As far as efficiency goes, Idaho’s secondary made substantial gains in 2019 — the Vandals’ second season back in a league that’s been known to feature pass-first, chunk-gain offenses and blazing-fast receivers.
The year before, UI’s defensive backfield looked out of sorts as Big Sky Conference foes pushed the pace and aired it out, often gashing the Vandals on deep shots.
Idaho ranked last in the conference in pass-defense efficiency in 2018, permitting opposing quarterbacks to throw for 2,843 yards and 28 touchdowns on a 61.8-percent completion rate against only four interceptions.
The Vandals vaulted out of the bottom of the Big Sky barrel last season, all the way up to No. 3 in the league in efficiency.
Adjusting to the BSC’s tendencies, UI doubled its picks, sliced 6 percent off that completion rate and conceded eight fewer touchdowns. Sure, one might chalk some of it up to an improved front seven. Yet the Vandals' secondary last season appeared quicker, lengthier and deeper than 2018's.
“Playing in the Big Sky is actually fun, considering I played in the Sun Belt too my first year here,” senior safety and team captain Tyrese Dedmon said. “It was a big change. It gave us in the secondary more of a game. We gotta play more pass coverage and cover the field more against speedy receivers.
“We want to be the best secondary in the Big Sky, and we can be that. We just gotta continue to move forward, keep working and building," Dedmon said earlier this preseason.
By the numbers, UI’s defensive backfield has sharpened its wits in terms of cutting down on explosive outputs. But the Vandals still have some developing to do if they want to replicate or improve upon last season’s successes.
Standout cornerback Lloyd Hightower graduated after two years as Idaho’s most reliable DB. Safety Sedrick Thomas completed his eligibility too. What’s more: Breakout sophomore corner Christian Nash and high-ceiling freshman David Eppinger transferred out during the offseason.
“On the back end, that’s where we’ve got to figure some things out,” defensive coordinator/safeties coach Mike Breske said.
On the bright side, Dedmon returns at free safety, where he emerged last season as a defensive centerpiece in his first year starting.
The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder has a nose for the ball and a propensity for punishing hits. Dedmon, who has appeared in 33 games since 2017, logged two picks and two forced fumbles last season, and was No. 3 on the team with 50 tackles.
“Tyrese Dedmon is our bell cow. Lots of reps with Tyrese,” Breske said. “Physically, he’s taken care of himself. He’s in great shape, he works very hard in the weight room. He’s laying it on the line. He’s a leader for us on the defensive side. ... I have high expectations for Tyrese, and he does too.
“Then we’ve gotta find another safety.”
Sophomore Seattle native Jaxon Woodward will get the nod at strong safety for the Vandals’ season opener, which is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday against No. 12 Eastern Washington at the Kibbie Dome.
Woodward primarily played on special teams in 2019. He also saw action in 10 contests for UI’s basketball team. So, he’ll at least bring extra athleticism to the fold.
Woodward (6-0, 187) beat out freshman Tommy McCormick, sophomore Mujeeb Rufai, junior Ryan Swanson and rookie Oregon State transfer Marcus Harris for the start.
On Idaho’s recently released depth chart, Harris is listed as Dedmon’s backup, and McCormick will fill in for Woodward as needed.
“Not a lot of experience (at safety), and we’ve gotta develop that in a short amount of time,” Breske said.
Idaho coach Paul Petrino said Harris’ signing with the Vandals was a “big one.” The 5-10, 170-pounder boasts high-level speed, and Petrino said he’s been one of the most pleasant surprises of camp.
The same goes for true freshman Floridian Arnell Walker (5-11, 160), who enjoys perhaps the best upside among Idaho’s young cornerbacks.
“Arnell’s been playing really well,” Petrino said.
Leading that group will be four-year starter Jalen Hoover, a former safety who explored transfer options this offseason before electing to return — much to the relief of the Vandals, who will employ the pass-deflecting maestro (team-high 10 last season) at corner and nickel, depending on the personnel elsewhere.
Senior Spokane native Tevin Duke and junior Portland product Wyryor Noil — mainstay UI reserves — are on Idaho’s two-deep.
L.A. Valley College transfer Awan Parker (6-0, 175) has the size and quickness to vie for starts, and Football Bowl Subdivision bounce-back Josh Jones, from Texas-San Antonio, provides depth and a promising future. Montana grad transfer corner Dareon Nash opted out of the spring season for personal reasons but intends to play in the fall, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
“A lot of it early on will be by committee until we kinda get into a groove,” Breske noted.
Dedmon said this year’s defensive backs are more physical than 2019’s unit, adding that the Vandals are able to switch up their coverage schemes more fluidly depending on what offenses project.
“If we have to go press, we can go press. If we do play similar to last year and have to run with people, we’re fast enough to run with people,” he said. “We’ll just go with the flow.”
A boon for UI’s defense, senior Idahoan Cade Coffey returns for his fourth season as punter. The former All-American has a dialed-in cannon for a leg, and dropped 22 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines last season. Coffey's punting average (44.2) currently stands at No. 3 in program history.
Sophomore Logan Prescott will relieve Coffey on kickoff duties. The two have shared field goals and PATs during camp.
“We’re trying to keep (Coffey) fresh. We know he’s going to be an unbelievable punter,” Petrino said.
“Hidden yardage in special teams” has long been one of the eighth-year coach’s talking points. First-team All-BSC kick returner Nick Romano will split the task with New Mexico transfer Elijah Lilly, who took a pair of kickoffs to the house and averaged 23.5 yards per return in three seasons with the Lobos.
All-leaguer Cutrell Haywood and shifty JC transfer Jermaine Jackson will divvy up the punt returns.
“Every game, one of the biggest reasons why you win or lose is who wins the battle of field position,” Petrino said.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.