MOSCOW — Out of all the enthusiastically boisterous, padless Vandal football players on the SprintTurf Sunday, the words of Jeff Cotton pierced through.
“I’m a machine!” the senior wideout shouted after ripping a near-sideline jump ball out of the hands of a defender for about a 30-yard gain.
Cotton — presumably the 2019 MVP of Idaho skill players — and sophomore sure-hander Cutrell Haywood were, as usual, machines. But it wasn’t a cinch. In fact, most of the stars’ grabs were those that only the stars could make.
When the ball didn’t go toward Cotton or Haywood, the story was a little different.
It’s because, personnel- and experience-wise, the Vandals’ is a “night and day” secondary — and defense, really — in comparison to last year. The space is slighter, the hand-fighting more furious, and ball chops rained harder.
That’s a tidbit highlighted by 6-foot juco transfer safety Satchel Escalante, whose nose for the ball and clear-cut high-motor play will most likely earn him a spot with the starting secondary.
“Right now, it’s our energy, we’re bringing a whole new energy to the team. One-hundred percent, we’re a completely different team,” said Escalante, a spring standout. “A lot of teams are going to take shots at us and Big Sky teams like to air it out.… I think, definitely, being able to play those deep balls is gonna be huge for us this year.”
And how so? The most apparent innovation isn’t schematic, but size. UI coach Paul Petrino had emphasized the need for towers in the secondary since 2018 ended. Apparently, he found a few.
Out of the dozen or so rotating with the main defense, half stand above 6-foot, led — in high point — by the jumbo, 6-2 Western Michigan transfer safety Davontae Ginwright, a common contributor on the Broncos’ 13-1 Cotton Bowl team of 2016.
“Davontae, he’s been at a four-year program. He knows what it’s like, he’s been on a winning team,” Escalante said, pointing out an exceptional teammate on the day. “He’s brought in a whole new enthusiasm to this team.”
Other newbies who showed an early knack for direction changes and close-outs were freshman Utah State transfer Christian Nash and Boise State transfer rookie safety Mujeeb Rufai.
Some impressive vets — besides the obvious, like corner Lloyd Hightower — included grinder Jalen Hoover, a starting safety in 2017 who’s made the move to corner, a more natural fit. Hoover stayed tight with nearly every assignment. Then there’s safety Tyrese Dedmon, a long, 6-1 ballhawk and one of the two common starters on the back end during the spring, as well as Escalante.
“Right when I came here, (Dedmon) was willing to help me and we always have been in the first group together,” Escalante said. “He’s taken me under his wing completely.”
It’s one of two UI position groups — the defensive line, too — that’ll be contested more than all others. The reason being? It’s been a while since the Vandals have had this kind of depth in those position groups. That was a recruiting goal, to bolster the rotation. In other words — improve depth.
“The rotation is for the talent,” said defensive tackle Rahsaan Crawford, mentioning that eight D-linemen will probably rotate, creating what he calls two sets of starters. “It might not have been the case in previous years, but now we actually have the talent to the point where we have three noses that can actually play, three tackles that can all play. I’d say that’s the main goal of (constant rotation) — to get the talent on the field.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Breske recognizes “the p-word, potential” on his side. In taking advantage of the NCAA’s transfer portal, he figures “Why not Idaho?” One fresh face, Boise State transfer “jack” Kayode Rufai has earned a “perfectionist” tag from Crawford.
Rufai, at 6-4, 260, makes a nice complement for buck Charles Akanno. The Vandals will boast two hybrid ends now, who both can drop back or rush the edge.
Behind Akanno and Rufai — quite possibly the tallest defender on the field — were the stout JC enlistees, Austin Holt and Leo Tamba, and frosh Coleman Johnson, brother of All-American guard Noah.
If there was any post-subbing drop-off in speed around the edges, it wasn't obvious.
“Guys are a lot fresher now,” said Crawford, who Petrino noted Friday is in the best shape he’s ever been in. “We have a lot of new faces, a lot of new talent, so we’re able to adjust. We’re able to rotate, we’re able to throw different guys in different packages.”
All that movement, acknowledged Crawford, leads to a faster and more competitive defense, with added “durability,” a trend lacking last year.
Notes and observations:
- Breske said players will begin to be graded for effort and technique beginning when the shells come on, which is Tuesday. The scrimmages will be paramount in deciding starters in the rotations.
Breske on communication: “Since the middle of June, they’ve been together. That chemistry has already been developed. It’s a great room in the D-line room, the linebackers room, the DBs, they have all added new people to those positions and they fit like a glove.”
- Freshman running back Nick Romano — the Idaho 5A MVP out of Rocky Mountain — got ample action with the first team, and showed a knack for reading the paths of closing defenders.
- WRs Brandon Luckett and Steavenson Fernand have left the team, and stellar recruit Kevin McGuire is out for the year with a knee injury. The competition for No. 3 receiver now heightens. DJ Lee and Mike Noil had commendable days, but the top play came from freshman Daseau Puffer (from Chandler, Ariz.). He outsprinted his defender during skeleton drills, then adjusted to snag a 40-yard, back-shoulder sideline bomb from Nikhil Nayar with the defense breathing down his neck.
- Crawford on the D-lineman with most “raw talent”:
“Noah Elliss, and that’s without a shadow of a doubt. Noah’s 6-5, he’s naturally strong. He has the intangibles. … The size, the wingspan, the speed, the athleticism, he has it.”
Noah Elliss didn’t practice. A UI spokesman said it’s a precautionary foot issue, but not at all serious.… Linebacker Robert Miller was absent with a leg injury. It was first reported as just cramping. He was being checked on during practice Sunday.