Depth. It's a term that has not been used often in reference to the Idaho defense during the struggles of the past ten years. Whether it was recruiting lapses in the early part of the decade, or the coaching turnstile through the midpoint, the Vandals have struggled to put a veteran, experienced defense on the field.
In 2010 however, all indicators point to an upward trajectory for this unit. For once the depth chart is stocked with juniors and seniors throughout, with a healthy peppering of youth to push the veterans.
The situation is far from perfect or complete, but the signs are there that things continuing to evolve and improve. To get a better handle on the situation, we talked to Idaho defensive coordinator Mark Criner recently about the Idaho defensive depth chart, and the theme of the discussion focused on experience, and the competition that experience breeds.
"Competition builds excellence," Criner told GoVandals.net. "Competition will make everyone better, as players begin to pay closer attention to the details." Every position on the depth chart has at least one player with starting experience at this level. That is a first at Idaho under Criner, and should come as a welcome sight this fall. Now, unlike years past, the players know what is expected of them across the board.
We begin our analysis leading up to the Silver and Gold Spring Game (kickoff this Friday at 6pm PST in the Kibbie Dome) with a look at the Idaho front four.
Vandal fans can breath a healthy sigh of relief. In the H-Bowl just four short months ago starting strongside defensive end Aaron Lavarias (6-2.5, 255) went down in the fourth quarter with what appeared to be a severe knee injury, and the outlook was grim. Some theorized that it could cost him the 2010 season. Fortunately however, Lavarias was able to make a full recovery and has been full tilt throughout spring camp. Going into the 2010 season, Lavarias will be working at the top of the strongside DE depth chart, and brings three years of starting experience to the Vandal fron line. In 2009, he was Idaho's No.4 leading tackler with 54 total tackles (33 solo) in 13 starts, with eight tackles for loss, four sacks, two pass breakups and five quarterback hurries.
Backing him up is junior Charles Smith (6-5.5, 257) and redshirt freshman Vincent Keener (6-4, 252). Unlike just two short years ago, there is some size in this chart to work with as the season approaches. At no time in the last 10 years has Idaho had a DE depth chart with three athletes going 6-2.5+ and 252+, but they do now. That size alone differentiates this year's Vandal squad from previous lines, and the dropoff throughout the chart should be minimal.
Regarding Smith, Coach Criner told GoVandals.net, "He's very agile, has some quickness, and he is continuing to get better. Plus he's been in the system." He's been in the system enough now to know what is expected. It's what will get the Vandal defense over the hump - a chart that knows across the board what their assignments are in each situation.
Regarding Keener, Criner simply said, "He's going to be a very good player at Idaho." He's getting significant reps this spring with the top defensive units and is coming off a productive redshirt year. At 6-4, 252-pounds, his combination of size, strength, and quickness off the ball (not to mention he's only a redshirt freshman) will be assets as his career at Idaho progresses. He will be one of several rookies to watch for in 2010.
As is the case at strongside defensive end, the rush end position is also more loaded than in seasons past. Right now, starting duties are manned by either junior Andre Ferguson (6-2.5, 226) or sophomore Benson Mayowa (6-2.5, 239). Both have the ability to start for Idaho, and both will see extensive playing time in 2010. Ferguson, who signed with Idaho after decommitting from Arizona State, was ranked the No.39 outside linebacker in America by Scout.com as a high school senior. He went into last season as the starter at RE after working as a backup the previous two seasons and had a solid season. He finished with 34 tackles in 13 starts on the season, with 3.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries. A solid debut.
Right there all season, however, was true freshman Benson Mayowa, a tall and lanky athlete who came to Idaho at a svelt 205-pounds and earned immediate playing time in the Vandal rotation. Despite giving up significant weight and experience to opponents, Mayowa had an admirable rookie campaign. In 12 games he earned significant reps and recorded six tackles total, including two tackles for loss and one quarterback sack. This offseason has been fruitful for Mayowa, as he's added 30-pounds to his big frame and has the staff more excited than ever about the future. "He's added weight and is getting off the ball faster," coach Criner said. Look for the Ferguson / Mayowa battle to carry on throughout the 2010 season as each brings a unique look for Idaho off the edge.
The primary backup to Ferguson and Mayowa is the versatile Charles Smith at 6-foot-5.5 and 257-pounds, giving Idaho the possibility for exceptional size across the front in certain situations.
INTERIOR DEFENSIVE LINE
With senior nose guard Jonah Sataraka (6-3, 294) sitting out spring camp, it is impossible to state that the chart this spring is the chart that will be presented on opening day. Add to this the expected additions this fall of junior college transfers Aaron Strumski (6-2, 290) and Ben Swarts (6-2, 285), and the makeup of the chart becomes even a bit more unclear. But progress has definitely been made by the athletes in the program right now this spring, as this group has applied extensive pressure to Idaho's rebuilding offensive line throughout camp.
Leading the charge is junior Michael Cosgrove (6-4, 289) lining up at noseguard, and senior Fonomanu Sekona (6-2, 297) at defensive tackle (or the "3-technique"). Cosgrove has been a starter on the Idaho line since his redshirt freshman season, and has the size to be a disruptive force. He has primarily played DT at Idaho, but shifted to nose this spring with Sataraka out. Physically Cosgrove is developing into a formidable lineman, having added 30+ pounds to his lean frame over the last two years and is pushing 290-pounds now. In 2009 Cosgrove finished with 33 tackles in 12 starts, including two sacks and one forced fumble.
Next to him is Sekona, who started one game in 2009 and played in 12 last season, compiling nine tackles on the season including 1.5 sacks and a QB hurry. "He's really coming around," Coach Criner said of Fono. "He's better now than during the season [he was Idaho's top backup in 2009], and is really understanding the philosophy of step, strike, and bring the feet." Vandal fans can expect to see a lot of Fono in 2010 as he continues to develop in preparation for his final season at Idaho.
The top backups this spring are sophomore Henry Asuega (6-0.5, 279) backing up Cosgrove at noseguard, and junior Bryan Wilson (6-4, 301) backing up Sekona at the 3-Technique. Cosgrove could move back to tackle when Sataraka returns, but Asuega is likely to stick at noseguard. The staff is impressed with what Asuega is getting done this spring, and he will likely get his game reps in the fall. He brings excellent strength and explosion off the ball and is developing nicely in just his third year at Idaho.
Wilson has been moved around extensively in his career at Idaho (working at defensive line, tightend, and offensive line), but appears to be settling into the defensive tackle position. According to Coach Criner, "He's getting off the ball much better now, and is learning how to attack the line of scrimmage." His stints on the offensive line have contributed in that development, and he can now focus on the position he was originally recruited to Idaho to play.
Also in the mix at defensive tackle is big redshirt freshman Larry Dugan (6-2, 322) out of Cerritos, California.