The Idaho defense struggled immensely at times in '09, particularly towards the end of the season. But it was an early season matchup with Washington last year that exposed what would become Idaho's achilles heel: Containing quarterbacks who could run. The defense overall struggled at times, and there is no way to hang all the blame on a single unit.
However, with that being said, it was a young group of Vandal linebackers, several just learning the Division 1 ropes, that seemed the most exposed in '09.
That youth was largely due to the loss of two starters before last season began when outside linebacker Justin Allen decided to transfer to Rice after the '08 season, and middle linebacker Jonathan Faraimo hung up the cleats during spring camp. Throw in Idaho losing top backup Andrew Blevins to graduation and promising sophomore Adam Shamion before the 2009 season began, as well as breaking in a new linebackers coach over the summer, and the challenges of rebuilding this unit become a little bit more predictable.
In a nutshell, the loss of two starters and several players with game experience was significant going into 2009 for a unit that - prior to the personnel losses - was just beginning to develop some depth.
QUICK UPDATE: GoVandals.net has confirmed that junior college transfer Homer Mauga
(6-0, 220, 4.7-40) has completed his academic requirements and will enroll at Idaho this fall. He comes in with three years to play two, and will be expected to compete for immediate playing time.
Despite the 2009 struggles, the linebacking corps returns intact, and the tough lessons of last season will become assets in 2010. This unit should see significant improvement in 2010 as the defense continues to build in its 4-3 alignment under fourth year defensive coordinator Mark Criner.
Led by senior Joseph "JoJo" Dickson, a four year starter at the top of the outside linebacker depth chart, the unit now boasts three seniors (two with starting experience) among the top six, and an impressive group of youngsters throughout. Five of the 12 in the depth chart are graduates of Idaho high schools, while three of the top six hail from the Hawaiian islands. Five of the top six are juniors or seniors, with one sophomore sensation quickly climbing to the top of the ranks.
Their is plenty of room for improvement over the 2009 squad, but this group has quickly become one of the deepest units on the team, and their development should be evident this fall.
Below is an analysis of the complete unit as the team prepares for fall camp, based on observations during spring drills and interviews with the Idaho coaching staff.
JoJo's statistics in 2009 were impressive. He finished 2nd on the team with 79 tackles and started all 13 of Idaho's games. He registered four tackles for loss including a sack, he picked off two passes last season including one he returned to the house for a memorable touchdown. He logged two pass breakups, recovered a fumble, and blocked a kick for good measure. An outstanding season by any measure. He was voted a Team Captain for the 2010 season, and spent much of spring working as Idaho's starting outside linebacker (the SAM position). This is where it gets interesting though. If sophomore sensation Conrad Scheidt continues to develop at an astronomical rate, Dickson could move inside to top-dog at MIKE. Keep an eye open for this development this fall.
In a word, exceptional. Scheidt's development at Idaho, although he's only been on the Moscow campus a year, is right on track (if not ahead of schedule). Few on the Vandal team benefitted more than Scheidt from the extra practices that the Humanitarian Bowl gave the Vandals. Earning immediate playing time with the No.1 unit, the true freshman was forced to learn under fire for much of '09. "Along with the bowl preparation, practices this spring have been great for Conrad," Idaho defensive coordinator Mark Criner told GVN this spring. "He's not making the mental errors he made last season, and I'm really confident to play him in games." Scheidt finished with a modest five tackles in '09, but he played extensively for Idaho throughout the season, appearing in 10 games overall. As stated above, if he continues to develop this fall, he could move into the top slot at SAM. Regardless, expect to see a lot of Conrad in 2010.
John McKinley, 6-0.5, 228, Junior or Jeffrey Bediako, 6-3.5, 237, RS-Freshman
This is the first of THREE sets of paired backups, all of whom are natives of the state of Idaho. McKinley walked on at Idaho in 2007, and following a redshirt year has worked his way onto several Special Teams units for the Vandals. In 2009 he appeared in ALL 13 Idaho games as a redshirt sophomore and recorded five tackles along the way. Look for his role to continue to grow in 2010.
Bediako signed with Idaho in 2009 and redshirted the season. He missed much of spring camp with an injury, but is expected to be in for fall. There is some speculation that he could move up to defensive end, but for now the 6-3, 218-pound athlete with exceptional speed (recorded an eye-popping 4.46-40 in high school) is working with the linebacking unit this fall.
Tre'Shawn Robinson, 5-10.5, 240, Jr or Paul Senescall, 6-1, 228, Senior
Together, Senescall and Robinson form a potent one-two punch for the Vandal D. There is almost no dropoff when one subs in for the other, giving Idaho a strength in the heart of the Vandal defense.
Tyler Brooks, 6-1, 222, Jr or Marshal Pirtz, 5-11, 238, Jr
The Vandals second set of Idaho boyz. Both Brooks and Pirtz hail from gem state, with Brooks a graduate of Orofino in the north, and Pirtz a graduate of Centennial High in Boise to the south. Brooks (a junior in 2010) ran with the #3 defense in spring camp and played extensively throughout 2009 as a starter on several Special Teams units (including the kickoff and punt teams). He played in 11 games for the H-Bowl champs, recording two tackles on the year. Look for Brooks to continue his steady increase in playing time in 2010.
Pirtz completed a circuitous route back within the Idaho border, starting his career by signing with Washington State and spending two season with the Crimson and Gray. He transferred to Idaho last season and redshirted 2009, but is expected to compete immediately for playing time in the Vandal rotation.
Has there ever been a player that has more quietly become a fixture on the Vandal defense? He rarely leaves the field when the Vandals are on D. And consider this: Siavii has been a major contributor in the linebacker rotation since his true freshman season, and we're not talking about an exceptionally big athlete here. But whatever Siavii gives up in size (he's listed at 6-1, 216 heading into 2010), he makes up for with an uncanny nose for the ball, aggressive play, tireless motor, and a willingness to deliver a big hit when appropriate. As Idaho's starting weakside 'backer in 2009 (12 starts, played in all 13 games), Siavii finished tied for third on the team with 58 tackles (32 solo). He added 3.5 tackles for loss, three pass breakups, three QB hurries and forced TWO fumbles. He's a workhorse, and as a junior should start getting recognized more frequently for what he brings to the Vandal D.
Toomer's was one of several feel-good stories in 2009 for the Vandals. At the top was the work runningback DeMaundray Woolridge did to get back on the gridiron after leaving WSU and finish his collegiate career leading Idaho to it's first bowl victory in 11 years. But right behind the Woolridge story was the persistence demonstrated by Korey Toomer. He didn't dominate headlines like Woolridge, but he was a key contributor in the Vandal's return to relevance. Toomer signed with Coach Akey in Akey's first recruiting class at Idaho in 2007. But plans fell through and Toomer was forced to go the JC route instead. Toomer and the coaches kept in close contact, and last year Toomer transferred into the University of Idaho, completing the loop. As a junior last year he played in 12 games for the Vandals as a backup WILL, while also starting on several Special Teams units. He recorded eight tackles and one fumble recovery on the season. "He improved this spring," Criner told GVN. "The biggest improvement is that he's keeping his motor going every play, from snap to whistle." As he settles into the Vandal D, look for Toomer to get plenty of playing time and push for the starting job in 2010.
Brad Marboe, 6-3, 208, RS-Soph or Jared Heston, 6-1, 222, Soph
And here you go, the THIRD set of Idaho natives in the Vandal linebacking depth chart. Both are just starting their careers in Moscow, and both were highly regarded coming out of high school. For starters, the Vandals won a heated recruiting battle for Marboe as he picked Idaho over an offer from Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference in 2008 (as well as offers from Montana and Idaho State). Heston committed to the Vandals early, and was ranked the #82 strongside linebacker in the country by Scout for the 2009 recruiting class.
Both represent the future of Idaho's linebacker corps.
Marboe redshirted the 2008 season and began making his mark as a redshirt freshman last fall, earning starting duties on several Special Teams units. An athlete with outstanding linebacker speed (4.7-40), look for him (a redshirt sophomore this fall) to get increased reps as he continues to bulk up his 6-3 frame.
Heston also made several Special Teams units in 2009 as a true freshman, thrust into immediate playing time as the Vandals continued to improve depth. That depth is there now, so there is a distinct possibility that Heston could be a candidate to redshirt in 2010. "He's gonna be a good player at Idaho," Criner to GoVandals.net. "I'm happy with the way he is developing. We couldn't redshirt him last year, but we may be able to redshirt him this year."
Either way, both Heston and Marboe -- home grown Division 1A talent -- will undoubtedly be players to watch on the Vandal defense in the years ahead.