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Erickson in need of a Moscow miracle

Hope Dennis Erickson enjoyed the honeymoon.

Since being introduced as Idaho's head coach Feb. 8, Erickson has toured the state, promoting Vandal football and being patted on the back by ecstatic boosters and fans. It's been six weeks of blissful predictions and uninterrupted smiles.

"To see the enthusiasm that's out there right now as far as the Vandals are concerned, they deserve that enthusiasm after the things they've gone through the past few years, that was fun," Erickson said.

That party's over.

Now the hard work begins.

The Vandals opened spring practice Saturday in Moscow, the first step in what could be Erickson's largest rebuilding project in a career filled with them. With the Idaho fan base expecting miracles, the 58-year-old is determined to work them.

"We're going to be competitive next year. I really believe we can be competitive. We've got guys who are pretty darn good football players on this team," Erickson said before spring practice. "In a year or two, we'll be competitive to where we compete for that championship. That's what our goal is in the next three years."

I guess it depends on your definition of competitive. Without doubting Erickson's ability to coach 'em up, the Vandals' talent level — and their brutal schedule — simply doesn't support such a robust turnaround.

In the last five seasons, Idaho is 11-47. The Vandals have not won more than three games in a season since 2000 and haven't had a winning year since 1999.

Erickson inherits a team with just one All-WAC performer (first team or second) in kicker Mike Barrow. Hank Therien, a three-year starter at right tackle, recently left the team and will not return.

Former coach Nick Holt no doubt improved the talent level in Moscow, but Erickson has not yet been able to cull the junior college ranks for an infusion of talent. There simply aren't enough high-caliber WAC players on the roster at this time.

"As you build a program, depth and those types of things take time. That's the biggest concern," Erickson said.

He'll spend spring practice, which culminates with the spring game on April 21, installing a new offense. Erickson would like to implement a pass-happy scheme, one that spreads out opponents, utilizes the Vandals' bundle of quick but undersized playmakers and takes advantage

of quarterback Steve Wichman's accuracy.

But that's if the players can handle it. Wichman struggled to adapt to a new offense last year and now he's got to do it again. Behind Wichman are two true freshmen quarterbacks.

Wichman lost his top target in 1,000-yard receiver Daniel Smith, a second-team All-WAC performer, who gave up his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.

"If we can't throw it and catch it, there's no use throwing it 50 times a game. If our strength is the running game, then we're going to run the ball. We're going to do whatever gives them the best chance to win, and I don't know what that is right now," Erickson said.

"We've got plans for what we want to do. You want to spread it out and do all these things. But how well do we do it? What do we do best?"

Erickson and the Vandals have less than a month of spring practice to figure that out. Less than a month to get the offense up to speed with new terminology and a new emphasis. Less than a month to instill more toughness in a defense that allowed 183.3 rushing yards and 38.1 points per game last year. And that was with All-WAC linebacker Cole Snyder.

Living in California on the San Francisco 49ers' millions might sound pretty good right now. At some point, probably after watching the tape from another loss last season, perhaps the 62-14 beatdown by Nevada, the thought must have crossed Erickson's mind.

His college coaching résumé is complete. Does he really need this?

It sounds like he does.

"The camaraderie of the game, seeing them learn and get better, improve all the time and being around the coaches and coaching football, that's what I do best," Erickson said. "Probably the most fun is to see them get better as a football team and as individuals as you go through spring. That's what I missed most about the game when I was out that year."

There should be plenty of improvement through the spring. There better be if the Vandals are going to fulfill the fanciful dreams of their fans or even the more moderate expectations of Erickson.

"It is a new challenge and it's a big challenge," Erickson said. "It's going to be fun."

And a whole lot of work.