New Idaho secondary learning on the fly

The Vandals’ eight defensive backs on the two-deep had just 10 starts before 2013.

dsouthorn@idahostatesman.comSeptember 28, 2013 

Jerrel Brown and the Vandals have surpassed their 2012 rushing total with four touchdowns already this season. But Idaho averages just 2.85 yards per carry — with 26 sacks significantly affecting that number — and is 86th in FBS with 138 rushing yards per game.

DEAN HARE — The Associated Press

  • 4 winless teams: Someone has to win

    Two FBS games will match winless teams Saturday. Temple (0-3) is at Idaho (0-4). The Owls, last seen losing to Fordham, are 71⁄2-point favorites. San Diego State (0-3) is at New Mexico State (0-4). The Aztecs are 17-point favorites. Idaho and New Mexico State are playing as independents this season before joining the Sun Belt Conference next year. They finish this season playing each other.

Being down two starters in the secondary against a Mike Leach-led team is rarely a fruitful proposition.

The Idaho Vandals found themselves in that unenviable situation last Saturday in a 42-0 loss to Washington State with cornerback Solomon Dixon and safety Trey Williams out. The Cougars completed 31-of-43 passes for 346 yards and four touchdowns, but Idaho defensive backs picked off two passes and forced a fumble while finding some success with seldom-used faces.

“I think we found out more about who we are in that game,” senior cornerback Christian Whitehead said. “Everyone had to step up, and we had a lot of guys contribute.”

One of those who made an impact was Whitehead, who didn’t play in the team’s first three games but had four tackles, an interception and a forced fumble, both during the second half inside Idaho’s 10. Whitehead did not play his first three seasons in Moscow, and had two tackles last season in eight games, mainly on special teams.

“It was amazing — I’ve been waiting for that opportunity for a long time,” Whitehead said. “I was more than willing to step in when my name was called.”

As the Vandals prepare to host Temple on Saturday, Dixon and Williams are listed as starters on the depth chart, along with juniors Delency Parham and Bradley Njoku at the other cornerback and safety spots, respectively.

Idaho coach Paul Petrino noted that the defensive backs created three turnovers (safety D’Mario Carter had an interception starting for Williams), while the offense was unable to capitalize on any. Those sorts of plays, made by non-starters, gave him some optimism.

“They ended up giving up a lot of yards and too many points, but there were times in that game where I thought they had great effort and made signs of improvement,” Petrino said.

Petrino is hopeful Dixon, whom he called his “best corner,” is back to full strength against Temple, which is 95th nationally in passing (189.3 yards per game). Regardless, the Vandals were able to show some depth last week with the likes of Whitehead and true freshman safety Desmond Banks, whom Petrino said “is going to end up being a really good football player here.”

“I think it will make a big difference, being able to put in guys who can get the job done and keep everyone fresh,” Whitehead said. “The coaches at first just wanted to throw out the best players, and now they’ve seen a lot of guys play and hopefully will have a strong rotation.”

Whitehead is listed as Parham’s backup this week, while sophomore Jayshawn Jordan, third on the team with 23 tackles, is behind Dixon.

The improvement in the defensive backfield has been apparent to Petrino and company, but perhaps not in the results, as opponents have averaged 301 passing yards per game.

“I think we’re a lot better than what the scoreboard is showing,” Whitehead said.

Temple at a glance: The American Athletic program has lost all three games this season: at Notre Dame (28-6) and home games against Houston (22-13) and Fordham (30-29).

Dave Southorn: 377-6420, Twitter: @IDS_Southorn

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