At a passing glance, the quarterback position for Idaho’s 2019 football team appears the same.
Behind them, a cursory look might prompt confusion — not much about this season’s corps of running backs can be compared to anything Vandal fans have seen since coach Paul Petrino took command six years ago.
There are five running backs — not one of them a senior — vying for reps. Throughout most of his tenure in Moscow, Petrino has had a veteran to lean on. This time, it could be a true freshman shouldering the load when Idaho opens against No. 15 Penn State at 1:30 p.m. MT Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania (Big Ten Network).
But the seventh-year boss again has two experienced quarterbacks to test one another. Pullman High product Mason Petrino and Lewiston’s Colton Richardson are duking it out for starting quarterback duties, a position battle that’s been discussed to infinity and likely will generate more controversy from various angles. To dredge up a few hot topics: Petrino is undersized for a signal caller and he’s the son of the coach; Richardson weighs 285 pounds and has yet to truly prove himself in a game situation.
Really, neither one did enough to claim the job by way of their performances in 2018, which were middling. Petrino’s restrictions were broadly sniffed out, and Richardson wrestled with injury and accuracy issues.
Nevertheless, the team is in store for another platoon. But this time, it’s only set to last until Week 4, at which point Paul Petrino said he hopes to have named a starter.
“The first couple games, it’s gonna be Mason and Colton. I don’t know if it’ll be the same way as last year ... it might be by quarters or series,” Petrino said. “I’d hope to make a decision after Wyoming (Sept. 14). If it happens sooner than that, it happens.”
During camp, Mason Petrino has taken more reps, and two weeks ago, position coach Charley Molnar admitted the senior had a leg up thanks to his athleticism. By an eye test, Petrino’s fared well in finding over-the-middle windows — conducive to yards after the catch — and his red-zone fades are accurate.
Richardson, who Molnar said is on a training regimen, is making better decisions and does his best to flaunt his bazooka arm. Although, Paul Petrino has said he’s about more than that.
“Mason’s making more big plays; that’s something we’ve worked hard on,” Petrino said. “Colton’s made big strides in understanding the protections and the scheme. ... Sometimes you think because Colton’s big, we throw the ball downfield all the time with him. Actually, one of the best things he does is the quick game.”
The backs have been a quarterback’s best friend thus far. Some are deadly catching the ball, some bruise, some do both.
But they’re hardly proven.
As of now, it appears Rocky Mountain High rookie Nick Romano has the balance to fit the coach’s bill, stressing quickness in space and tackle-shedding. The 5-foot-10, 203-pound reigning 5A All-Idaho Player of the Year who had 2,221 yards and 32 scores last season is stout (a 400-pound bencher) and feasibly among the Vandals’ fastest.
Whenever the backfield’s brought up, UI coaches and players are quick to shake their heads in admiration, then rave about all of Romano’s traits.
“Nick and (freshman) Kiahn (Martinez), they’re special dudes. They make people miss and have the ability to take things to the house,” said sophomore Roshaun Johnson, UI’s leading returning rusher with only 99 yards.
Martinez is scat-like, a slighter back who darts through tiny seams, cuts sharply, and is unafraid to lower his shell into larger defenders. Not long back, Paul Petrino said Romano and Martinez were atop the depth chart. Scrimmages considered, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
That doesn’t mean the others won’t see action.
“These first couple of games, it’ll be by what plays we call,” Paul Petrino said. “The whole group is gonna play, and if one of ’em is super hot, they’ll be in there the most.”
C of I hosts Eastern Oregon
The 15th-ranked College of Idaho football team faces Frontier Conference rival Eastern Oregon in the season opener for both teams Saturday at Simplot Stadium in Caldwell. Kickoff is 1 p.m.
For the first time since the program was reinstated in 2014, the Yotes were chosen as the league’s preseason favorites. They finished the 2018 season on a six-game winning streak and return 11 starters on offense and nine on defense.
The Yotes and Mountaineers split their meetings last season, with Eastern Oregon winning 24-21 on Aug. 25 and C of I rebounding for a 48-24 victory on Oct. 27.
Note: Idaho State’s season opener is Thursday, Sept. 5, against Western Colorado University. Kickoff is 6:35 p.m. at Holt Arena in Pocatello (Pluto TV).
Idaho Statesman reporter Rachel Roberts contributed to this report.