Paul Petrino said his Idaho football team has never lacked energy, but coming into his third season, “the confidence level is a lot higher.”
For a program that has three consecutive one-win seasons, confidence would seem to be in low supply, but there are a few key areas where Petrino has seen the Vandals improve as they open fall camp Wednesday.
“I think to really have your program where you need it to be, and to go win a bunch of a games, it usually comes down to the three things: great quarterback play ... play real good defense ... and then the ability to run the ball when you have the lead,” Petrino said Monday.
Rarely did any of those three elements come together at the same time last season, but each had its moments, which is part of the reason the Vandals feel ready to break out of their rut.
Sophomore quarterback Matt Linehan enters the fall as the starter after “a really good spring,” according to Petrino. Linehan completed 22-of-24 passes for 467 yards and six touchdowns in the spring game, plus added about 10 pounds in the offseason, now standing at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. Strong-armed, 6-6 redshirt freshman Jake Luton will push Linehan all fall.
“I think we’re sitting pretty good at that position right now,” Petrino said.
On the other side of the ball, Idaho still has a massive hill to climb. The defense was 112th nationally in scoring defense (37.3 points per game) and total defense (462.7 yards per game). Petrino brought in former Washington State, Wyoming and Montana defensive coordinator Mike Breske and his aggressive 3-4 scheme to help turn it around.
“Sometimes when you’re maybe not quite as talented as the team you’re playing against, it helps you with guys more on the move, Petrino said. “There’s a lot of movement up front, a lot of things to confuse the quarterback and the offensive coordinator.”
Petrino admitted his team was at times less talented than its opponent, but not this season. Part of that belief lies in his backfield, with a power back in Elijhaa Penny primed for a feature role.
Still a strong force despite slimming down from 255 pounds to about 230, Penny had 342 yards rushing in the Vandals’ last four games of 2014. Petrino was very high on incoming backs Calvary Pugh and Jack Bamis, adding to potential options this season.
“When Penny started playing well, we were running the ball well,” Petrino said.
In camp, Petrino wants to see his team limit turnovers, rack up big plays offensively and tackle well on defense to limit such game-changing plays, often which went against them last season. It all leads up to a rare Thursday night home game to open the season, Sept. 3 against Ohio.
“That’s going to be a big turnaround game for the program, to be honest,” Petrino said.
NEWS AND NOTES: The team will scrimmage Aug. 15 and 22. ... Senior receiver Dezmon Epps, who had 980 yards in 2013 before being dismissed from the team last summer because of a pair of arrests, was back on the team this spring. He was cited for two driving-related misdemeanors in May, but Petrino said he will remain with the team. ... Signee Trenton McGhee, a safety out of Florida whom Petrino said would “be a special, special player for us,” has opted not to pursue football, but instead will play baseball. ... Petrino said in-state freshmen offensive linemen Zion Dixon (Lake City) and Tanner Mauseth (Century) “could be three- or four-year starters.” ... The Vandals and Boise State don’t have any future games scheduled, but Petrino would like to see it. “I’d love to get back playing Boise State anytime. I think that’d be awesome,” he said. “That’s our rival, that’s who it was, that’s who it always has been, hopefully that’ll happen again.”