'09 PREVIEW: The Road Graders

Sporting News lists Iupati No.1 non-BCS NFL pick

Led by Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award candidate senior MIKE IUPATI (6-6, 330), the Vandals boast the biggest, strongest, and deepest line assembled at Idaho in a decade. With a solid stable of tailbacks, strong competition under center, and a developing receiving corps, the Vandal line - featuring four seniors with game day experience - will be counted on to set the tone for the 2009 season.

When a new coach goes to the podium at his new schoool and tells those assembled, "It will take four to five years to rebuild this program," you can take it to the bank that he is really talking about the time it will take to rebuild the offensive and defensive lines.

It takes years to develop the kind of depth, strength, and talent it takes to be competitive at the Division 1A level.

Such was the case when Nick Holt took over as Idaho's head coach in 2004, and the rebuilding effort was ongoing when Robb Akey took over in 2007. In Nick's first season, he was forced to play a remarkable TWO true freshmen as starters on the Vandal line (Desmond Clark and Marcis Fennell). Idaho would start another true freshman in 2005 (Billy Bates). Finally, in 2006 the Vandals were able to redshirt a full recruiting class of offensive linemen for the first time since the Sun Belt era.

Now, in 2009, the benefits of the growing stability of this unit the last five years is paying off. Remarkably, of all the units on the Vandal team since 2004, the offensive line has had the fewest player personnel losses. This, combined with solid recruiting and years of hard work, Idaho has solid depth across the front five. Not since the 1998 and 1999 seasons, when the Vandals had three future NFL linemen on the roster (Rick DeMulling, Patrick Venzke, and Jake Scott) have the Vandals had the kind of size, strength, depth, and talent as they now have in the system.

The primary objectives for the unit are clear; improving on last season by reducing the number of sacks allowed and increasing its run production - particularly in short yardage situations to keep drives alive.

Led by future NFL draft pick and Outland Trophy candidate (story link with complete Watch List) senior Mike Iupati, the Vandal line for 2009 is mammoth. The group averages 6-4 and 310 pounds, featuring four seniors with significant game day experience as projected starters. The top backups will be pushing this group aggressively and battling for reps and starting roles throughout the season.

Below are the bios for your GoVandals.net projected starters, followed by the top backups.





PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

Matt Cleveland
6-4, 314, Redshirt Sophomore
Left Tackle


Last season as a redshirt freshman Cleveland had catapulted to the top of the left tackle depth chart after impressive spring and fall camps. But with just two weeks before the season opener, he was lost for the year because of an injury. This season, fully healed and ready for battle, he has again risen to the top of the depth chart with his combination of size, agility, and playing style, and is expected to anchor the left side of the line for the Vandals on opening day, and be a key member of the unit in the years to come.


Mike Iupati
6-5.5, 330, Senior
Left Guard


Senior Mike "Big Mike" Iupati burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2007 and immediately became known as a hard-hitting lineman to be reckoned with. Last season, despite missing the fist third of the season recovering from off-season surgery, he regained his starting job when he was healthy and was dominant enough to be named a 2nd Team All-WAC selection. This summer, the recognition is pouring in for the Idaho guard ranked by the Sporting News as the No.1 non-BCS prospect in the country, and the No.5 guard in the nation (and a 4-star NFL prospect) by Scout.com. He has been named to the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award watch lists, and this year was honored by his teammates by being voted a Team Captain for the 2009 season.


Irvin Stevens III
6-3, 285, Senior
Center


For four years Stevens had possibly the most frustrating job on the team: Backing up 4-year starter and All-WAC center Adam Korby. But he stuck with the program and his goal to start for the Vandals, and last year as a junior earned his most significant playing time of his career, starting three games at right guard for Idaho. This spring and fall, Stevens has claimed starting duties at center over redshirt freshman Guy Reynolds (ranked the No.18 center nationally by Scout as a high school senior), and is projected to take over as the line's signal caller on opening day at New Mexico State.


Adam Juratovac
6-3, 308, Senior
Right Guard


Adam earned numerous starts on the Vandal line as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, splitting starting duties most of those two seasons. Last year as a junior he moved over to the defensive line to give the Vandals more depth, and also worked into the special teams unit blocking in the wedge. This spring he moved back to his customary right guard position, and has maintained the starting job while engaged in a strong battle with JC transfer Tevita Halaholo - a JC-Gridwire First Team All-American. His extensive starting experience gives Idaho tremendous stability at guard going into the season.


Bryce Sinclair
6-5.5, 320, Senior
Right Tackle


Bryce "Big Nasty" Sinclair joined the Vandals in 2005, and for his first three years in the program worked tirelessly in the weightroom to become one of the strongest athletes on the team. That work paid off with an opportunity to start at tackle in the season finale at Boise State in 2007 as a redshirt sophomore. Since then, Sinclair has been one of Idaho's top offensive tackles, and after starting most of last season is projected as the starter for the season opener in two weeks.







TOP PROJECTED BACKUPS:
The list of projected backups will likely grow as the season progresses and the athletes in the chart develop, but at this stage the following three appear to be locked in major position battles.

Tevita Halaholo
6-5, 340, Junior
Guard


The addition of an athlete of Halaholo's caliber this offseason was a tremendous boost to an already improving Vandal offensive line. His resume includes being named a JC Gridwire First Team All-American and earning virtually every single award the California junior college system has to offer an offensive lineman. He signed with Tulsa in 2007 as a true sophomore, but paperwork snags forced him to take a redshirt year at his junior college last season. He joined the Vandals this spring, and has been battling senior Adam Juratovac for the starting right guard job ever since. We expect an athlete of his size and strength to be carrying on this battle for the starting job all season, and he will likely get his game day reps.


Tyrone Novikoff
6-7, 312, Redshirt Sophomore
Guard/Tackle


It isn't a typo. At 6-7 and 312-pounds, redshirt sophomore Tyrone Novikoff has the combination of size, strength and agility to play both tackle and guard at the Division 1 level. A tremendous athlete, Novikoff earned a couple starts last season as a redshirt freshman and played significantly throughout the year for the Vandals. His offseason work ethic was impressive this year and caught the eyes of those close to the program. Without any doubt he will be pushing both Idaho tackles for starting duties and game reps throughout the 2009 season, and is poised for a bright future at Idaho.


Guy Reynolds
6-3, 322, Redshirt Freshman
Center


The Vandals signed a gem of an athlete last recruiting season in Guy Reynolds, ranked by Scout.com as the No.19 offensive center in the nation as a high school senior. He redshirted the 2008 season at Idaho, and has been battling senior Irvin Stevens for the starting job throughout spring and fall camps. His strength coming out of high school was tremendous (a reported 400-pound bench and 600-pound squat), and should make him an anchor for the Vandal front five in the years to come.


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