All are crucial questions when considering Idaho's fortunes this fall. But below are three keys that most commonly rise to the top when Vandal fans talk about returning to bowl eligibility for the upcoming season. The order of priority for these three are debatable, but more-often-than-not these three issues hold the keys to success in the upcoming season.
1) The Vandal defensive front line must be more effective at disrupting opposing offenses, and the unit must replace the productivity of All-WAC defensive end Aaron Lavarias.
For the first time in four years, the Vandal D will be without the services of defensive end (and one of Idaho's emotional leaders) Aaron Lavarias, a 2010 All-WAC selection last year as a senior. Replacing his team-best 17 tackles for loss, which included 10 sacks on the year, will be a challenge. But beyond the stats, it will be his relentless style of play and dogged determination from his strongside defensive end position that will be the hardest to replace this fall. And beyond Lavarias, the Vandals must fill the voids left by departed senior interior defensive linemen Jonah Sataraka and Fonomanu Sekona.
Junior rush end Benson Mayowa|
On the strongside Idaho will look to senior Charles Smith (6-6, 266) for senior leadership, while sophomore Vincent Keener (6-4, 260) appears poised to make an impact this fall. Both will battle to fill the position vacated by Lavarias. Smith saw the most action of his Vandal career last fall, and Keener was solid in spring camp. And to keep everyone on their toes, look for touted redshirt freshman Maxx Forde (6-4, 256) to start getting some reps this fall, on either the stong or rush sides of the line.
RS-Fr Karel Kearney (6-1.5, 294)|
Next to Cosgrove, the Vandals will be young and inexperienced at noseguard going into 2011, but this should develop into one of the deepest rotations Idaho has seen in a long time. Redshirt freshman Karel Kearney (6-1.5, 294) earned top billing coming out of spring camp. But right on his heels is another powerful freshman in Ryan Edwards, a powerful 6-foot-2.5 and 306 pound athlete. What the Vandals may lose in experience going into this fall, they will more than make up for in sheer size and strength, a luxury Idaho hasn't had in a long time.
True-Fr Ryan Edwards (6-2.5, 306)|
And there is one more name to add to the mix of interior defensive linemen as well: Quayshawn Buckley (6-4, 300). A highly regarded prospect coming out of Colony (Ontario, CA) High School, Buckley was named an All-CIF First Team defensive lineman in 2008 as a senior following a junior season in which he was a First Team offensive line selection. A top prospect on either side of the line, he was ranked a 3-star prospect by Scout.com. He signed an LOI with Washington State (offers from WSU, Oregon State, Idaho and Colorado State) in the spring of 2009 and was intent on joining the Cougs the following fall. Those plans fell through though, and he spent the last year successfully meeting the academic requirements to enroll at the University of Idaho. He's officially listed on the Idaho roster as a sophomore for fall camp, and we'll be tracking his development in the coming weeks and months. But suffice it to say that he has all the tools needed to make an immediate impact on the Vandal D-Line.
So who will step up this fall? Who will bring the tenacity Lavarias brought on every down? Who will fill the voids left by departed seniors Jonah Sataraka and Fonomanu Sekona? The answers to those questions and more will go a long way in determining if Idaho makes the improvements needed across the defensive line to elevate the team into the upper half of the Western Athletic Conference.
For those that have been taking notes, this is easily the biggest defensive line across the board for Idaho in a decade. The Vandals will go 250-pounds or more at BOTH ends, and the interior defensive line will go 290-plus. But more importantly, this unit has outstanding size and strength throughout the depth chart as well -- not just at the top. How well that translates into a more disruptive defensive line in 2011 will define how effective the Vandal defense is this fall.
2) The offensive line must improve as a unit if Idaho's offensive attack is going to be more balanced and potent in 2011.
In 2009, Idaho fans were blessed with an opportunity to see what a really effective offensive line looked like. Future first-round NFL draft pick Mike Iupati was a one-man wrecking crew, and the senior laden line around him was a tremendous supporting cast, loaded with years of playing experience and blessed with outstanding size and strength.
Last fall Idaho said good-bye to four of those starters, and the team struggled through much of the 2010 season to replicate the balance that the '09 line delivered.
3-year starting left tackle Matt Cleveland|
Heralded redshirt freshman Mike Marboe (6-2, 299), ranked the No.18 center in the country by Scout.com as a high school senior, made a statement during spring drills a couple months ago, working with the No.1 offense almost the entire spring at center and guard, switching with Tupua throughout the camp so the coaches see which position would be the best fit for each lineman. His performance in spring camp appears to have put him in prime position for a starting job this fall.
Probably the one position that is most open for debate at this point is strong guard. Sophomore Jordan Johnson (6-5, 313) earned extensive reps last fall as a redshirt freshman, starting five games along the way which makes him the clear front-runner to start in the season opener. But he missed almost the entire spring camp, giving others like junior Bilal Liggins a chance to work with the top offensive line. Junior college transfers A.J. Jones and Brady Lisoski, as well as a host of young emerging talent, bring additional size to the line and are likely to factor into the race.
Regardless of how the line ultimately breaks down, this group must be effective or Idaho's potentially potent attack will have difficulty getting traction.
3) Replace fifth-round NFL Draft pick Nathan Enderle at quarterback.
For the first time in four years the Vandals will be breaking in a new starter at quarterback. Gone is fifth round draft pick Nathan Enderle to the Chicago Bears, as well as his 8,200 career passing yards. Last year Enderle led an offensive unit that ranked ninth nationally in total offense, as they averaged 451.38 yards per game. The passing attack averaged 286.69 aerial yards per game to place 12th in the country, while the unit finished sixth in team passing efficiency (155.42). For his efforts Enderle was named the 2010 Vandal football MVP.
QB Brian Reader|
He entered the Idaho program as a redshirt sophomore and immediately battled starter Nathan Enderle throughout the spring and fall for starting duties in 2009. Enderle won the battle, but Reader played extensively during that Humanitarian Bowl season, starting at Boise State and in Moscow against Fresno State. Also that year he came off the bench in the fourth quarter at San Jose State when Enderle struggled, leading Idaho on a come-from-behind touchdown drive for the victory over the Spartans, and proved to be a backup that could move the ball effectively.
In 2010 he had fewer opportunities to play (Enderle remained healthy all season), but Reader still took advantage of every opportunity he got by completing 59% of his passes (42-of-71) for five touchdowns and just one pick on the year and a 146.78 efficiency rating.
Now the Vandal offense rests on the shoulders and arm of Reader. He will have several effective weapons at his disposal (a talented stable of tailbacks, explosive depth at wide receiver, and a tightend corps that is looking to be as effective receiving as they are passing). Pushing Reader will be talented redshirt sophomore Taylor Davis (6-3.5, 223) who looked solid in spring drills and will go into 2011 as Idaho's top backup.
All eyes will be focused on this position early in the season as Idaho embarks on the post-Enderle era.