For the first time in a long time, Idaho returns significant experience in the defensive backfield, and welcomes some youth in the depth chart that can be redshirted. A corner needs to emerge opposite returning starter Rod Bryant, but Idaho returns 4 safeties with at least 1 game of starting experience. All 4 safeties earned significant playing time in 2002, but, as was the case with Rod, it was also the first time on a D-1 field for all 4 safeties (2 JC transfers, a RS-Sophomore and a RS-Freshman), and it came with growing pains. Under the guidance of first year Defensive Backs coach Greg Jackson (a 12 year NFL veteran safety with a Super Bowl ring), and 2nd year Defensive Coordinator Ed Lamb, this group should continue to show improvement as a unit in 2003.
One area that will likely be given special attention will be Idaho's vulnerability to the big play that was so evident last fall. Having a year of experience under their belt (learning where to be, and where their teammates will be) should go a long way towards reducing big plays. Improved depth and competition throughout the depth chart, along with focused instruction by Coach Jackson, should also help this unit turn the corner. More importantly, it will help them build on the noticeable improvements they made last fall, which included doubling interceptions (4 as a unit, 8 for the team) and pass breakups (39 in 2002, up from just 23 in 2001).
Below is a quick glance at the projected Vandal defensive backfield for this spring and the 2003 season.
Returning Starters: Rod Bryant, Robert Ortega, Darryl Murphy
JC transfer Rod Bryant came to Idaho last fall and immediately took ownership of the starting cornerback position. In fact, he not only took ownership, he excelled. He ended the year 6th on the team in tackles (51), with 2 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. His stats are particularly significant in that the year prior to last year (2001), Idaho had 4 interceptions total, and not one was made by a Vandal corner. Rod had a solid season as a first year Vandal, and if he continues to develop this spring and summer like he did throughout last year, could be on the cusp of a great 2003 season. He's definitely one senior we look forward to watching next fall.
In all, Idaho is in the unusual position of returning 3 seniors who have starting experience at the 2 safety positions. Robert Ortega, a JC transfer who joined the Vandals last season, started 6 games for Idaho (4 at FS, 2 at SS). He missed the last 2 games for personal reasons, but will be back for 2003 (practicing this spring). He will definitely be a welcome returner next fall. In addition, Darryl Murphy battled Robert for starting duties throughout 2002. A JC transfer last season, Darryl was originally projected to be a corner but made the move to safety part-way through the season and started 4 games for Idaho.
5-11, 185, Sr
Finally, although 5th-year senior Chad Troxel did not end the year a starter, he did start the first 2 games of the year (FS) and played significantly in all 12 games at Safety and on Special Teams. With Chad, Idaho should have 4 seniors total with starting experience in the defensive backfield. Undoubtedly, having this much experience in the Vandal backfield will be a first for Idaho in the Cable-era. More importantly, all 4 improved noticeably as last season progressed (3 of the 4 were first year Vandals in 2002).
Players on the rise: Simeon Stewart, Nate Nichols, Brandon Mascorro
Idaho has 3 guys working their way up the PT food chain, and it might be fairly safe to expect all 3 of these guys to get plenty of playing time next fall. Simeon Stewart, a redshirt junior out of Seattle, appeared in 10 games last year as a sophomore safety, a remarkable feat considering he battled 1 senior and 3 juniors for PT. He'll be in the mix with 3 seniors this year, but he should be in the thick of the hunt for playing time in 2003.
5-8, 175, Jr
Also keep an eye open for redshirt sophomore safety Nate Nichols out of Walla Walla. In 2002 Nate appeared in 10 games, including starting 1 game as a RS-Freshman (against Washington alongside Robert Ortega), recording 8 tackles on the season, with a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. There will be alot of competition for PT this year among the safeties (including the addition of JC transfer Curtis Bibolet this spring), but the future continues to look bright for this youngster.
6-2, 206, So
We've also been told to keep a look out for RS-Freshman corner Brandon Mascorro out of California's St. Bonaventure High. He'll be in a battle for the starting job with JC transfer speedster J.R. Ruffin this spring, but he should get time on the field this fall. We saw the youngster knocking heads last fall during drills as a true freshman, and he didn't back down from anybody.
Newcomers To Watch: J.R. Ruffin, Curtis Bibolet
Idaho went into the recruiting season looking for 2 guys to provide immediate depth in the defensive backfield; one at corner and the other at safety. The staff fulfilled those needs, and brought in 2 guys who should be competing for playing time immediately. At corner Idaho signed J.R. Ruffin, a JC transfer speedster who originally signed with Idaho last year, but did not qualify. He stuck things out though, met his qualification requirements, and will be with the Vandals this spring (and will have 2 years to play 2 at Idaho). Hailed in a couple of publications as one of Idaho's top recruits from a year ago, his presence should certainly bolster the cornerback depth chart and make the competition for playing time pretty interesting this spring.
6-3, 215, Jr
Idaho's other need was at safety. Fortunately, the Vandals return 3 seniors, a junior and a redshirt sophomore with significant playing experience (including 4 safeties with starting experience). The signing of JC transfer Curtis Bibolet gives the backfield a prospect with great size (6-3, 215), and should give the team some upper classman continuity for 2004 (Idaho will lose 4 senior safeties after this season to graduation). As with J.R., Curtis will likely be in the thick of the hunt for PT this fall.
Idaho recruited 3 freshmen defensive backs, including speedy Kyle Williams out of Oakland, CA. At first blush it looks like all 3 will be redshirted next fall...but you never know.
Note: * = Walk-on last fall, [bold] = returning starter
Returning starters listed in BOLD
Players with starting experience (+) listed below starters
All remaining players listed by class
Darryl Murphy, 5-11, 185, Sr
Robert Ortega, 6-1, 200, Sr
(+) Chad Troxel, 5-6, 175, Sr
(+) Nate Nichols, 6-2, 206, So
Jedidiah Getzlaf, 5-10, 186, Sr
Simeon Stewart, 5-8, 175, Jr
Curtis Bibolet, 6-3, 215, Jr
*Ace Davis, 6-0, 200, RS-Fr
Lee Jones, 6-1, 180, True-Fr
Rod Bryant, 6-1, 185, Sr
Antjuan Tolbert, 5-11, 174, Sr
J.R. Ruffin, 5-11, 195, Jr
Ben Allen, 6-0, 190, Jr
Brandon Mascorro, 5-9, 179, RS-Fr
Eric McMillan, 5-10, 180, True-Fr
Kyle Williams, 5-9, 170, True-Fr
5-9, 170, RS-Fr