2013 PRIMER: Top 10 questions for fall camp

WITH AN ALMOST ENTIRELY NEW COACHING STAFF for the 2013 season, numerous position battles loom heading into fall camp. One lock, however, is that two-time Rimington Trophy watch list honoree, junior MIKE MARBOE, will start at center for the Vandals. Around him starting battles abound on both sides of the ball. Inside we take a look at our Top Ten questions as fall camp kicks off.

#10 - Will Idaho take the field with gold or black helmets in 2013?

2008 gold helmet above, 2012 black helmet below.
Okay … granted, this probably isn't the most burning question on anyone's mind as the team reassembles for fall camp (hence it's #10 in our list instead of #1). But it's a topic that hits our message boards annually and elicits a wide range of opinions - some siding with tradition, some wanting change, and everything in between.

And this summer was no different.

Last year Idaho broke from tradition, exchanging their normal gold helmets and donning black head gear for the first time in decades. Considering Idaho's monumental struggles in 2012, some might say it would be a good idea to put everything about last season in the rearview mirror. But the reality is Idaho's struggles on the field had nothing to do with the color of their gear. For many Vandal fans the change to black was welcome, for others the change from gold sparked interest in other options.

1969 Idaho uniform.
So, what will Idaho do this fall? Black helmets? Gold helmets? Or will the Idaho brass get really crazy and throw in a little silver on the uni's this year. Idaho had silver lids for much of the 60s and 70s … maybe this is the year the Vandals sport some silver again, displaying both colors (Idaho's official school colors) rather than just gold. [Many thanks to Rome455 for the throwback images he shared on our forums]

Or maybe Idaho goes way off the grid and brings back the maroon jerseys they used from time-to-time to accent the silver and gold (rather than black) in a long ago era (40s - 60s). Or, maybe Idaho and Washington State will stage a "throw-back" game, as they renew a border rivalry that dates back to 1894 this fall, and go with retro gear.

So many options to consider.

1948 Homecoming game at Idaho versus Oregon (Vandals in maroon).

#9 – How will Idaho replace All-American, All-Conference and All-WAC performers on special teams?

Idaho is on a cycle now where they're replacing starting punters and kickers just about every four years, and the 3-4 years the Vandals get from their punters/kickers has been, for the most part, impressive of late. This year the cycle begins again as Idaho searches for replacements at both punter and kicker.

At kicker this fall, Idaho will replace 4-year starter Trey Farquhar, a 1st Team All-WAC selection last season who rewrote much of the UI record books. At punter, the Vandals need to replace Bobby Cowan, a Ray Guy Award semi-finalist named to at least one All-American list in 2011, and a 2nd Team All-WAC honoree last fall. Both started for Idaho as freshmen, and both were exceptionally successful at Idaho.

Word on the street is that incoming star high school kicker/punter Austin Rehkow will take over both punting and kicking duties. A true talent, he set the Washington state record as a senior when he hit a 67-yard field goal – a kick that propelled him to be named a 2nd Team All-American by USA Today. He also earned 1st Team AP All-State honors (Washington) at both kicker and punter. Originally when he signed with Idaho he was pegged to take over as punter for the Vandals. Of course, that was when Idaho already had a young kicker on the roster and an opening at punter for Rehkow to fill. But half way through spring camp, well-regarded redshirt freshman kicker Jace Johnson unexpectedly left the team. In the wake of that loss, Rehkow is poised to take over starting duties at both positions and is looking forward to the challenge.

Others will be given a look at both positions this fall as well, including Bobby Cowan's younger brother Trent Cowan, an incoming freshman. The versatile athlete could play several positions at Idaho, including punter. However, although he would undoubtedly do what it takes to help the Vandals succeed, the younger Cowan (a 2nd Team AP All-State selection as a senior last year at defensive back and as a special teams all-purpose athlete) has his mind set on defensive back or wide receiver at Idaho. Regardless, the competition for starting duties at both positions will be something to watch.

#8 – Will the tightends play a prominent role in the 2013 Vandal offense?

It will be fascinating to see how the Vandals utilize the three senior tightends they have on the roster this fall. The biggest of the three is Taylor Elmo (6-4, 255), who has shown flashes of playmaking capability while also being used heavily on blocking plays. Converted wide receiver Clayton Homme (6-5.5, 231) shed 10-pounds from his frame this off-season and saw significant action during spring camp while Elmo battled bumps and bruises.

Mike LaGrone against Wyoming in 2012.
Versatile H-Back Mike LaGrone, who has seen the most extensive playing time as a starter of anyone in the tightend depth chart, made the biggest physical transformation this off-season, shedding 25-pounds from his 6-foot-2 frame and weighing in at a svelte 249-pounds. An efficient receiver, he's caught 50 passes and scored five touchdowns in his Vandal career, and delivered some memorable blocks along the way.

Beyond these three, Idaho has a solid depth chart that includes 6-foot-1, 232-pound Jake Manley (the former walkon was awarded a scholarship this offseason at H-Back), Jared Klingenberg (6-4, 232), converted quarterback junior Justin Podrabsky (6-6.5, 247), and redshirt freshman Eric Lemke (6-3, 238).

With such a variety of athletes already in the pipeline, it will be interesting to see how the new Idaho coaching staff utilizes this diverse group.

#7 – Does Idaho have more than one serious threat at wide receiver?

With the transferal of junior to be Jahrie Level out of the Idaho program in June, the Vandal passing attack took a major hit. Gone is the most productive player from spring camp, and an 6-foot-0, 167-pound athlete that played in all 12 games in 2012, was the #3 receiver on the team with 46 receptions for 538 yards and two touchdowns. The Vandals also will be without Mike Scott, who finished out his Vandal career last year as the team's #1 receiver with 60 receptions for 666 yards and four TDs.

On the plus side, the Vandals do return senior Najee Lovett, Idaho's #2 receiver a year ago with 50 receptions for 549 yards and a team-best six touchdown receptions (he also added 82 kickoff return yards). Behind Lovett there is talent and potential, but the Vandals will be looking at a largely unproven depth chart to make an impact this fall. Senior speedster Maurice Trotter (4.41-40) is coming off a productive spring camp as a wideout, as is Roman Runner from the slot position. The Vandals also have a couple youngsters with a high ceiling in 6-foot-2 sophomore Marquan Major and 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman Deon Watson. And then there is JC transfer Dezmon Epps (5-foot-8), another speedster (4.40-40) expected to come in this fall and give the Vandals an option to stretch the field.

Finally, there is speed and talent in the true freshmen coming in this fall, including Jacob Sannon out of Florida and Reuben Mwehla out of Washington. This could be the year Idaho has a true freshman see significant time in the rotation.

So who will step up and become a reliable and productive target in the passing game this fall?

#6 – Who will emerge as Idaho's defensive leader?

It's been awhile since the Vandals have had what could really be called a true "leader" on the defensive side of the ball. Arguably the last defensive leader for the Vandals was 4-year starting safety Shiloh Keo – an athlete that was the emotional tone setter for the entire defensive unit, who backed it up with timely plays and a deep understanding of the game and scheme. Do the Vandals have that type of leader on the roster now? Will either of Idaho's bookend defensive ends Maxx Forde or Quinton Bradley fit that role? Will the leader emerge from the interior defensive line, or Idaho's rebuilt linebacking corps? Or will the leader emerge from the Vandal defensive backfield in senior safety Trey Williams, junior safety Bradley Njoku, or rising star cornerback Solomon Dixon?

Or is a single leader on the defense even necessary to be successful – someone to rally the troops.

#5 – Does Idaho have the depth in the defensive backfield depth chart to be effective in nickel or dime packages?

One thing that became apparent during spring drills was that depth challenges facing the defensive backfield could be an issue this fall. Solomon Dixon is solid at corner, and is poised for a breakout redshirt sophomore season this fall. Senior safety Trey Williams has played significantly the last three years (started five games last year), and he should be a leader for the Vandals defensively. Junior safety Bradley Njoku has been impressive his first two years at Idaho and showed his versatility during spring camp, starting at cornerback opposite Dixon after playing primarily safety in 24 straight games the last two years.

How Idaho fills in the rest of the depth chart remains to be seen, and if there is any position where incoming freshmen could earn immediate playing time, it could be here. Senior D'Mario Carter started at safety in the spring game and will be in the thick of the hunt for a starting role this fall. True sophomore Jayshawn Jordan was thrust into action last season as a true, and should earn significant reps this fall (broke up a pass and recorded 18 tackles in the CB rotation and on special teams).

But look for several newcomers to make an immediate impact, including JC transfer Delency Parham and freshman Armond Hawkins at cornerback, and freshmen Jordan Grabski and Desmond Banks at safety.

#4 - Does Idaho have a 1,000 yard rusher on the roster?

The Vandals haven't had a tailback gain 1000-yards in a single since Deonte Jackson rushed for 1,175 yards as a freshman in 2007. Former dynamic power runner DeMaundray Woolridge came close in 2009 when he bulled his way to 979 yards in that bowl winning season, but since the D-Wool era the Vandals have struggled to find a consistent rusher out of the backfield (for those that are curious, the top three all-time rushers at Idaho are Devon Pearce who gained 1,393 yards in 1990, followed by Sheriden May with 1,370 yards in 1994, and Ray McDonald with 1,329 yards in 1966).

For 2013 the Vandals are poised to field three tailbacks with differing styles and abilities. The senior, James Baker, is the banger at 6-foot-1 and 231-pounds. A returning tailback with experience, Baker gained 395 yards on 95 carries in 2012, scoring two touchdowns and adding 76 yards on eight receptions, and should get his looks this fall. Beyond Baker, the Vandals hit the runningback recruiting trail hard and brought in two junior college athletes to play immediately, and both were exceptional in spring camp. Kris Olugbode, at 5-foot-8.5 and 193-pounds, is a compact rusher who has been productive throughout his high school and junior college career, finishing his sophomore season with a conference-leading 1,493 yards and being named to the All-California Region 1 Community College Team. He was in for spring camp and kept the productivity going, earning significant reps with the first unit and raves from the Idaho coaching staff. In addition to Olugbode the Vandals also brought in another power-back in 5-foot-11, 218-pound athlete Jerrel Brown out of San Mateo College. Brown is a north-south runner who was impressive throughout camp, and picked-up a 159 hard-fought yards on 22 carries in the spring game.

Will one of these three athletes get the bulk of the carries this fall?

Jerrel Brown, James Baker, and Kris Olugbode.

QUICK COMMENT: True freshman Richard Montgomery, a speedster out of Jacksonville (Florida) has been impressive in the first week of camp. Although it will be challenging to make the tailback rotation, it will be difficult to keep his blistering speed off the field. If he doesn't make the rotation, look for Montgomery to battle to make an impact on special teams immediately.

#3 – Is Idaho's completely rebuilt linebacker depth chart ready for prime time?

Not only did Idaho name brand new starters at all three linebacker positions for the spring game, but the starters that were named weren't even playing Division 1 football a year ago. It is a talented group for sure, but if there is one unit that is completely unproven at this level, it is this unit right here.

Newcomer Marc Millan
For the spring game, Juan Martinez (6-3, 236) started at MIKE, Eric Tuipulotu (5-10, 210) ran with the ones at WILL, and speedy Marc Millan (6-0, 207) started at SAM. A solid group for sure, but new at this level. The Vandals do have two athletes in senior Matt Willis and junior James Randall (recovered from an injury that kept him on the sidelines all last fall) to draw from in experience (and both should play a role in the rotation), but for the rest of the depth it is a sea of green.

JC transfer Broc Westlake is coming in with high expectations, and is regarded as possibly the best of the entire group (we'll see how everything shakes out as camp progresses). Redshirt freshman Robert Siavii showed flashes throughout camp and should make an impact this fall. True freshman Tony Lashley (6-1, 233, 4.50) comes in as a well-regarded prospect and could see playing time early. And former Vandal quarterback Austin DeCoud worked with the safeties in spring camp, but will reportedly move into the linebacking corps when the team reports for fall camp this week.

This unit will operate behind what should be a good Vandal defensive line this fall, but they will have to come up to speed under fire to be effective in 2013.

#2 – Who will rise to the top of the OL depth chart?

Continuity. It is the life source of an effective offensive line, and it's also one of the biggest challenges at the college level. The line is responsible for creating space for ball-carriers, defending the quarterback on passing plays (often undermanned), and must react to a barrage of defensive adjustments and shifts designed to disrupt and confuse. Why is continuity crucial? As one writer recently described it, continuity "eases communication, establishes a comfort level between linemates to know where their cohort is going to be on any given situation, and it even helps with some of the more abstract concepts like camaraderie and synergy."

Weakside tackle Cody Elenz
This fall the Vandals will work to create that continuity on a line built around two-time Rimington Trophy Watch List honoree, junior center Mike Marboe (ranked #19 in the nation at center as a high school senior, 2009). A starter since his redshirt freshman season, Marboe will anchor a line that on one side returns two starters, while on the other side is finalizing the pieces. This fall the Vandals will "flip-flop" the offensive line, meaning the strong guard and tackle will line up on either the left or right side, depending on the call. The weak side of the line returns two starters from last fall in sophomores Cody Elenz at tackle and Dallas Sandberg (ranked #151 OT, 2010) at guard. Both started all 12 games last fall as redshirt freshmen, and both were impressive in spring camp a few months ago. Both are expected to start this fall, and their side of the line should be a strength going into the season opener.

The starters on the "strong" side of the line, however, are a little less defined. One position that appears to be nailed down is strong tackle, where big Jesse Davis, a starter at noseguard for the Vandals the last two years, made the move to strong tackle during spring camp and impressed. Returning starter, senior Jordan Johnson, battled nagging injuries this offseason and missed most of spring camp, and is questionable to play this season. But Davis, a mauler with excellent size, has quickly transitioned to the offensive line and is settling into the starting role as the 2013 season approaches.

Strong guard, however, is more muddled with four athletes vying for the starting role, and it will easily be one of the most contested position battles in fall camp. Senior Nick Von Rotz appears poised to factor heavily into the battle after being named the starter at strong guard for the spring game and coming off a solid performance. Early in spring drills sophomore Ben Westrum earned the starting nod before going down with an injury at the halfway point, but his recovery this offseason is uncertain as fall camp opens. Junior Spencer Beale (ranked #150 OT, 2009) started three games at strong guard last fall and should factor into in the mix, although he played backup center in the spring game and at the start of fall camp. Beyond Von Rotz, Westrum, and Beale, the Vandals also picked up junior college transfer Sione Maile this summer. A lineman that plays with a bit of a mean streak, Maile should be in the thick of the battle as well this fall.

Strong guard is clearly a position battle to watch in the weeks ahead. Ideally, a starting right guard will emerge early in fall camp, which would improve the likelihood that the line can develop as a unit and have adequate time to gel before the season opener.

#1 – Who will start for the Vandals under center for 2013?

It's the burning question heading into the 2013 season. If an offensive line that operates as a cohesive unit is the base requirement of a productive and effective offense, then a quarterback that distributes the ball efficiently, commands the respect of his teammates, and is relentless in his drive to the endzone on every possession is a close second. Going into fall camp it looks like the Vandals have a serious battle for starting signal-caller duties, and it's possible the starter has never played in an FBS game before.

Although the Vandals are facing a three-way battle for starting duties as fall camp starts, the athlete that came out on top after spring drills was redshirt freshman Chad Chalich (6-0, 193), the state of Idaho's Class 5A Player of the Year and the Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year. He led his team to back-to-back state championships, and his statistics were ridiculous: 3,641 passing yards and 42 touchdowns against just two picks as a senior, after throwing for 2,844 yards and 32 touchdowns as a junior with 10 picks. As a senior he was the No.13 ranked passer in the nation, and led the nation's No.29 ranked offense. A dual-threat athlete, he rushed for 471 yards and scored six more rushing touchdowns. In the spring game he was outstanding, passing for 332 yards on 22-of-40 passing, and added 102 yards on the ground.

Battling throughout camp was senior Taylor Davis, the one quarterback on the Vandal depth chart with starting experience at the FBS level. Idaho's 2009 Scout Team Player of the Year, Davis has started four games at Idaho, including leading a thrilling come-from-behind victory at San Jose State in 2011. The biggest prospect by far (6-foot-3.5, 231-pounds) of Idaho's top quarterbacks for 2013, Davis' strength is throwing on the run, which should be an asset as the battle for the starting job resumes in fall camp.

Adding to the mix is the arrival of touted junior college transfer Joshua McCain, a fleet footed athlete with a 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame who has been successful as a field general at the high school and junior college levels. Named an All-American by the JC Athletic Bureau Coaches Association as a sophomore last year, he threw for 2,958-yards and 32 touchdowns in 11 games in 2012. As a high school senior in 2009, he threw for 2,229-yards and 25 touchdowns while being named a First Team All-Mercury News selection and league MVP. His strength has been his mobility and his ability to make plays happen when the pocket breaks down and instincts are required.

With the new up-tempo offensive attack being implemented this fall, Idaho's coaching staff will take a serious look at all three athletes (incoming freshman Matt Linehan is a gem whose time will come at Idaho and may factor into this race, but the early word is he may be better served for the long-term by a redshirt season this fall). Each will be given an opportunity in fall camp to demonstrate which is the most effective and efficient leader for the 2013 Vandal offense -- a crucial position battle Vandal fans have been discussing for months.

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