SPRING 2011: The Vandal defensive backs

HOW DO YOU REPLACE A TEAM LEADER LIKE SHILOH KEO? Idaho has spent most of spring working out the kinks in a defensive backfield that won't feature the former Team Captain and All-WAC safety for the first time in four years. But with just one week left in camp, position battles at strong safety and the rest of the Vandal defensive backfield are getting settled as an experienced unit takes form.

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The Idaho defensive backfield for 2011 will look much like the 2010 unit, with one noteworthy exception: no more Shiloh Keo at strong safety, Idaho's top ranked prospect for the upcoming NFL Draft. Despite the loss of Keo, Idaho's defensive backfield is loaded with experience and should be a strength as Idaho embarks on the 2011 season.

Free Safety

Since his true freshman season on the Idaho campus, junior Gary Walker has been a force at free safety for the Vandals. Poised for a breakout season this fall, Walker has the potential to step into the leadership role Keo is vacating out of the Vandal defensive backfield. "He's having a tremendous spring," defensive coordinator Mark Criner said of Walker, an outstanding athlete who earned starting reps as a true freshman in 2009. He completed an efficient sophomore season last fall with 58 tackles, two interceptions, three pass breakups and three fumble recoveries. Look for Walker to build on those numbers in 2011.

Walker's understudy is redshirt sophomore Trey Williams out of Itta Bena, Mississippi. He earned his first playing time last fall, rotating in with Walker and Thaad Thompson, and this fall is going to be looked at to play a more prominent role. "Trey's coming around," Criner to GoVandals.net. "He's such a good athlete, and he's starting to fit into the position." A weapon on special teams as well, look for Williams to make a bigger impact this fall.

Strong Safety

It's been a long time since Idaho has had to look look for a new strong safety -- five years to be exact. But that is the position Idaho is in this fall as they look to replace the leadership Keo embodied at Idaho.

With an unprecedented level of talent in the defensive back field for 2011, Idaho will likely look to TWO athletes to fill Keo's shoes this fall. Seniors Quin Ashley and Thaad Thompson currently are splitting starting duties, and both bring substantial game experience and maturity to the field. Vandal fans can count on both athletes playing major roles in the Idaho defense for 2011.

"Every other day I say the other is the starter," Criner told GoVandals.net of Ashley and Thompson. "They both rotate with the ones and the twos."

In Ashley you have an athlete that has literally done it all at Idaho. When he signed with Robb Akey way back in 2007, his former high school coach Travis Smith at Paris (Texas) High School raved about his intangibles. "He will be one of the team leaders [at Idaho]," Smith told GoVandals.net four years ago. "He is a born leader." And he has been. Ashley sacrificed for his team, switching to quarterback as a true freshman when the team needed him, then to wide receiver when depth at Idaho was limited. Then, after his sophomore year, he took a redshirt year and switched back to his primary position: safety. Last fall as a redshirt junior he finished with 35 tackles and played in 12 games backing up Keo.

Sharing starting duties with Ashley is Thaad Thompson, a formidable athlete at 6-foot-1.5 and 220 pounds who has been clocked at a blazing 4.39 in the forty. He joined the Vandals last fall and immediately earned two starts at free safety while backing up Gary Walker, finishing with 27 tackles on the year and a blocked punt. Together, Ashley and Thompson should be a versatile force at strong safety for Idaho.

Backing up the Ashley/Thompson duo is redshirt freshman James Randall out of Compton (Calif.) High School. "James is a big hitter," Criner said of his star freshman. "He's a little behind the other guys, but he's coming around. We need to find out more [about James] and get him some more reps, from the standpoint of getting him a better feel for it and more comfortable going into summer." There is a strong battle at the top of this depth chart, but look for Randall to get his reps (at safety and on special teams).

Finally, look for Thompson and Trey Williams to flip between the two safety positions throughout the year, giving Idaho a solid combination of athletes to choose between throughout the year.

Nickel Back

When the situation is right and the Vandals drop into nickel coverage (five defensive backs), look for strong safeties Quin Ashley or Thaad Thompson to get the nod at nickel. Last year, about half way through the year, Shiloh Keo became Idaho's top nickel back when Idaho transitioned to five DBs.

This fall Idaho will have a nickel defensive backfield that features its three most experienced safeties in Gary Walker (6-0, 199) at free, with Quin Ashley (5-10, 208) and Thaad Thompson (6-1.5, 220) alternating between strong and nickel. A solid defensive backfield ensemble by any measure.

"Shiloh was our nickel at times when we could afford to put him down there," Criner to GVN. "But those are two good players [Thompson and Ashley] who understand the defense and what we're doing, so when one is playing nickel the other is playing strong safety, and vice versa."


Third year rocket Aaron Grymes (5-11, 186, 4.40-40), a true junior out of West Seattle High (Wash.) is entrenched as the starter at one corner position (predominantly lining up at right corner). Last fall he started nine games for Idaho and played in all 13 on the year. He led the cornerbacks with 77 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, three pass breakups and two forced fumbles. He brings outstanding athleticism to the position and is poised for a breakout season in 2011.

Grymes' top backup is redshirt sophomore Tracy Carter out of James Madison (Dallas, TX) High School. Last fall as a redshirt freshman Carter worked into the cornerback rotation, playing in 11 games and recording 11 tackles and one pass breakup on the year. Look for Carter's role to increase in 2011.

On the right side, you can pretty much enter a "slash" between the top two athletes in the chart. Look for a pair of seniors, hard hitting Kenneth Patten and speedster Matt Harvey to split starting duties in 2011. Both have run with the ones this spring, and the starter changes almost everyday with each offering different strengths depending who they line up against.

Patten is coming off a junior season in which he started 11 games and played in 13 for the Vandals, finishing with 47 tackles and two pass breakups. Harvey on the other hand started one game and played in seven while recording 18 tackles, picked off a pass, and broke up two passes on the year. Together, the duo should make Idaho solid at the corner opposite Grymes.

Behind the top four (Grymes, Patten, Harvey and Carter), Idaho has a solid depth chart of young talent to turn to in the fall. Newcomer A.J. Annelus (a JC transfer in for spring who has the size to play safety and corner and has three years eligibility to play two) and redshirt sophomore Shawn Tucker (who played in eight games in 2010, 10 tackles, also returned two kicks) top the list of players on campus now, while Idaho recruited a couple of lockdown corners out of the prep ranks in Dion Bass (5-11, 185) and Solomon Dixon (5-10, 175) who will join the program in the summer.

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