This is not a claim that the Vandals are going to play like the great Steel Curtain defenses that Pittsburg rolled out in the '70s (for the few out there that can remember that far back). But the Vandals will be markedly improved across the board this fall, led by fourth year starter and team captain Shiloh Keo (a First Team All-WAC selection last fall) at strong safety, and flanked by a solid depth chart loaded with experience and emerging new talent prepared to make an immediate impact at Idaho.
Below is a breakdown of the depth charts for strong safety, free safety, and cornerback going into the 2010 season.
It's been an unbelievable 5-year journey for the senior out of Archbishop Murphy High School in Washington. He was thrust into action as a true freshman against Michigan State in the 2006 season opener, and never looked back. He was named an honorable mention Freshman All-American by the Sporting News, and has been a fixture on All-WAC teams since his sophomore season. He didn't let a brutal shoulder injury stop his career either (an injury in '08 that forced him to redshirt the season), becoming a more vocal leader of the defense. Last fall he was named a First Team All-WAC selection (easily one of the most sure tacklers in the WAC), and goes into his senior campaign being named to the Thorpe Award watch list, an award that recognizes the nation's top defensive back based on performance on the field, athletic ability, and character. Keo is one of 35 defensive backs nationwide named to the list. A three year team captain at Idaho, Keo sets the tone for the Vandal D.
Few have sacrificed more for Idaho during the rebuilding process of the last four years than redshirt junior Quin Ashley. He came to Idaho in '07 as a well-regarded defensive back and was immediately listed among the top two in the depth chart as a true freshman, but was forced into action as a quarterback (one of the positions he played as a prep standout in Texas) weeks into the season. He then moved to wide receiver in '08 to bolster a thin and young receiving corps. In the spring of '09 he made the move back to safety and was able to take a redshirt year. He comes into 2010 as a solid No.2 backup to Keo, and gives the unit a nice combination of game experience, speed and talent. "Another kid who's playing well in the secondary is Quin Ashley," Criner told GVN. "He's doing a good job, he's tackling well, he understands his assignments, and I'm happy with him. He's a hard worker, he's got a good head on his shoulders, and he's been productive this fall."
Lincoln (Neb.) should be a familiar sight for Randall. The safety/linebacker star out of Compton High took an official visit to the Big Red campus late last year before choosing to join the Idaho program. Ranked the No.65 WLB prospect in the country by Scout.com as a high school senior, Randall grayshirted last season and enrolled at Idaho in January. He had a stellar spring camp in Moscow, and is described by defensive coordinator Mark Criner as "a very instinctive player." He has kept the intensity level up this fall and is battling for immediate playing time in the safety rotation. He also has an outstanding opportunity make multiple special teams units, and could begin making an impact immediately with the Vandals. "He could play either strong or free for us, but we're shooting for strong safety," Criner said. "He's coming around and he's going to be a good football player. He's gonna play a lot of football here."
An exceptional talent, Walker chose the Vandals over an early offer from Oregon State and a late recruiting battle with Fresno State and Arizona State. He did not disappoint in his first season at Idaho, and can claim a part in helping Idaho to its first bowl appearance in 11 years. Officially he started one game last season and played in 12, registering 29 tackles (20 solo) while rotating in generously at free safety. A versatile athlete with 4.59-40 speed and a frame that is filling out quickly, he gives the defensive backfield added instincts and range next to tackling machine Keo. On the heels of an impressive spring camp, Walker has secured the starting free safety position going into 2010 and is poised for a breakout season.
A former walkon, Artz (a former highschool teammate of Shiloh Keo's) has ever so quietly moved into an ever expanding role at Idaho (he earned an academic scholarship at Idaho after starting his college career as a quarterback at Southern Oregon). Last fall as a redshirt sophomore he played in 12 games for the Vandals and started two, finishing with 19 tackles on the year. In addition to playing on several special teams units, he is the team's No.1 holder on PATs (and a former high school quarterback). "Brandon can go both strong and free," Criner said. "He knows everything. If a guy got hurt and you needed to put someone in real quick, I've got confidence to do that with Brandon. Plus he's a special teams player, never comes off the field on special teams."
The wildcard. How quickly big newcomer Thaad (pronounced "Tad") Thompson matriculates into the safety rotation depends on a number of factors. We do know this though; he was a well-regarded JC prospect with offers from Iowa State and Memphis. And at 6-foot-2 and 212-pounds, he brings a size dimension to the Vandal defensive backfield that simply wasn't there before his arrival just over a week ago. How quickly he absorbs the Vandal defense and transitions to Division 1A ball will dictate how quickly he makes an impact this fall. "He's a very good football player," Criner said of Thompson. "He's 6-foot-2 and he can run, and he's strong. And he's picking things up relatively quick. I ran him all day today with the two's [in Saturday's last scrimmage of fall camp]. We have to be careful how much we ask him to do in a short amount of time, but he's picking it up pretty darn well. He's very explosive, and he has a lot of the characteristics of Shiloh in him. He's only been with us about eight days, but he's done a great job and is picking it up." All indications point to a gifted athlete that can make an immediate impact, either in the safety rotation or on special teams (or likley both). "It's going to be hard to keep Thaad off the field," Criner said in closing.
"He's gonna be a very good player for us," was the way coach Criner described redshirt freshman Trey Williams. All of the freshmen thickened their frames last season, and the redshirt year was a particular success for Williams. He comes into fall camp No.3 in the depth chart and is poised to move up and battle for serious playing time this fall. A big framed athlete with 4.45 speed, he's an exceptional talent. "A guy that's 6-2 like Trey," Criner said, "that kid's going to be able to play in the packages with what we do throughout the year. You've got a kid that can run, he's a talent, he's got good speed, and really he wants to do it."
A point of clarification. It comes up often on our message boards -- what is the depth chart for the right and left cornerback positions? The answer is that there is no distinction between right and left CB. The best two athletes play. Or, in Idaho's case this fall, the best three are in a heated battle for starting duties, and there is a distinct possibility of having a five player rotation this fall.
Starting duties early in the season will be a three-way battle between senior Isaac Butts, junior Kenny Patten, and sophomore Aaron Grymes. Which two of these three starts will depend on several factors, and will likely change throughout the season. The next wave in line is a battle between junior Matt Harvey and freshman Tracy Carter, both of whom have looked solid at times this camp.
In the spring Criner praised the work this group did in the offseason and how they improved as a unit, and that praise continued into fall camp. "They all added some weight and increased strength," Criner said. "We finally have enough numbers to run all our packages. Everyone is back and the bowl practices helped.
"Competition breeds excellence," he continued, "and it will make everyone better, allowing us to focus on our attention to detail."
So, given that explanation, here is a look at the top five corners -- based on spring performance -- going into fall camp.
He is the veteran of the group, and has been an integral part of the corner rotation at Idaho since his true freshman season. A former invited walkon who joined the program in 2007 (Coach Akey's first year) and played immediately, Isaac has been a starter since 2008. Right now he finds himself in a heated battle with reshirt junior Kenny Patten and true sophomore Aaron Grymes. Last fall Isaac started seven games for the Humanitarian Bowl Champions, registering 41 tackles (No.9 on the team), two tackles for loss, five pass breakups and one forced fumbles. Vandal fans can count on the battle-tested senior playing a prominant role in 2010. "Butts has a lot of ability," Criner told GVN. "He's got long arms, he's a tall kid. But competition is making him a better player, because he's concentrating more on his technique."
|Kenny "K2" Patten|
Like teammate Isaac, Patten made an immediate impact for Idaho, earning extensive playing time as a redshirt freshman in 2008. Last fall though, as a redshirt sophomore, he bumped his game up, earning starting duties for most of the 2009 season. He ended the year with nine starts under his belt, finished sixth on the team with 51 tackles, two tackles for loss, one pick, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. He's run extensively with the No.1 defense in spring and fall camps, and could also be used as a nickel back in certain formations. "We played K2 in a lot of nickel today," Criner said, "and he has looked good this camp."
The rocket. Grymes is one of the fastest players on the team, and near the top of the cornerback rotation. As a true freshman Grymes made in immediate impact, starting six games (some for Butts, some for Patten) and earning his stripes. He finished the year with 43 tackles (No.9) and two pass breakups. He displayed exceptional explosion and closing speed on the ball. He just needed experience. The bowl preparation was a huge benefit for Grymes, and he has run extensively with the No.1 defense throughout spring and fall camp. And he's a tough customer. "He's really working hard on his technique," Criner said. "And he's going to be a tough guy to keep off the field.
Speed. Harvey, like all the new defensive back recruits to sign with Idaho in the Akey era, brings some wheels to the field. As a junior college transfer last year who joined the Idaho program with three years to play three, he made an immediate impact in the corner rotation and -- in particular -- on special teams. As a kick returner he returned 14 kicks in 2009, averaging 19.7 yards per return with a long of 31 yards. He played in 11 games for the Vandals, and is battling for playing time in 2010. "Harvey is sustaining his play," Criner told GoVandals.net. "As opposed to playing well then falling off, he's sustaining his good play."
This is the future of the Vandal defensive backfield. Locked in a heated battle with Matt Harvey to climb up the depth chart, Carter brings exceptional speed and a boat load of talent to the rotation. He's just young. Regardless of his youth, Coach Criner listed Carter among the top five in the chart among the top two defensive units for 2010. "Tracy, in the first scrimmage, probably had the best play of all the corners," Criner told GoVandals.net. "He's really coming around. He was back out there today [Carter has been working through bumps and bruises] and that was good to see."