There’s no telling if Idaho football will again toil or instead thrive in Year 2 of Big Sky play. Too many glaring questions linger, and there are too many rough remembrances of shattered coverages, three-and-outs or kick-6 blocks for any outright optimism yet.
But the Vandals do have something going: Fractions of change, which are certainly welcome after a 4-7 reintroduction to their former league. The question of whether or not these bear fruit will begin to be answered when UI opens fall camp tonight at 6.
On the surface, there’s a lot of fresh: From the dozen-plus new faces and depth, to revamped, speed-centric schematics, to added enthusiasm — rather than the confusion or apathy of ’18, stemming from the completion of the FCS drop.
“I think early on, some guys didn’t really know what to expect,” said Vandals coach Paul Petrino during his fall-camp-preceding news conference Friday at the Kibbie Dome. On that note, he also alluded to the recuperation of UI’s recruiting after a couple of painful years, featuring many “How much do you really care about football?” inquiries from parents of prospects, concerned with the drop.
“You didn’t hear that this year … and it was one of the better recruiting years we’ve had. I do feel a lot of energy and excitement. Guys have played against these teams now and know what it’s all about, know how good of football they play.”
And maybe even the quarterback situation won’t be an ’18 reproduction. Petrino said he’s planning to start phasing out the multi-man system by the time UI’s Sept. 14 scuffle at Wyoming ends. The frontrunners, as expected, are undersized senior Mason Petrino — from Pullman High — and opposite him, the 6-foot-4, 277-pound, Lewiston-reared junior, Colton Richardson, neither of whom awed many a season ago.
But “they’re both way better players than they were last year at this time,” said Paul Petrino. Owing to experience, the two own an initial edge over redshirt freshman Nikhil Nayar, who’s impressed in drills. Petrino confirmed that the 6-5, 225-pounder remains in the competition’s mix and will receive equal reps in camp.
But it’s uncertain still if UI’s passing game will exceed the almost every-down short out routes, hitches or crossers. Petrino’s continued to emphasize “getting more yards after the catch” via open-field tackle busting.
“There were a lot of plays last year that … were maybe a 15-yard gain, that could be a 30-yard gain,” he said. “It’s not always just the guy catching the ball, it’s everybody else doing their job of stretching the defense and playing hard, and playing fast.”
That’s tough to gauge. On one hand, an unexceptional UI offense was limited to shorter attempts/gains last year on what appeared the same tactic. On the other (and on paper), the Vandals are deeper and enjoy a wider spread of talent at wideout and running back.
The Vandals do enter camp a pass-catcher short, though. Three-star speedster Kevin McGuire — one of UI’s top recruits of the decade — suffered a knee injury this summer, and will miss 2019. The task of finding a No. 3 receiver behind standouts Jeff Cotton and Cutrell Haywood now becomes tougher.
Plus it might be tricky simply picking what running backs play. As for the younger ones, Petrino said freshman and reigning Idaho 5A MVP Nick Romano — out of Rocky Mountain — could vie for a role, as well as three-star 24/7Sports Regis Jesuit product (Colo.) Kiahn Martinez.
“There’s a lot of those freshmen, you just see them running, doing cone drills, doing changes of direction,” Petrino said approvingly, with Romano and Martinez in the same breath.
It joys the seventh-year boss to consider that upcoming competition, which will also feature Roshaun Johnson and Aundre Carter, who have the edge after solid springs, along with well-rounded Dylan Thigpen — the star of spring 2018 — fully recovered from a knee injury.
“Nothing’s better than competition,” Petrino said, not limiting the thought to running backs, but including the D-line and defensive backfield. “The best thing is if there’s a guy right there that can take their job, they’re gonna give maximum effort every single play.”
Most importantly to Petrino, however, is that they’ll work behind an experienced, lightly altered, ostensibly solidified offensive line that UI players and coaches have been comparing to the 2016 bowl team’s since recruitment ended.
Still, UI has some work to do on defense. “We ran a lot more this summer” and "put a lot of time into (run-pass options),” Petrino said, with aims of evolving into a group capable of combating the league’s affinity for space-thriving signal callers, hurry-up offenses and said RPOs.
“The biggest thing (with RPOs) that you really gotta do is control the line of scrimmage,” Petrino said. “(Most teams are a) little bit more wide-open, spread the field, get guys in mismatches, and we’ve gotta be able to tackle them in space and get people used to defending that.”
The Vandals’ defense could look upwards of 70 percent different, considering risers like buck Charles Akanno and four-star freshman defensive tackle Noah Elliss, in addition to the 10 defensive transfers, six of them defensive backs — and five of them FBS bounce-backs.
On the back end, Petrino said Western Michigan transfer Davontae Ginwright and juco product Satchel Escalante will make an interesting battle for time at safety, and fleet-footed freshman corner David Eppinger could play a role in what Petrino hopes will be a complete 180 from 2018, when UI’s secondary was among the conference’s worst.
All this newness might evoke fears of communication breakdown, but Petrino affirmed “they’re a closer group” than at this time in ’18.
“I’m really excited about the unity of the team and I think we’re going to have good leadership,” he said. “We got a lot of new guys, especially on the defensive side of the ball, so you gotta see them come together, learn the scheme and really improve one day at a time.”
Petrino on schedule goals:
“Four of your toughest games are the very top part of the schedule (at Penn State, at Wyoming, vs. Eastern Washington and vs. Weber State) … so you need to make sure you find a way to beat one of those conference teams at home. … Then the back end of our schedule needs to be like our bowl year, you run the table.
“When we went to the bowl game, we won our last five games, and to get to the playoffs and have a great year, you’re probably gonna have to do that again.”