UI looks to carve out new roles

Idaho quarterback Colton Richardson (19) throws a pass against Idaho State on Oct. 19 at the Kibbie Dome. Richardson, a junior, will vie to be UI’s starting QB this spring.

It’ll be at least another week of waiting for the Idaho football team, but the Vandals could potentially see the field before fall.

The Big Sky Conference announced in a statement Wednesday that spring sports competitions and championships are scrapped and team practices suspended amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

UI just might be able to work out some kinks in spring ball, ahead of what it hopes to be a breakthrough season. In the release, the Big Sky said campus administrators will reconvene around April 3 to determine the status of team practices. Vandals spring camp was scheduled to start March 30 and run for about three weeks.

With that possibility in mind, here is a look at some position groups ahead of camp:

The obvious one

In the fall, presumably four quarterbacks will be in contention for the job left open after the graduation last year of Mason Petrino, the son of eighth-year coach Paul Petrino.

Only two are on campus now — junior and Lewiston native Colton Richardson and sophomore Nikhil Nayar. A loss of spring repetitions could mean the loss of an edge in the competition over fall incomers Mike Beaudry (a 6-foot-5 UConn transfer) and multi-faceted Union (Camas, Wash.) High School standout CJ Jordan.

Paul Petrino said on national signing day he’s waiting until fall camp to start weighing the decision of who’ll take over at a position that has been below par the past couple of seasons.

For someone like Richardson, who’s been closely pursuing the spot since 2018 but hadn't done enough to claim it, spring ball might mean finally setting himself apart. In his one start last year, on Oct. 19, Richardson — in place of injured Mason Petrino — torched Idaho State before sustaining a third-quarter ankle injury that sidelined him for the season. Richardson only played in four games, retaining his junior year with a redshirt.

If he has consistency with his reps, enough to routinely fare as he did against the Bengals, it’s not far-fetched to think he’ll be the initial favorite.

How good are these backers (and backs)?

The linebacking and running-back corps were the only non-issues in UI’s most recent recruiting cycle ... because both groups are absurdly deep.

If spring camp proceeds, we might get a hint as to how the Vandals use that talent.

First-team all-league linebacking stalwart Christian Elliss — looking more like a pro prospect with time — returns to the strong side for his senior year, and Tre Walker is expected to take another massive leap forward in the middle, where he shined last year as a sophomore with 138 tackles, a mark averaging out to fourth per game in the Football Championship Subdivision.

Some more good news: Senior buck linebacker Charles Akanno, who was lost for the season with an Achilles injury suffered against Idaho State, was photographed by the team’s social media crew moving well in weight drills March 11. Akanno, bulky and swift, emerged in 2019 as one of the best FCS pass-rushers.

The three show promise as arguably the Big Sky’s best LB trio, but there’s more.

Senior buck Leonick Tamba filled in nicely for Akanno in the latter half of an eventual 5-7 season. Sophomore buck Coleman Johnson also was put to good use.

Weakside linebacker Jalan Jenkins only improved as the year progressed, and sophomore Sully Shannon became a favorite of the coaches on the strong side for his toughness. Senior speedster Robert Miller was used sparingly, but is projected to see more time in 2020.

There’s also edge-rushing junior Washington State transfer Fa’avae Fa’avae to take into account. Sandpoint-raised Kyle Perry, a relied-on reserve last year, graduated with a year of eligibility left. He’s no longer listed on the roster.

It’d be nice to flesh out more concrete roles for all those bodies. Expect the same jobs for Elliss, Akanno and Walker, but behind and beside them, the minutes are anyone’s guess.

In the rushing game, UI is just as spoiled. The Vandals didn’t recruit running backs, because they already have five capable ones. Bruising sophomore Aundre Carter, who dealt with off-and-on injuries much of last year, likely will start as No. 1 on the depth chart.

Junior all-around back Roshaun Johnson will return from an injury that derailed his second half of last year. Johnson and Carter complemented each other aptly as a 1-2 power punch. Idahoan prep star Nick Romano is back after a stellar freshman year. The two will presumably split the bulk of reps behind Carter.

Yet still around is shifty senior Dylan Thigpen, who persisted through a litany of career injuries to earn himself ample — and oftentimes electric — carries in 2019. In the past, Paul Petrino has been high on redshirt frosh Kiahn Martinez, who’s anticipated to contribute.

UI’s hoping its depth provides more blessings than confusion. Last year, injuries forced almost everyone to chip in.

Because the two position groups are mostly complete depth-wise, UI will have extra time to discern starters and situational substitutions, providing the Vandals see the field this spring.

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

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