Idaho’s spoiler alert

Moscow-Pullman Daily News/Geoff CrimminsIdaho receivers Cutrell Haywood (center), Jeff Cotton and DJ Lee (right) are part of a dangerous trio at the position for the Vandals. Cotton had 656 yards and seven touchdowns and Haywood had 489 yards and six scores in 2018. Those two, along with the explosive Lee, will be critical to the success of the Vandals this season.

MOSCOW — The Idaho football team had strung together a few too many lazy reps Friday at the SprinTurf — iffy routes, wrong formations and slumping effort.

It prompted coach Paul Petrino to halt practice, huddle everyone up and give an impassioned lecture. He called on the leaders to set an example. Specifically, he pointed to star receiver Jeff Cotton.

Not 20 seconds later, Cotton got a step on cornerback Jagger Jacobi on a 30-yard deep fade from quarterback Mason Petrino. In the air, it looked well out of reach, but Cotton “couldn’t let it hit the ground.” He stretched his right arm to its extent, and with two fingers, tipped the ball to himself for 6, a grab he called a top-three passing play of fall camp.

“That’s good leadership; that’s the way to respond,” Paul Petrino grinned. “Wish I could just do that all the time and it works like that.”

But with Cotton, that might be the case, especially if tested in single coverage. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound senior has undeniably been UI’s fall-camp MVP on offense. His value led coaches to put him in a “do-not-hit” yellow shirt throughout most of camp.

He lines up inside and out, and might motion at the last second. He burns corners on deep go-routes, and undercuts safeties on crossing patterns. So far — from anywhere, on any given play — he’s been reliable. Check the unofficial stats in three extended scrimmages: 25 receptions, 430 yards, eight touchdowns. A chunk of those numbers came against an improved starting secondary.

“I make sure to work on catching every single day,” said Cotton, who led UI with seven scores in 2018 and added 656 yards. “I don’t wanna have any drops this year. I feel like there were a few catches I should’ve made last year.”

And many more that he made, but probably shouldn’t have.

The Vandals can’t afford to squander their receiving spoils. For a year, they’ll have one of the Big Sky’s best duos in Cotton, and an inside guy who’s almost as good, Petrino pointed out — sophomore Cutrell Haywood, who’s effectively replacing former UI mainstay David Ungerer, last year’s leading receiver and now a Hamilton Tiger-Cat.

Haywood logged six touchdowns and 489 yards last season on the exterior. He adjusts seamlessly to balls in flight, and has retained his speed while putting on five pounds. He’s perhaps UI’s most trustworthy blocking receiver too.

It’s easy to see why Petrino keeps bringing up an increase in the Vandals’ fall-camp chunk gainers.

“Get at least three more yards after the catch,” Cotton said on a meeting-room emphasis. “Every time you get it, make something happen with it.”

Cotton and Haywood are close compatriots on the field and in meetings. They sit beside each other, and walk raw teammates through coverages and schemes. Cotton said the two are striving to combine for at least 2,000 yards and 20 scores, and for both to be named All-Americans of some kind. They push each other in practice to reach those goals.

Behind them, the rotation is in question. Veteran Jante Boston has made his case for the X position through dependability — his vast football knowledge prohibits mental errors, he blocks well and has been sure-handed (and footed) on the sideline.

But explosive DJ Lee is nipping at his heels. After Lee, there’s a battle for reps across the field between four youngsters, including greatly improved Pullman product Jed Byers.

“(Petrino’s) been preaching, just wear out those DBs, ’cause we got the depth,” Cotton said. “A lot of people are talking about me and Cutrell, but we have a lot of young guys stepping up.”

Also rising in the passing — and blocking — game is Spokane’s Connor Whitney, a 220-pound but speed-centric sophomore tight end who flashed last year and has been a prime target in camp on intermediate passes, particularly in scoring range. But he’s got some help with freshman Hayden Hatten, and unheralded blocker-types Luke Hyde and Logan Kendall.

“We’ll be really deep as a unit. We’re gonna be fresher,” Whitney said.

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

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