MOSCOW — Idaho’s football team has the good fortune of returning all but two starters on its defense.
Offensively ... well, there’s work to do — five are gone, including three offensive linemen and starting quarterback Mason Petrino, whose best facet might’ve been his coach-esque ability to read defenses and make checks.
So it’s back to a somewhat-spotty drawing board for Vandals coach Paul Petrino and Co., who hit the road earlier this week for the “contact period” of player recruitment.
“You go right on to the next thing,” said Petrino, who just finished his seventh year with UI at 5-7 overall and 3-5 in Big Sky play in the team’s second year back in the conference.
“You reflect on (the season) as you’re driving around. You reflect on it at night in the hotel room. ... That’s important to make sure you keep going over it and see what your strengths are and what you’re looking for as you talk to recruits.”
Petrino said he’ll oftentimes share game film with prospects; it illustrates where said recruits could provide help, and flaunts the weapons they’ll be working beside.
As far as enticing a proficient quarterback, that could bode well — UI lost all-league receiver Jeff Cotton, its best player, but isn’t short on dynamic skill players.
It’ll add two more in lightning-quick receivers Chauncy Smart and Kevin McGuire.
Smart (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) committed to the school in October. He’s a former South Florida Bulls speedster who transferred in 2017 to the University of Miami (Fla.), and ran sprints for the Hurricanes’ track team. He told the Tribune he’ll be on campus for spring ball.
McGuire (5-9, 170), a three-star 247Sports.com recruit last year — the Vandals’ highest-rated get in nine years — sustained a season-ending leg injury in the summer. Before then, he was an expected starter out of Culver City High School in Los Angeles.
Maybe that kind of outlook, with a bonus in the return of the four familiar-faced running backs, helped draw in standout local quarterback Caleb Jordan (Union High School; Camas, Wash.), who committed to UI on Nov. 6. The 6-3, 190-pound dual-threat player had meniscus surgery two weeks ago, and missed the end of the year.
Although he might enjoy the intangibles to compete for time right away, it’s more likely he’ll take a year or more to grow, considering something Petrino noted when asked about recruiting a signal-caller.
“We’ll probably take two — a guy that can play right away and compete to play right away, and a guy that can come in as a youngster,” he said. “We’ve thought about (quarterback) a lot; we’ve been working hard on that.”
UI has at least eight quarterback offers on the table, according to 247Sports. The most intriguing is Dominique Shoffner, a 6-2, 220-pound North Carolina Central transfer to top-20-ranked Monroe College (N.Y.).
He was offered early on by the Vandals, and includes them in his top eight schools on Twitter. Shoffner accounted for 2,305 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and four interceptions, and added 388 yards and 14 scores rushing.
If Idaho were to go the juco route, spring camp most likely would feature the beginnings of a three-man quarterback competition between a transfer, sophomore Nikhil Nayar and junior Colton Richardson, who retained a redshirt this year after injuring his ankle Oct. 19 in a win against Idaho State.
Besides QB, UI’s needs lie primarily on the offensive line and in the secondary. Three starters in the already shallow trenches have departed, including former All-American guard Noah Johnson. All-Big Sky cornerback Lloyd Hightower and mainstay safety Sedrick Thomas are graduating.
“The immediate help would probably be more offensively,” Petrino said. Particularly on the O-line, where the Vandals will need to work quickly to prep two tackles to start.
“Offensively, we’ll have to probably build some leaders. Defensively, I think we’ll have a lot.”
Out of the entire defensive two-deep, Hightower and Thomas are the only players leaving. Christian Elliss (senior linebacker), Tre Walker (junior LB), defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford (senior) and D-end Kayode Rufai (senior) have been billed as the most crucial returning captains in the unit.
UI’s young, hit-and-miss group of defensive backs needs help, but Petrino said the newfound position versatility of players like sophomore David Eppinger and senior Jalen Hoover provides a recruiting boon. The two can play corner and safety.
“That really helps,” Petrino said. “Then maybe you just take the best corner or safety you can get, as opposed to having to be one slot or the other.”
With not much lost, and a wealth of notable returners, Petrino said “the expectations should be high.” Knowing Petrino’s teams, there should be an assumption there’ll be another set or two of siblings.
“I can’t name people, but there could be a chance,” a grinning Petrino said. “I gotta watch myself.”
What worked with last year’s class
UI’s signing of Utah State transfer Christian Nash and Arizona prep star Eppinger — along with its moving Hoover to corner — helped provide a considerable boost to its secondary. The Vandals’ passing defense made a nine-spot jump in efficiency from a year ago, finishing third. Defensive coordinator Mike Breske employed a nickel set more often, to greater effect. UI had to work through a season-ending injury to senior transfer Davontae Ginwright in October, and juco transfer safety Satchel Escalante’s transfer in mid-September.
Nick Romano, Idaho’s Class 5A Player of the Year in 2018, became a workhorse freshman, tallying 513 yards on 101 carries and five total scores. But he earned first-team All-Big Sky honors for his league-best 27-yard kick return average.
Freshman tight end Hayden Hatten made a one-handed SportsCenter Top 10 catch on the sideline against Wyoming, and had two touchdowns against NAU as a receiver.
To limit running quarterbacks, Idaho recruited speed at outside linebacker and defensive end. Newcomers Jalan Jenkins, Sully Shannon, Kayode Rufai — when healthy — and Leonick Tamba fared well in space, helping limit opposing league quarterback to slimmer outputs on the ground. Portland State’s Davis Alexander had 91 rushing yards, the most allowed by 30.
Former Mississippi State commit Noah Elliss had his season cut short by injury, but 350-pound Santa Rosa College (Calif.) transfer Jonah Kim established himself as a run-stuffing starter.
What didn’t work
The Vandals didn’t recruit much depth on the offensive line, and those that appeared in line to play in the preseason struggled with injuries.
The O-line was inconsistent, and clearly shallow. It allowed a league-worst 35 sacks and committed the majority of UI’s conference-high 104 penalties.
With McGuire injured, UI struggled to find a third option at receiver behind Cotton and Cutrell Haywood.
Clark may be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.