Over the past few months, Idaho football coach Paul Petrino found himself in the homes of recruits’ parents whose exact government jobs may be a little hush-hush. Wide receiver/defensive back Lloyd Hightower’s father works for the FBI or CIA — Petrino wasn’t sure if he could say. Running back Dylan Thigpen’s father is in the Secret Service.
“We had Secret Service people. We had FBI people. That was our year of recruiting,’’ Petrino said Wednesday.
Perhaps a little less intimidating, he went into his own home to nab wide receiver/quarterback Mason Petrino and a former Vandals’ home to get linebacker Jaden Gardner as part of his 18-member class.
“Probably two things I like — coaches’ kids and former players’ kids,” Petrino said.
In addition to seeking out players he determined to have high character and solid backgrounds, Petrino wanted something a little gritty.
“I wanted to go out there and find some guys you could see on tape hitting people and liked hitting people. ... I wanted to go out and sign guys that were really physical, hard-nosed, tough football players,’’ Petrino said.
The fourth-year coach believes he filled that need to help fix a defense that allowed 42.1 points per game last season, with 11 and perhaps up to 13 of the newcomers expected to play on defense.
Petrino expects some of the five defensive linemen to contribute immediately, and had high praise for incoming freshman safety Qendarrion Barnett (Macon, Miss.).
“Kind of the safety I’ve wanted forever,” Petrino said. “I’d be hard-pressed to think he’s going to redshirt, because I love the way he hits.”
Petrino is eager to have his team serve as a second family to Gardner, whose father, Bryson, played at Idaho in the late 1990s but died in June 2014.
“Jaden was here at camp when his father passed away,” Petrino said. “He’s a great kid. It’s been really nice getting to know him through this process.”
As the Vandals continue to build depth, they have done it by relying less on junior college transfers. They signed only two Wednesday in defensive linemen Arie Anderson and Aikeem Coleman. Linebacker Jason Sylva will join as a grad transfer from Western Michigan.
In addition to Barnett, Petrino said he is impressed with incoming freshmen receivers Chris Hunter and Hightower (who may play both ways).
“It’s the best class I’ve signed since I’ve been here,” Petrino said. “A bunch of talent. It was nice to sign a bunch of high school kids, too.”
Petrino confirmed four signees who grayshirted last year will join the team for spring practice, including two Treasure Valley players. Tarik Littlejohn, who was a receiver at Capital High, will begin his collegiate career at safety, while Rocky Mountain High grad Conner Vrba will play on the offensive line.
IDAHO VANDALS 2016 FOOTBALL SIGNING CLASS
▪ LB Charles Akanno, 6-1, 250, Fr., Morningside High (Inglewood, Calif.): Totaled 126 tackles as a senior in 10 games, including eight sacks and three interceptions, earning all-conference honors his final two prep seasons.
▪ DL Arie Anderson, 6-1, 326, Jr., Jones County Junior College (Millbrook, Ala.): A two-year starter, he had 23 tackles last season, including one sack, and 16 tackles as a junior. An all-state pick out of high school.
▪ OL Darius Archie, 6-3, 305, Fr., Cosumnes Oaks High (Elk Grove, Calif): A team captain on a team that averaged 386 yards per game last season, helped lead the way for 39 rushing touchdowns.
▪ S Qendarrion Barnett, 5-10, 188, Fr., Noxubee County High (Macon, Miss.): A tackling machine on two state championship teams, Barnett had 163 tackles as a senior (12.5 for loss) and recovered a pair of fumbles. He had 183 tackles as a junior.
▪ DE/TE Dylan Beeler, 6-3, 208, Fr., Clarkston (Wash.) High: A two-time state wrestling champion, he had 39 catches for 440 yards as a senior at tight end and had 14 sacks at defensive end.
▪ DE Aikeem Coleman, 6-3, 284, So., East Mississippi Community College (Hattiesburg, Miss.): Was in the top 20 nationally among junior college players in his lone JC season with 16.5 tackles for loss, which included five sacks.
▪ DT Rahsaan Crawford, 5-10, 338, Fr., Tucker (Ga.) High: As a senior one of Georgia's top programs, he was named all-Region 6AAAAA on the offensive line.
▪ CB Vaughn Daggs, 6-0, 156, Fr., Mountainview High (Auburn, Wash.): Served as a receiver, kick returner and defensive back at Mountainview, adding 750 receiving yards on offense and four interceptions on defense.
▪ DE Wayne Eades II, 6-0, 256, Fr., Memphis (Tenn.) Central High: A 5A All-State first-team selection, he had 75 tackles last season, including 25 sacks and 10 forced fumbles.
▪ LB Jaden Gardner, 6-1, 255, Fr., Notre Dame High (Riverside, Calif.): Had 92 tackles his senior season (15.5 for loss), including seven sacks and five forced fumbles.
▪ S Ty Graham, 6-0, 211, Fr., Cheney (Wash.) High: Rushed for 1,472 yards as a running back his senior year, scoring 25 touchdowns, while adding 100 tackles and four interceptions on defense.
▪ WR/DB Lloyd Hightower, 5-9, 182, Fr., Chaparral High (Temecula, Calif.): Had 736 yards on 44 catches with seven touchdowns as a receiver and intercepted two passes as a defensive back last season as a senior.
▪ WR Chris Hunter, 6-2, 232, Fr., Lakes High (Lakewood, Wash.): Had 54 receptions for 1,081 yards as a senior at receiver while also adding 58 tackles and 14 sacks at defensive end.
▪ QB/WR Mason Petrino, 5-11, 168, Fr., Pullman (Wash.) High: Threw for 2,092 yards with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions as a senior, adding 217 rushing yards.
▪ DL David Potts, 6-2, 252, Fr., Roosevelt High (Eastvale, Calif.): As a senior, had 80 tackles (24.5 for loss) in addition to 14 sacks and blocked a field goal.
▪ LB Jason Sylva, 6-3, 243, Sr., Western Michigan (Plymouth, Mass.): Had 25 tackles in six games last season for the Mustangs after posting 72 tackles (eight for loss) as a sophomore at Dean (Mass.) College.
▪ RB Dylan Thigpen, 5-11, 190, Fr., Damien High (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.): Ran for 1,855 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior and broke Ian Johnson's school record with 4,256 career rushing yards.
▪ WR JJ Wills, 6-1, 185, Fr., Clovis (Calif.) High: Had 1,161 yards on 71 receptions, scoring 14 touchdowns as a senior.
NOTE: Idaho also added grayshirts in safety Tarik Littlejohn (Capital High), offensive lineman Conner Vrba (Rocky Mountain High), kicker Cade Coffey (Lakeland High) and defensive tackle Mytreal Denson (Jacksonville, Fla.). In December, Idaho signed receiver Alfonso Onunwor (Coffeyville CC), fullback Josh Herman (Northeastern Oklahoma A&M), tight end Joe Wysocki (Los Alamitos, Calif.) and offensive lineman Noah Johnson (Fayetteville, Ark.).