Idaho's linebackers ready for impact

WITH A HEALTHY MIX OF YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE, the 2012 edition of the Vandal linebacking corps should be a cornerstone for the Idaho defense this fall. Led by a group of seniors that includes CONRAD SCHEIDT, Robert Siavii, and Homer Mauga (granted an extra year by the NCAA) on the outside, and the emergence of Sua Tuala entrenched at MIKE, defensive coordinator Mark Criner likes what he sees.

For many Idaho fans, the Vandals got a surprise gift this off-season when the NCAA granted outside linebacker Homer Mauga another year of eligibility for the upcoming season. An efficient tackler who worked as a starter for most of the last two seasons after transferring in from Grossmont College as a junior, Mauga's surprise return ensures Idaho has one more year to develop the younger talent emerging in the SAM linebacker ranks.

Simultaneously, it was learned that Robert Siavii had not only recovered from the ACL injury that ended his senior campaign last year before it even started, he had amped up his devotion to the weightroom and his film study. Now, the senior has added 10-15 pounds of muscle without losing his closing speed, and is locked in a battle with fellow senior heavy hitter Conrad Scheidt for the starting WILL position.

But more than that, the combination of these three seniors gives Idaho the luxury of having a group of versatile and seasoned veterans on the outside.

"From the outside linebacker position, I think I've got three starters in Conrad [Scheidt], Robert [Siavii], and Homer [Mauga]," defensive coordinator Mark Criner told this week. "I think I can play them at either SAM or WILL and there'd be no drop off. All three of those kids can flat play. They can play WILL, they can play SAM, and they're making our defense a lot better."

Overall, the Vandals will have four seniors playing leadership roles at each of the three linebacker positions in Idaho's base 4-3 alignment. But Idaho will also be getting valuable playing time for some younger, emerging talent in the depth chart as well. Because of that, Criner feels confident in the entire unit.

"I think our linebacker corps is very strong. I think we've got some players that have played a lot of football for us, quite frankly. We're able to run more defense now than we ever have, and a large part of it has to do with the good group and the smart players we have at linebacker. It's nice to have that depth."

And the experience should impact what Idaho can do this fall, from a scheme standpoint. "Right now we're light years -- as a defensive unit -- from where we were last spring. Last year we took our spring and we got better as the fall went along. But we also learned a lot about a lot of our kids, and we played a lot of our kids last year. We also played a lot of different schemes and different sub-packages. We were having some difficulty in some pass rush early in the season, so we moved some linebackers to defensive end on certain packages, and that created some better pass rush for us. That also gives more people opportunity to play. That's when Su'a Tuala got to play -- he got to play WILL and SAM [as well as MIKE], and that's given him the ability this year to feel more confidence with the defense this spring."

So what does Idaho's defensive depth chart at linebacker look like coming out of spring camp? Read below...

WILL - Outside Linebacker, Weakside

"At the WILL linebacker position is Conrad Scheidt, Robert Siavii, and then Elan Richard, the kid we redshirted last year, would be the third," Criner told The combination gives redshirt freshman Elan Richard a chance to learn from a couple seasoned veterans how to play the position and approach the game, without being thrown into the fire immediately this fall.

It will also be the last call for two of Idaho's best linebackers in recent years.

"Conrad has had a very good spring," Criner said in describing the senior's performance this camp, and it is a description he's given Scheidt almost every year since his true freshman season. The senior out of Honolulu is coming off a junior season last year in which he started 11 games and played in all 12 for Idaho. He finished third on the team with 93 tackles on the season, including eight tackles for loss and two sacks on the year. The heavy hitter also managed to force three fumbles along the way.

Also coming off a solid spring camp is Siavii, who is recovering from an ACL injury he suffered during fall camp last year. "Each week he has played faster and faster," Criner told "His knee has recovered great, and I've been excited to see how fast he has recovered. For guys like him and Thaad Thompson who also had reconstructive surgery, it's great to have them full speed now in spring ball. Now they can learn to trust their knee with all the spring ball stuff they've been doing, as opposed to the first time they do that being two-a-days [in fall camp]. Robert's back, and I'm excited to see him play. He's going to help us tremendously.

SAM - Outside Linebacker, Strongside

"At SAM linebacker, Homer is our starter," Criner said. "He's had an extremely good spring, very consistent, and he's just done a great job. I think Homer is a much better football player than he was in the fall."

The return of Mauga for this season was a surprise for many Vandal fans, but not necessarily a surprise for the coaches. "He petitioned it through the junior college and the University of Idaho with the NCAA, and he got a year back," Criner said. "When we recruited Homer, we knew that [the petition] was going to happen."

It worked out in a big way for Idaho, as Mauga returns for the 2012 season with significant playing and starting experience under his belt. In 2010 (his first year at Idaho) he started most of the season and finished with 74 tackles (No.4 on the team), 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on the year. Last fall he started two games and played in 12, finishing with 47 tackles, six tackles for loss and 1 sack on the year.

Mauga's backup is redshirt sophomore Jeffrey Bediako, the 6-foot-3.5, 230-pound athlete with outstanding speed out of the Netherlands who will be making his first major impact in the rotation this fall. "Jeffery's just got to play," Criner said when describing the development of Bediako. "He had a leg injury [last year], and he's been a little hampered this spring. He just needs to play, he needs to get some game time experience.

The third player in the rotation is another freshman the Vandals were able to redshirt last fall. Jeremiah Walters (6-3, 221) out of Oakland is another player that can be eased into action rather than being thrown into the fire. "He's a freshman," Criner said, "and I think he's got the furthest to go, but I think Jeremiah shows a lot of promise. He's still a redshirt freshman that hasn't played a lot of defense so he'll get better as we go. He just needs the training and more repetitions.

"The great thing is the first few years we were here we had to play all those freshmen, but now we don't have to do that anymore. We can redshirt all these guys, get them stronger and help them learn the defense more before we put them in those game time situations.

MIKE - Middle Linebacker

"Our MIKE linebacker is Su'a Tuala," Criner said as he transitioned to the middle of the defense. "He's had a heck of a spring. We're very excited about Su'a -- this kid's a dynamic player. Last year he played three different positions -- SAM, MIKE and WILL. We moved him around, we had the luxury to do it."

For the year, Tuala played in eight games and finished with nine tackles on the year, which included two tackles for loss and a sack.

"We've got another kid that's been a pleasant surprise," Criner added. "We've moved James Randall to the middle, and he's backing up Su'a now. He's done a very good job and we get a better football player inside, so we're excited about that. He was more of a speed guy [coming out of high school], and James has done a good job -- he's gained some weight, and he's basically just focused more. He's focused himself more to really understand the defense, and wants to be part of it. That's what has been exciting.

"You're going to see him on special teams, and he'll be a guy that can step in there and play at MIKE linebacker."

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