Editor’s note: This is one installment of a 13-part series of capsules on the 2018 prospects, strengths and weaknesses of each football team in the Big Sky Conference. League play begins in the BSC on Saturday.
RECORD LAST SEASON: 4-8 OVERALL, 3-5 IN SUN BELT CONFERENCE PLAY
2018 NON-CONFERENCE RECORD: 1-1
Big question: Will the talent translate?
One look at Idaho’s roster is enough to tell that the Vandals aren’t working with the same level of talent as the rest of the Big Sky Conference. California, Florida, Louisiana, Washington, Georgia, Arizona, Hawaii — Idaho has a wider recruiting footprint than anyone else in the league. That’s what being in the FBS for the last 23 years gets you.
The Vandals are making their return to the FCS and the Big Sky this year, and they’re doing it with FBS talent. That’s a big advantage — Big Sky teams were 1-15 against FBS teams in 2017 — but it might not mean anything when the games start. Idaho has been under a transition since the move down was announced, shredding from 85 to 63 scholarships incrementally. But many of Idaho’s most veteran players are FBS talents who played on Idaho’s nine-win bowl game winning team just two seasons ago.
“At first, it was disappointing because we enjoyed our time in the FBS and we all signed with Idaho to play in the FBS,” senior linebacker Kaden Elliss said at the Big Sky Kickoff. “But this is exciting. It’s just going to be so fun to play these teams that are nearby, these teams that are historical rivals.”
Can Paul Petrino keep his players focused while they deal with the potential disappointment of dropping down? Are they prepared to deal with the diverse schemes they’ll face week-to-week in the Big Sky? The Vandals have the talent to be a playground bully this year, but the answers to those questions will determine if they fulfill that potential.
“We are not going to have either underestimation or lackadaisical attitude,” Petrino said. “We have good enough leadership that won’t happen. Our older guys are really excited. They have worked every bit as hard this summer as any summer we went in to.”
The mentality of the team has been impossible to gage through two non-conference games. Fresno State absolutely ripped the Vandals in their opener, taking advantage of a slew of Idaho turnovers in a 79-13 victory. The next week, Idaho struggled with Division II Western New Mexico for most of the first half before pulling away for an expected 56-10 victory. Idaho had a bye last week leading up to this weekend’s Big Sky opener at UC Davis, a school that did not join the Big Sky until nearly 20 years after Idaho left the league in 1996.
Offensive Player to Watch: Isaiah Saunders, RB
Saunders had 731 yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, capped by a three-touchdown performance in Idaho’s bowl game, but saw his role diminish last year as Aaron Duckworth ran for 1,025 yards for the Vandals. This year, the starting role should be Saunders’ alone, and the senior will have to take advantage.
Aside from Duckworth, Idaho also lost its two leading receivers from last year, Alfonso Onunwor and Jacob Sannon, and starting quarterback Matt Linehan. Getting back receiver David Ungerer will help, but the spotlight will be squarely on Saunders. If he can rediscover his 2016 form and handle being the feature back, the senior from Elk Grove, California, could be one of the best ball carriers in the conference.
Saunders’ emergence could also help Idaho’s influx quarterback situation. The battle to replace Linehan started last season when the three-year starter and son Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan went down with an injury. Mason Petrino, Paul’s son, and Colton Richardson each took turns starting as the Vandals struggled to recapture the magic of 2016’s breakthrough.
Thus far this season, Mason Petrino and Richardson have split snaps. Petrino has thrown for 245 yards and a touchdown while Richardson has thrown for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Saunders has rushed for 139 yards and two scores, piling up 35 carries, more than three times more than any other Vandal.
Defensive Player to Watch: Kaden Elliss, LB
Elliss has always had the pedigree — his father, Luther Elliss, was an NFL All-Pro defensive line for the Detroit Lions and now coaches d-line for the Vandals — and now should be one of the most physically gifted linebackers in the Big Sky from the opening game this weekend.
The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder was a second-team All-Sun Belt selection last season, ranking third in the league with 16 tackles for loss and leading the league with 15 solo stops behind the line of scrimmage. He had six sacks, blocked an extra point and forced two fumbles while also playing offense. The fast, fluid senior caught seven passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns as a junior who lined up at wide receiver and tight end last fall. He was the first FBS player to record a sack and catch a touchdown in the same game since 2013, accomplishing the feat twice.
The three-year starter is versatile with an ability to play off the edge, play in space and disrupt offenses both when defending the pass and the run. The former grayshirt was the Utah High Schoo Athletics Association MVP as a senior in 2013 after leading Judge Memorial Catholic High to the Utah 3A state championship.
Idaho head coach Paul Petrino — “We’ve been concerned about learning everyone in the league so in December, we started watching everyone in the conference and really getting a feel for what everyone is going to do schematically,” Petrino said.
“It’s a conference that likes to throw the ball and score a lot of points so it hasn’t changed a lot since I was an assistant in it in 1992, 1993, 1994 to be honest with you. It will be a lot of fun. It’s a conference that has great coaches and players and there will be a lot of competition week in and week out.”
First Big Sky Conference game: Idaho at UC Davis, 5 p.m. MST