It has been a topsy-turvy offseason for the Vandals.
In March, the Sun Belt voted not to extend Idaho’s membership in the conference past the 2017 season.
In April, the Vandals decided to move down to the Football Championship Subdivision and play in the Big Sky starting in 2018.
But first, there are two seasons to play as a Sun Belt member. And after a 4-8 season last year, their most wins in five years, coaches and players say there is an air of positivity hovering above the Kibbie Dome as they prepare for Thursday’s opener against Montana State (7 p.m., KTVB and 630 AM).
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“We’re just really excited,” said coach Paul Petrino, who is entering his fourth year at Idaho. “We’ve got a lot of guys back; we’ve got good depth.”
Most of the excitement revolves around quarterback Matt Linehan and the offense’s potential.
“Our quarterback being a third-year starter, we’re very excited about that,” Petrino said. “We’ve got four starters back on the offensive line, and your offensive line and quarterback determine what you can do offensively. So I think we’ll be able to do a lot of our playbook, and we’re very excited about that.”
Here’s a quick look at what the Vandals bring to the table in 2016, a year where bowl eligibility is a primary team goal:
Idaho will go as far as Linehan can carry it, so his health is of utmost importance. He missed spring camp after foot surgery, but Petrino declared Monday that Linehan is 100 percent.
His health is great, and we’ve just got to do a good job of protecting him and keeping him clean and I think he’ll have a great year for us.
Paul Petrino, Idaho head coach, on quarterback Matt Linehan
Linehan said with the talent surrounding him, the Vandals should be able to put points on the board — maybe as many as 40 per game, a goal Petrino set forth early in camp.
“The receiving corps is as talented as we’ve had since we got here,” Linehan said. “The confidence that I have in them is incredible.”
Callen Hightower might lead the way at wideout. The senior emerged as a top threat as a junior, when he had more than 100 yards in three of Idaho’s final five games, including a career-best 161 at Auburn.
“He’s definitely explosive,” tight end Trent “Buck” Cowan said. “You saw it last year, with the numbers he was putting up and the plays he was making. … He’ll definitely be one of our main targets, day in and day out.”
Cowan also figures to be a main target. The converted receiver — and Linehan’s roommate — had 624 receiving yards last season, fourth among FBS tight ends.
The leading rusher last season was senior Elijhaa Penny (1,163 yards), now with the Arizona Cardinals. Petrino said he will try to replace that production with three running backs, at least early in the season.
“Aaron (Duckworth) will be No. 1,” Petrino said of the sophomore who ran for 249 yards last season. “He’s got more experience than the other guys, and he’s had a good camp. And then you’ve got Isaiah Saunders, who is … big and physical and can run inside and is a good pass protector. And then we’ve got Denzal Brantley, a redshirt freshman who’s got a lot of speed and gives you more of the big-play capability.
“So early in the year, we’ll play all three of them, and if one of them separates themselves, then one guy will take over.”
Idaho allowed an average of 42.1 points per game last season, so an improved defense is a must if the Vandals are going to achieve what they hope to this season.
“I think we’ve added some speed,” Petrino said. “Hopefully, we will run around and make a lot of plays.”
One player who showed he could do that last year is linebacker Kaden Elliss, who played as a true freshman and was second on the team with 83 tackles.
“He’s just so competitive, so driven to be great,” linebackers coach Eric Brown said.
And Brown isn’t just looking forward to coaching Elliss this season.
“I’m excited about my group,” said Brown, who joined the Vandals in 2013. “We’re as long as we’ve ever been, we’re as fast as we’ve ever been. So the talent’s there.”
The line will feature some experienced players and be anchored by senior Tueni Lupeamanu, a 300-pound force who played quarterback in high school. And the defense will welcome the return of Jayshawn Jordan.
“In the secondary, Jayshawn Jordan is probably the leader,” Petrino said. “He was a three-year starter for us and got hurt last year, so he ended up using his redshirt. He’s going to be playing safety for us.”
▪ Idaho’s special teams units are built around senior Austin Rekhow, who is a weapon as a punter and a kicker. He is one of two players in the country on the Ray Guy (punter) and Lou Groza (kicker) watch lists.
▪ Hightower, Linehan and Rehkow were named to the Sun Belt’s preseason all-conference teams. Rehkow was named to the first team as a kicker and punter, and Linehan and Hightower received second-team recognition.
▪ Petrino is 6-29 after three seasons: 1-11 in 2013, 1-10 in 2014 and 4-8 in 2015.
Montana State at Idaho
- When: 7 p.m. MT Thursday
- Where: Kibbie Dome (16,000, RealGrass Pro), Moscow
- TV: KTVB
- Radio: KFXD (630 AM)
- Series: Idaho leads 24-17-1 (Vandals won 56-7 in 2000 in Pullman, Wash.)