After a breakout season in 2014 when Idaho State flirted with an FCS playoff berth, many thought the Bengals had finally turned their football program around under head coach Mike Kramer.
Instead, the Bengals flopped last fall with a 2-9 record and a 1-7 campaign in the Big Sky, marking their 11th losing season in 12 years.
Conference coaches picked the Bengals 12th in the 13-team Big Sky in a preseason vote. But with a rebuilt offense and a pair of key defenders returning from injuries, Idaho State is looking to show 2015 was the aberration, not 2014.
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The big names are gone and just four starters return.
Running back Xavier Finney, the school’s all-time leading rusher, and wide receiver Madison Mangum, the leading receiver the past two seasons, both graduated. And quarterback Michael Sanders transferred to a Division II program in Arkansas.
But that transfer was no surprise as Kramer named redshirt sophomore Tanner Gueller the starting quarterback after the 2015 season finale.
“We didn’t want to rush his development and make him play as a freshman or a redshirt freshman,” Kramer said. “By nature, the wait has been worth it for us. … He’s made great improvement. I think he’s going to end up being one of the premier quarterbacks in the Big Sky Conference this season.”
Senior Jakori Ford takes over at running back after showing home-run speed in backup duty last year. He’ll run behind a remade line with returning two starters and a pair of Vallivue High products projected to slide into the lineup — freshman Dallen Collins and redshirt sophomore right tackle Kyle Jones.
Senior slot receiver KW Williams returns after hauling in 52 catches for 684 yards and seven TDs. Pat Carter (Capital High) and Hagen Graves (Skyview) join him as weapons on the outside.
The Bengals never recovered from the loss of linebacker Mario Jenkins (Columbia) and strong safety Taison Manu (Highland) to season-ending knee and foot injuries, respectively, in the 2015 preseason. The Bengals surrendered 40.9 points a game last year.
Both have healed and are ready to boost a defense that brings back five starters and switches to a 4-3 scheme.
“They bring a maturity. They bring a quotient of flexibility,” Kramer said. “And because their recognition factor is so fast, they’re able to help the defense close to the ball faster and quicker. This will easily be our best defense physically, probably our best defense overall since I’ve been here.”
One of three returning starting linebackers will have to give up his spot to Jenkins, the 2014 Big Sky Freshman of the Year who led the Bengals with 120 tackles that year. Senior Hayden Stout (Meridian) also returns as middle linebacker after a team-high 113 tackles last year.
Manu gives the secondary three players with experience. But the defensive line remains thin after Tyler Kuder (Payette) graduated and is fighting for a roster spot with the Green Bay Packers. The top pass rusher, Rasheed Williams, suffered a season-ending injury the second week of fall camp, leaving an unproven group to fill the gap.
Simon Fraser at Idaho State
▪ When: 2:35 p..m. Saturday
▪ Where: Holt Arena (12,000, turf), Pocatello
▪ TV: KTVB
▪ Radio: 630 AM
Notes: Simon Fraser is an NCAA Division II program from outside Vancouver, British Columbia, that has lost 13 straight. It last played Idaho State in 2014, a 66-14 win for the Bengals.