Idaho Vandals

Idaho Vandals quarterback Linehan improves mental game, with a little help from Tony Romo

If you have the opportunity to speak with one of the greats, you take it — even if they are working.

Vandals quarterback Matt Linehan was on the Dallas Cowboys’ sideline during their 42-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 21, and late in the game he asked 12-year veteran Tony Romo what he was seeing on the field.

Television cameras, focused on Romo in the fourth quarter after his 18-of-20, four-touchdown performance, also showed Linehan in the frame, chatting with the four-time Pro Bowler. Linehan had just completed his redshirt freshman season, his first in Moscow as a starter. A key to his own growth, he knew, was to prepare better than ever.

“In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best situation to go and talk to him, but I figured it’d be foolish not to utilize it, and he was really cool about it,” Linehan said.

Linehan’s father, Scott, is the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator. Throughout his life, Linehan had the luxury of spending time with NFL players, but his mindset changed once he became a starter at a Football Bowl Subdivision school early in his career.

Linehan said he didn’t ask Romo to critique his throwing motion, noting his trust in Idaho’s coaching staff, but he wanted to further understand the cerebral aspect, winning the pre-game and pre-snap battles throughout the week leading up to and including the game.

“Growing up, I was around a lot of those guys, but it was just kind of a cool thing to me,’’ Linehan said. “Now it’s different. The fact he took some time for a 19-year-old kid was great, just being able to pick his brain a bit, see what he sees, how he prepares.”

Linehan said in his first season, while redshirting, his focus was heavily on learning the offense. Then it shifted to reading defenses, something he said he simply had to experience first-hand, which meant growing pains that he tried to alleviate this offseason.

“His knowledge has improved tremendously, how he’s studied football away from football,” Idaho quarterbacks coach Bryce Erickson said. “He’s really honed in on that attention to detail ... finding those little things that separate the good from the great.”

Starting in 10-of-11 games last season, Linehan completed 221-of-373 passes (59.3 percent) for 2,540 yards, the most since Nathan Enderle’s 3,314 yards in 2010. Linehan had 11 touchdown passes, but also 18 interceptions, tied with three others for second-most in the nation (Florida State’s Jameis Winston among them).

Linehan started out 5-for-5 against New Mexico State on Oct. 18, but took a nasty hit on a 16-yard run that took him out of the game (and resulted in the Aggies’ tackler being ejected).

Sacked 39 times, Linehan hopes his mental growth includes finding ways to avoid some of those in the future.

“I can’t force things like I did last season,” Linehan said. “I tried to put it in my hands too much, and sometimes it cost us. I took some hits I shouldn’t have taken. I got knocked out of a game for the first time in my life.”

His position coach praised his ability during the last month of practices to cut down on those sorts of plays, something even a veteran like Romo has needed to work on throughout his career.

“He’s improved in every facet we’ve need him to,” Erickson said. “Those critical errors, he’s done a good job eliminating most of those. Last spring and even into the season, if he had a bad play, he’d go into a funk where he’d go and have four or five more in a short time. His maturity’s really shown in not letting those things happen this spring.”

Linehan said he will continue to seek out bits of help from Romo whenever he can (they watched film together last summer), but his arsenal differs some. In addition to adding strength, he spent the offseason focusing on his speed “to stay ahead of the chains.”

“I don’t want him thinking he’s like Michael Vick or anything,’’ Erickson said, “but hopefully he can extend plays for us.’’