills, which are nearing recommencement.
Petrino said some student-athletes already have been tested for COVID-19, and according to the school, approximately 40 in total will be tested within the next week.
“Hopefully they’ll get in the weight room by (today), then kinda start up next week,” he said. “But we don’t get to start that eight-hour (conditioning) week until July 13, by the NCAA.”
Petrino, since earlier this week, has gotten more time at his work office, and in socially-distanced team meetings with his staff.
“At least you get to just do things together, and talk to each other, not over the freaking Zoom,” Petrino said with a laugh.
Zoom virtual chats likely will become less frequent. Although UI’s online teleconferences have come to be a bit maddening, Petrino acknowledges their benefit.
“It’s the most we’ve met with our players at this time of the year, ever,” he said. “We haven’t got to be around them, and not all of them maybe have the best access to weights, and haven’t been together as much — but mentally, just teaching, it should be the best offseason we’ve ever had.”
Admittedly, that’ll somewhat alter his first week of fall camp, which tentatively is set to open with a two-week phase-in, starting July 24. Generally, early fall camp is utilized in installing schemes.
“Now, I think conditioning in the first couple of weeks is gonna be more important than it ever has been for us,” Petrino said. “It’ll be a little bit more like back in the old days, when everybody would go home.”
Petrino’s been proud of the responsibility UI’s players have shown away from Moscow. Many of them took up full-time jobs to support their families, while also staying fit, participating in team meetings online and, in some cases, completing school courses.
“It’s really impressive. They’re busy sun up to sun down,” Petrino said, referencing cornerback Jalen Hoover, linebacker Leo Tamba and receiver Cutrell Haywood, among others who were employed far from the Palouse during the pandemic’s spread. “For sure, it shows leadership. It’s good to get out and work, and find out how valuable an education is. My dad used to get me the worst summer jobs ever, to make sure I got my education.”
Last week, UI’s coaching staff made it a priority to get each of its players registered to vote. The Big Sky Conference announced Wednesday all of its student-athletes would have Election Day off in the future.
“I think it’s great they’ll have that day off,” Petrino said. “Go use your gift, use your power, use your voice. Voting is one of the biggest ways you can use it.”
On the secondary
Since February, the Vandals have had two projected starters at cornerback depart from the program — Christian Nash and David Eppinger. UI defensive backfield mainstays Lloyd Hightower and Sedrick Thomas graduated.
Otherwise, the Vandals essentially return their entire defense. “Getting everyone back to date” always is the objective, especially since spring ball was lost. But Idaho wouldn’t be at fault if the defensive backs take precedence.
Petrino said Hoover — a four-year starter — and much-improved safety Tyrese Dedmon will captain the group, “bring guys forward.” Dedmon, who had a hand in four turnovers in two games late last year, is “looking great” physically. Petrino said the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder from Lancaster, Calif., is primed for an exceptional senior year.
Senior Montana transfer cornerback Dareon Nash will assume a key role by virtue of his experience.
“Getting him, because he started two years in this conference, that’s huge,” Petrino said. “Those will be your three older guys who will be leaders, then just getting some others to step up.”
Safety Mujeeb Rufai and cornerback Jaxon Woodward came to mind of those who could contribute right away. Also anticipated is the debut of Boise State transfer safety Ryan Swanson, who was rehabbing from an injury in 2019.
When asked of a player who might be floating under the radar, Petrino mentioned corner/nickel Arnell Walker, a 2019 grayshirt with UI last year out of Orlando Christian (Fla.) Prep. Provided he’s healthy, Petrino said he could see the field immediately. Walker fits Petrino’s recruiting mold for the defensive backfield — attract recruits who can fit in wherever need be.
Petrino hinted at the possibility of a transfer signing with the Vandals sometime in the next two weeks.
The Vandals have been discussing the importance of understanding amid national protests concerning racial inequality. And the coach has been listening.
“We’ve had a couple of real good team meetings,” he said. “I think the biggest thing I can do right now is be a good listener, and listen to understand what people are going through. And help in any way I can. I think that’s what we’ve all got to do as teammates, and as family, is everyone be there for each other, and be really good listeners.”
Q: Most under-the-radar offensive player?
A: Probably San Mateo College (Calif.) speedster transfer receiver Jermaine Jackson. The 5-foot-7, 165-pounder has good hands and offensive versatility. He saw his share of time out of the backfield in junior college, recording about 1,000 yards from scrimmage in 2019.
“He definitely could turn some heads,” Petrino said.
Q: Most impressive in the weight room?
A: It’s about a tie, between formidable linebackers Christian Elliss, Tre Walker and Tamba. Pound-for-pound, add Idahoan running back Nick Romano in the mix too. He’s been said to bench about 400 pounds.
Q: The fastest?
A: “I’d rather tell you a couple weeks into camp, honestly,” Petrino said. Chauncy Smart wouldn’t be a bad guess. The transfer flex player ran track at Miami (Fla.) the past two years.
For anyone worried, Petrino noted star buck linebacker Charles Akanno and Tamba — who share a position — will be worked out on both sides of the line, so they still can play together in a stacked linebacking corps Petrino agreed will set the team’s tone. He pointed out Washington State transfer Fa’avae Fa’avae as well. That issue of too much depth is a nice problem to have.
Q: The next two-way player?
A: It could be Arizonan tight end Dalton Cash. The 6-4, 250-pounder got reps at defensive end against Northern Arizona in last season’s finale.
Q: Advice to potential Vandal professionals amid an uncertain season?
A: “Film is your resume,” Petrino said. “That’s where it starts. You’ve gotta play every snap that senior year like it’s the snap they’re gonna watch. Make sure they don’t turn the film off.”
Colton Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.