Idaho’s football team plans to welcome back its defensive centerpiece.
As for who heads up the offense? Vandals coach Paul Petrino is keeping that information in his back pocket.
Star junior middle linebacker Tre Walker, a preseason All-America candidate, is expected to return for No. 24 Idaho (2-1) when it meets Gem State rival Idaho State (1-3) at 3 p.m. Pacific Saturday at Holt Arena in Pocatello.
“Tre’s a really good player, (strongside linebacker) Christian (Elliss) is a really good player, so when you have the two of them together, that really helps,” Petrino said.
The Vandals were down their vocal leader in Walker, a hard-hitting All-Big Sky pick and one of the Football Championship Subdivision’s top run-stoppers. The Fresno, Calif., product missed UI’s 33-32 win against Southern Utah this past Saturday for unspecified reasons.
So too did graduate transfer quarterback Mike Beaudry, who was replaced by true freshman CJ Jordan.
Jordan sustained an apparent leg injury on a sack late in the third quarter, and was relieved by sophomore Nikhil Nayar. The third-stringer ended up leading two scoring drives in crunch time, and tossing the go-ahead touchdown to Cutrell Haywood with seven seconds remaining. The severity of Jordan’s injury is uncertain.
“Idaho State needs to really make sure they work for all three different guys,” said Petrino, grinning. “I might just run in the plays with all three of ’em.”
Beaudry started Idaho’s first two games, passing for 532 combined yards, three touchdowns and three picks on a 59.8-percent completion rate. In preseason camp, Petrino had locked the 6-5, 245-pound UConn transfer in as the Vandals’ No. 1 for the spring.
Beaudry has exhibited flashes of poise, mixed in with spurts of inaccuracy. Jordan dazzled with evasive pocket maneuvers in his first collegiate action, and Nayar spread the field well, limiting errant decisions.
“He was dodging linebackers left and right,” junior tackle Logan Floyd said of Jordan. “He was able to make some big plays, and I felt like that helped us in the long run.
“Nikhil stepped up. ... He knows the defenses, he knows what he’s doing.”
Petrino said UI’s COVID-19 testing Sunday “went good.” During his news conference, the eighth-year coach was awaiting Tuesday’s test results. The Vandals will be tested again today.
“I don’t know if you can settle in, in anything right now, any position group, because you don’t know who you’re going to have each week,” Petrino said. “Thursday could come around, (Tuesday) could come around, then all of a sudden, you don’t have somebody.”
On the bright side, backups playing now will “really build our depth for the future,” he noted.
Five offensive line newcomers — three of them usually reserves — have gotten extended reps this season, and multiple newbies in the defensive backfield also have had to step in for long stretches. Those have been Idaho’s two most concerning position groups.
Overall, Idaho was less short-handed Saturday. Beaudry, Walker and defensive end Kayode Rufai were the most notable sidelined players.
Floyd was one of nine key UI players to miss the team’s March 6 contest against UC Davis. Two days after the Vandals’ loss, their season was put on pause because of COVID-19 issues.
“I got pretty sick, lost my taste, lost my smell, had a fever,” Floyd said. “Watching the (UC Davis) game was rough. It just sucks isolating yourself from everyone, your teammates who you worked so hard with during this offseason.
“I was following all the COVID procedures, what the coaches told us to do. I was shocked that I got it, but you can really get it anywhere.”
Defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford, another absentee March 6, spoke on the individual obstacles this season has presented for a team captain like himself.
“Keeping guys ready to play, keeping guys motivated, making sure they’re not comfortable, not getting complacent ... that’s really been a challenge,” he said. “In times like this, where some games you go without guys, you’ve got to keep guys ready to play, motivated to play and expecting to be in tight games.”
Seniors Christian Elliss and Cade Coffey, a kicker/punter, worked through pro day drills Monday at the Kibbie Dome in front of NFL scouts representing 13 franchises.
Elliss posted unofficial marks comparable to NFL combine participants. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound All-Big Sky first-teamer logged 22 reps on the bench press, ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash, had a 33½-inch vertical, a 10-foot broad jump, a 6.98-second three-cone drill time, and completed the short shuttle in 4.28 seconds.
According to data compiled by Ourlads.com, Elliss either matched or outperformed the combine averages for outside linebackers in every drill except the vertical jump.
Elliss, the son of former 10-year pro Luther Elliss and brother of current New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss, has the option to return to UI in the fall for a final year of eligibility.
Through three games, sophomore receiver Hayden Hatten ranks fourth in the FCS in receiving yards per contest (122.3) and fifth in catches per outing (8.7).
The big-bodied, sure-handed former tight end out of Scottsdale, Ariz., seems to be turning into Idaho’s next pass-catching superstar.
“He’s playing like I expected him to play,” Petrino said of Hatten, who's registered 367 yards and two touchdowns already. "He didn't play as well as he could have against UC Davis and he knew that. He still made a bunch of plays and had yards, but he knew he could've played better and really worked hard the weeks leading up to last week's game.
"He improved on some things, did some crucial things on his releases and getting open on third downs, two of them on that (game-winning) two-minute drive."
UI’s O-line had its best game of the year against SUU, more than doubling the Vandals’ season rushing total with 209 yards. True freshmen Greyson Harwood, Nate Azzopardi and Elijah Sanchez started — continuing Idaho’s recent trend of trotting out rookie linemen.
“It was good to get Matt (Faupusa) and Logan Floyd back, and the three freshmen just keep battling, keep improving,” Petrino said. “As a whole group, they played well.”
Added Floyd: "They're all hard workers. ... They've just shown they want it. They've shown they want to win, they want to play."
Petrino has especially liked what he's seen at center from Harwood, a Rupert, Idaho, native who took over for injured juco transfer Chad Bagwell early in UI's Week 1 win over Eastern Washington.
"Greyson, at center, is just getting better and better every week," Petrino said.
Juniors Darius Archie and Beau St. John rotated in at guard and tackle, respectively.
Senior running back Dylan Thigpen had arguably his most impressive game versus the Thunderbirds, showing off a burst at the line and totaling 110 yards and a score on just nine carries. He began the year as the No. 3 option at RB.
“The layoff helped his knee, helped him get some rest,” Petrino said of Thigpen, who’s battled major injuries throughout his career. “He was fresh, and he has great vision. He’s always had great vision. A couple of springs ago, before he got hurt, he was probably the best football player on our whole team.”
Weakside linebacker Fa’avae Fa’avae, a Washington State transfer, earned the Big Sky’s defensive player of the week award after a career game, in which he tallied 18 tackles, helping Idaho limit SUU to just 53 ground yards.
“He’s really improved each week. He had to get used to playing a whole bunch of plays,” Petrino said.
If Fa'avae continues at this pace, combined with the always stalwart play of Walker and Elliss, Idaho just might be in possession of the strongest LB corps in the FCS.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.