Idaho has exactly four weeks to prepare for its home opener versus Montana State on Sept. 1. With the Vandals on the clock as camp begins in Moscow, here are five things to watch:
FOCUS ON THE NOW, NOT THE FUTURE
Idaho announced in April that it will return to the Big Sky for the 2018 season. In the meantime, the Vandals will play two more seasons in the Sun Belt. Can they stay focused as they try to reach a bowl game while still an FBS program?
Coach Paul Petrino thinks so.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the building,” said Petrino, who enters his fourth season with the Vandals (6-29 record). “I think our guys have had a great summer. They worked really hard, and I just think there’s a lot of belief and excitement and our expectations are high. Now we have to go make it happen.”
All eyes will be on Matt Linehan’s foot as the opener approaches. The junior missed spring camp with the injury, and a healthy and productive Linehan is paramount to any success Idaho will have this season.
Linehan, who will be a third-year starter this season, was backed up by Jake Luton last season. Luton played in eight games and started one in place of an injured Linehan, but he transferred to Ventura College this summer.
“He’s a great young man, and I wish him the best,” Petrino said of Luton. “In this day and age, you see it all over the country: A lot of guys just don’t want to be backup quarterbacks.”
Luton’s departure leaves Gunnar Amos, a redshirt freshman from Coeur d’Alene High, as Linehan’s backup, with 2016 signee Mason Petrino — the coach’s son — possibly in the mix.
“We’ll give Gunnar all kinds of work,’’ Petrino said. “Gunnar got a lot of reps in the spring, so that’s good for him. We’ll keep moving forward and continue to get better.”
NEW FACES TO WATCH
Petrino singled out some new players who could make an impact during his pre-camp press conference Thursday. The first player he mentioned was Noah Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound freshman from Fayetteville, Ark.
“He came out of spring as one of the, definitely, top-six offensive linemen,” Petrino said. “So there’s no doubt you could see him playing.”
Alfonso Onunwor, a junior from Coffeeville CC in Kansas, could bolster the receiving corps.
“I could see him playing for sure,” Petrino said. “I think (safety) D.J. Olmstead in the secondary is a guy who has a great chance to play, and (defensive back) Qendarrion (Barnett) is another guy.”
If Linehan stays healthy, the offense should be able to move the ball. But if Idaho is going to be competitive, the defense has to improve. Idaho ranked 123rd in the nation last season as it gave up 42.1 points a game and finished 4-8.
“I think we’ve gotten faster and I think we’ve gotten longer,” Petrino said. “There’s a lot of guys that have a lot of experience that are back, and we’re going to get a lot better on that side of the ball.”
Petrino pointed to the defensive line as one area where there will be a lot of competition.
“You have Tueni (Lupeamanu), who is a leader,” he said. “Glen (Antoine) has really improved and done a good job there. Kevin Shelton has got a lot of experience.”
Petrino said Jack Bamis, who plays the Buck position, could be a catalyst on defense. Bamis redshirted last season.
“(He) is just an unbelievable athlete who can really run and make things happen,” Petrino said. “We’re really excited for him.”
Much will be made of Idaho opening against a Big Sky program, but Petrino said training camp won’t be all about preparing for Montana State.
“Most importantly, right now, we’ve just go to improve each week in fall camp,” he said. “And as we get closer, maybe a week-and-a-half, two weeks away, then we’ll really start focusing in on them. But the beginning of fall camp is really about the whole season. It’s about doing stuff that gets you better for the whole year. But I think that’s going to be a really good rivalry and a good way to start (the season) out.”
The Vandals will not play their 2018 home game against Wyoming, the Casper Star-Tribune reported Wednesday. That’s the year Idaho moves from the FBS Sun Belt to the FCS Big Sky.
“Wyoming will not travel to the University of Idaho, so we will not have a home game against Wyoming,’’ Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear told the Star-Tribune.
Spear said the scheduled 2019 game between Wyoming and Idaho in Laramie will “probably” take place.
Idaho has three nonconference road games on its schedule in 2018: Fresno State, Florida and Northern Illinois.
▪ The Vandals open their season Thursday, Sept. 1 against Montana State in the Kibbie Dome. Kickoff time is 7 p.m. MT.