The last time the Idaho football team took the field in December, the Vandals were busy putting up 61 points and 606 yards of offense in a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Colorado State.
Spring ball started Friday, and now the Vandals are busy trying to maintain the momentum.
“It’s still always going to (be), expect to win,” coach Paul Petrino said. “But now it’s about raising the bar.”
Idaho won its last five games of the season and its third bowl game all-time. The Vandals won nine games overall, their most since 1998. The program is trending upwards under Petrino, though it faces a strange dynamic: Idaho will transition from the FBS’ Sun Belt to the FCS’ Big Sky in 2018, meaning the 2017 season is the Vandals’ last chance to make a bowl game.
“There’s no doubt our goal is to win the league this last year,” Petrino said. “But I don’t know if we’re going to talk about (leaving the Sun Belt) a whole bunch.”
There are several challenges facing Idaho in 2017. Here’s what could make or break the Vandals’ season:
Petrino addressed the media Thursday, and believes a final season in FBS could provide extra motivation for players. “Sometimes it helps the guys. … It might help them work out on a Friday when they’re not feeling that great,” Petrino said. “But day-to-day, the most important thing is to get better. It’s more about that.”
The Vandals lose four of their top five passing targets. The leading returner is senior Alfonso Onunwar (403 yards, TD). Idaho also brings back seniors Jacob Sannon (303 yards, two TDs) and Reuben Mwehla (166 yards). “I think we have three senior receivers back who have played a lot of football for us,” Petrino said. “We’re going to definitely have enough guys … but it’s up to them this spring to see what order.”
Idaho loses three of its starting five, including former Capital high standout Steven Matlock (center). While sophomore left guard Noah Johnson and senior right tackle Jordan Rose are solid foundations, Petrino knows there is some shuffling to be done. “There’s definitely some really good players that we lost. (But) I’ve really been happy with (redshirt sophomore guard) Zion Dixon,’’ he said.
Linehan will be a fourth-year starter when Idaho opens Aug. 31 against Sacramento State. He has thrown for 8,696 yards and 46 touchdowns. Losing three of his linemen and several talented receivers might mean putting more on Linehan’s plate. “He’s running faster, he’s bigger, he’s stronger. ... I think he’s going to have an unbelievable senior year, I really do,” Petrino said.
Starting punter/kicker Austin Rehkow had a record-setting career (school-record 70 field goals and averaged 45.8 yards per punt). In his place at both spots likely will be sophomore Cade Coffey. “I would have to say right know Cade would be the front-runner to both,” Petrino said.