Bitter Rivals Prepare To Clash

What kind of Vandal football team will first year head coach <b>Nick Holt</b> roll into Boise with this Saturday? Well, we'll just have to see. But with as much turnover and change as Idaho has undergone this off-season, the shift in tempo, attitude, and preparation has been impressive from Day 1.<br> <br> Idaho leads the all-time series 17-15-1, while BSU is a heavy favorite in this game. Coach Holt is taking this game very seriously, and we are fairly confident that his players will too.

Change.

For much of last season, Vandal football fans were calling for a coaching change in Moscow. What we got, however, was a complete overhaul of the program, starting at the very top. Not only was former coach Tom Cable replaced, but so was his boss (Mike Bohn). Enter new Idaho Athletics Director, Dr. Rob Spear, who has been at the University of Idaho for almost 15 years. He is committed to staying at Idaho for the long-term, and was key to Idaho hiring its new football coaching staff and working towards the WAC invitation that came this past spring.

With respect to the football program, the hire of Nick Holt as Idaho's 31st Head Football Coach was the shot in the arm that the Vandal fans and boosters needed. He has been instrumental in re-energizing everyone close to the program, including, and most importantly, the players who seem to have a renewed commitment to the game. Multiple media outlets throughout the state and region constantly refer to the "intensity" that he has brought back to the program, and from what we have seen, we completely agree with the statement. How soon this will translate into wins (and hopefully lots of them) remains to be seen...but things appear to be headed in the right direction.


OVERALL

Young, young, young. Sophomores, RS-freshmen, and true freshmen will be filling significant roles throughout the Vandal 2-deep depth chart in 2004. Stated bluntly, Idaho will be counting on a number of youngsters to step up and make a difference, particularly as the season progresses. Seven true freshmen are already listed in the 2-deep depth chart, and that number could grow throughout 2004.


OFFENSE


MARLIN SMITH / VandalVenue.com
There are probably as many uncertainties on both sides of the football this fall, but for whatever reason it seems like there are more question marks offensively than defensively. Those question marks affect pretty much every group offensively, except quarterback. Unlike last season, there is no question who will be the starting QB in '04, and which QB has won the confidence of the team. RS-junior Michael Harrington, voted a Team Captain this spring, started the first 5 games last season, and completed 46% of his passes for 996 yards, 5 TDs and 4 INTs in 2003. What should make a significant difference this season is what appears to be an improvement in dedicated quarterback coaching. With Coach Holt came Jonathan Smith, former record setting quarterback for Oregon State, and his connection with Mike is evident. Harrington complimented a solid spring with improvement shown during fall camp, staking his claim as the #1 QB for the 2004 Vandal offense.

In the last scrimmage Harrington went 15 of 23 for 170 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT with a long of 39 yards. Earlier in a camp scrimmage he completed 12 of 17 for 136 yards. Obviously, Harrington's continued development is key to Idaho's ability to move the ball this fall.


MARLIN SMITH / VandalVenue.com
At times last season, it looked like the receivers and QBs rarely worked on the passing game together. Lots of dropped passes in addition to improper routes and errant throws. This fall improvement clearly appears to be made on both fronts, despite the loss of Idaho's top 3 receivers from a year ago. Wide receivers Jimmy Labita, Wendell Octave (shown at left), and Bobby Bernal-Wood head the Vandal WR depth chart this fall and combined last season for 60 receptions, 940 yards and 4 touchdowns. Also in the mix is junior Jeff Stowe, who was 4th on the Vandal receiving list last season with 30 receptions for 316 yards, 4 TDs and an average of 11 yards per reception. Rounding out the top of the depth chart is true freshman Desmond Belton (who comes to Idaho from New Jersey), a 6-4, 190 pound prospect who is listed as the backup to Octave.

If there is one position where Idaho has been hit hard with injuries in the recent past, it is at tightend. For the season opener Willie Sipoloa and Brian Yarno (voted Team Captain this spring) are listed as starters. Both are converting to TE after playing FB the last couple years. Expected in the mix are sophomores Luke Smith-Anderson and Keith Greer. Both were injured in Idaho's first game last season, and both spent all of last season and part of spring recovering.


LARRY JOHNSON / VV.com
One of the most heavily contested positions this fall was runningback. Idaho has converted back to the single-back, spread offense this fall, and the position has been up for grabs with the graduation of last season's 1,200 yard rusher Zach Gerstner. Saturday's starter is true sophomore Cliff Mason (shown at right) who saw action in 10 games last fall as a true freshman. Backing up Cliff is senior Justin Wall, a hard-nosed runner who looked good this fall. Two incoming freshmen, Rolly Lumbala and Jayson Bird, had strong showings in fall camp, and it would be surprising if neither of these players see playing time at some point this fall.

Up front the Vandals couldn't afford any injuries this fall. They're healthy going into the season, but will still be without rising star offensive tackle Hank Therien (6-7, 321, RS-Soph) who will be suspended for this game. The loss of Hank (voted Team Captain, Pre-Season 1st Team All Conference tackle, and on at least one NFL draft watch list) forces the Vandal line to shift to cover the loss. Classmates Nate VanderPol (6-6, 296) and Jade Tadvick (6-5, 320) make the biggest moves, with Nate moving from right tackle to left and Jade moving from left guard to right tackle. The middle of the line will see one player with significant experience (Tony Kiel, 6-3, 317, Senior), and 2 juniors making their debut on the line (at center is Jerrod Schulte, 6-3, 269, and guard Ryan Waage, 6-3 302). Off-season conditioning appears to have affected this group dramatically, with several linemen reporting 15-20 pounds weight loss from last season following extensive training during the spring and summer.


DEFENSE

If there is one platoon from the 2003 Vandal defense that needed improvement, it was the defensive front's ability to stop the run. Gone is defensive tackle Brian Howard (signed free agent contract with St. Louis) and nose guard Kelly Talavou (transferred to Utah).

Returning are Idaho's top 2 backups from a year ago in Jeff Edwards and Michael Togafau, along with James Coley and Tim Bertalot who saw occasional duty last fall. Overall, the group has good size and has played well in Holt's new defense. But depth could be a serious issue, so all incoming freshmen interior defensive linemen could see playing time at some point this season, including Siua Musika (6-1, 302), Alex Toailoa (6-1, 260), and Antonio Lindsey (6-2, 285).


PAT HAUGE / VandalVenue.com
One of Idaho's strengths in 2004 could be the performance of the defensive ends. At one end is 3-year starter (and former Sporting News Freshman All American) Brandon Kania, who was voted team Captain this past spring. Backing up Kania is fellow tri-cities native and true freshman Evan Ruud, a 6-3, 235 pound athlete out of powerful Kamiakin High School (Washington, Class 4A), where he earned All State and All Conference honors.

Opposite Brandon is Idaho's #1 tackler from a year ago, junior Mike Anderson (shown at right), who moves up from linebacker to defensive end in Holt's new scheme. Backing up Mike is senior Curtis Bibolet, a JC transfer last season who moved from safety to linebacker, then from linebacker to defensive end along with Anderson. Both were moved to DE because of their combination of size and agility.


MARLIN SMITH / VandalVenue.com
All 3 starting linebackers from last season are gone, opening the door for last year's top 3 backups to move up to the top of the depth chart. Among the most heralded is WILL Robert Davis (shown at left), a 6-4, 225, RS-Fr athlete who made the move from safety to linebacker last season. MLB Cole Snyder (5-11, 220) returns after a solid sophomore season, and junior SLB Nate Nichols (6-2, 231, Jr) returns after a sophomore season in which he saw significant playing time. As was the case last year, the backups are fairly green but are an athletic bunch. Making waves was true freshman Ben Alexander, a 6-1, 230 pound athlete out of southern California who reportedly runs a sub 4.5-40 and is listed #2 in the MIKE depth chart. Sophomore Jaron Williams (6-1, 212) made efficient use of Idaho's new weightroom this off-season and rounds out the inside linebacker chart. Outside is speedy redshirt freshman Josh Bousman (6-2, 208), the state of Washington's 2-time Class 1A 100 meter champion.


MARLIN SMITH / VandalVenue.com
One position that is starting to look better than anticipated this season is cornerback. Granted, there are a lot of new faces and youth in the chart, but the top 2 on either side bring a lot of potential to the defensive backs. Among the best defensive backs for Idaho is speedy right cornerback J.R. Ruffin (6-0, 167, Senior, shown at right), a member of UI's 4x100 track team and a player as solid in run support as he is in pass defense. On the opposite side of the field is left cornerback Eric McMillan (5-10, 180), a redshirt freshman out of Murietta, CA who started impressing the staff this spring. Rounding out the rotation on each side is JC transfer Herb Cash and redshirt freshman Kyle Williams.

The defensive backfield rounds out with a senior at one safety, and a true freshman at the other safety position. Captain and 5th year senior Simeon Stewart earns a starting job at free safety this season after 3 years as one of the top backups, while true freshman Jevon Butler gets his shot at safety for the Vandals. Jevon chose Idaho over interest from Hawaii and others primarily because they wanted him to play runningback, while Idaho promised him an opportunity at defensive back. Rounding out the rotation is sophomore Brandon Mascorro at free safety, and former walk-on and Coeur d'Alene High School graduate Derek McCleod at strong safety.


SPECIAL TEAMS

At least to start the season, you can pretty much call the Idaho kicking game the Mike Barrow show. The redshirt sophomore out of Ventura, CA joined the Vandals with an impressive resume out of high school. Among his highschool exploits were Ventura County records for points scored in a career (181) and being named to PrepStar's All West Coast Team.

By the third week of last season (2003), against BSU, Mike moved into the starting field goal role as a RS-Freshman. Under intense pressure throughout the season, he ended the year hitting 62.5% of his field goals, with a long of 43 yards and accounting for 35 points on the year (#3 on the team for 2003). He was perfect in the last 3 games of the year, hitting a 34 yarder against Arkansas State, a 43 yarder against UL-Monroe, and hit from 35 and 19 yards against USU. Mike was also perfect on PATs for the season.

This year, in addition to field goal kicking, Mike will also be punting for Idaho.

Kick returning duties for the season opener appear to be handled by seniors J.R. Ruffin and Simeon Stewart. Returning punts will be either senior wide receive Jimmy Labita, or true freshman cornerback Reggie Jones.


2004 SUN BELT OUTLOOK

Picked last in practically every college football publication in print this fall, expectations beyond the city limits of Moscow are pretty tame. The Vandals will be toting a hearty 117th national ranking into Boise this Saturday. Its not the first time they've been ranked this low, but hopefully it will be awhile before they start the season again with such low expectations from the media.

If the offense gels, and if injuries are kept to a minimum, the Vandals have a very solid chance at finishing in the upper 1/3 of the conference, despite playing most of their conference games on the road this season.


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