"I can't wait to get up there"

THE VANDALS LAUNCHED SPRING CAMP last week, and intense competition for starting roles is expected across the board. Sixteen JC recruits were signed to make an immediate impact, and seven are on campus now. But Vandal fans will have to wait a few more months for heralded cornerback DENNIS RUFUS (6-2, 205) to arrive. With an eye towards fall, GoVandals.net caught up with the CCCAA All-American.


It's the mantra of the coaching staff this spring, and will be crucial to erase the memories of a frustrating 2013 season. Competition for every starting position on the field. Whether that increased competition happens as a result of player development this winter, or the recruitment of more talent, Idaho will be looking to put the sting of a one-win season in the rearview mirror.

This spring Idaho launches its second season under the command of head coach Paul Petrino. In season one the Vandals struggled offensively, and in particular early in the season while breaking in a new quarterback, new offense, a new offensive line strategy, and numerous new specialists.

But defensively Idaho gave up a ton of points throughout 2013, especially at the end of the season, including 80 painful points to eventual National Champion Florida State, plus 59 to Old Dominion and 61 to Fresno State -- both in Moscow -- and 59 on the road at Ole Miss. The blowout losses to ODU and FSU came on two of the last three weeks of the season.

On the heels of Idaho's 24-16 season finale loss at New Mexico State, the coaching staff hit the recruiting trail bent on adding immediate impact depth for 2014. A bumper class of 16 junior college transfers were signed, with seven already on campus and working with the team for spring drills. Of the total 24 member recruiting class, 11 high school and JC recruits will line up on the defensive side of the ball, including four pegged for the defensive backfield alone.

Today, our attention is focused on the cornerbacks.

This spring, three corners return from last fall's team and will be battling for a starting job in 2014. The most productive from a year ago is junior Jayshawn Jordan (5-9, 175), a 10-game starter who played in all 12 games last fall and finished with 77 tackles (3rd on the team) with one pick and nine pass breakups. Also back is senior Delency Parham (5-11, 180), who started four games and played in nine total in 2013, with 20 tackles and two pass breakups. Gone is Solomon Dixon, a talented athlete who played sparingly last fall. The new piece of the puzzle will be the addition of much-anticipated redshirt freshman Armond Hawkins (5-10, 175), who picked Idaho over offers from Nevada, Eastern Michigan and North Dakota.

We'll have to wait a few more months before two more corners join the program this fall. One is true freshman Dorian Clark out of Florida, a building block for the future with excellent speed that is anticipated to battle for immediate playing time on several units.

The other is Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College First Team JC All-American cornerback Dennis Rufus, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound athlete with the caliber to come in and battle for an immediate starting role this fall. Described on signing day by Coach Petrino as "one of the top, top guys of this class," Rufus was pursued to shore up a pass defense that ranked 122nd nationally while giving up 315.8 yards per game.

VIDEO: Dennis Rufus 2013 Highlights (HUDL)

Rufus (#9) with linebacker Don Tyler
IT'S ALWAYS FASCINATING TO LEARN how coaches make connections with their recruits -- the stories often vary widely from recruit-to-recruit. Traditionally, relationships are built over years as coaches get to know high school and junior college recruits in a particular region and build the relationships to attract them to a University.

Other times, especially with a complete coaching overhaul, it becomes a race to be one of the first in line to make the connection, then relentlessly pursuing the athlete. Such was the case when Idaho defensive coordinator Ronnie Lee ran point in the recruitment of Dennis Rufus.

"I never knew Ron before," Rufus recently told GoVandals.net of his first conversation with Coach Lee about a year ago. "I think it was during the spring [2013]. He was the first coach to call me out of the whole recruiting process.

"He called me and there was music in the background and he asked me, ‘What is that?' I said, ‘I don't know ... who is this?' [Rufus laughs as he recounts the story], and he asked me again, ‘What is that music I'm listening to?'

"I listened closer to the music playing in the background, and I realized it was the music from my highlight tape. I said, ‘I think that's my highlight tape you're watching today, isn't it.'

With that the ice was broken and the conversation continued from there. "He said, ‘This is Coach Lee from Idaho. I'm the defensive coordinator and we just got hired over here,'" Rufus recalled. "He started the recruiting process from there. He told me to pay attention to who was recruiting me, and who really wanted me. We talked about how I have two more years left and I had to really take that into account with who said they wanted me in their program. I had a good vibe with Idaho, and I felt like they really wanted me up there, so I took that into consideration when I was talking to every other coach and making my decision. He called me the most during the week and checked up on my grades, and everything."

The recruiting battle for Rufus was significant, although he was flying a bit under the recruiting service radar compared to some recruits. But that didn't keep a list of suitors from pursuing Rufus. Interest came from numerous programs, including San Diego State, Utah, Utah State, Washington, Boise State, and Wyoming.

In the end, official offers were extended to Rufus from Utah State and San Diego State, and were weighed against the offer from Idaho.

"I was just evaluating every recruiter that was coming out and talking to me," Rufus said when asked what ultimately led to his decision to pick Idaho over his other offers. "Evaluating what they were saying and how I would fit in with their programs. But I wanted to play some competition too -- I looked at Idaho's schedule and it looks pretty good, so I took that into consideration. I wanted to be away from home a little bit, so I took that into consideration. And the coaching staff too, I liked the coaching staff at Idaho obviously."

And with that, combined with an official visit, the decision was made to join the Vandal program.

BUT IT ALSO WASN'T LIKE HE WAS unfamiliar with the University of Idaho either. For those that may not remember, Dennis had been very much on the Idaho radar in the recent past, back in 2010 when former Idaho head coach Robb Akey and his staff were after Rufus out of powerhouse Charter Oak High in California.

"It's crazy," Rufus said of his decision to commit to Idaho, "because I actually was being recruited to Idaho out of high school. I was familiar with the [Moscow] area, and took that into consideration when it came down to picking a school this time around -- because I had been to Idaho out of high school. I actually committed to Idaho in high school, but I decommitted shortly before signing day and switched to San Jose State."

Things didn't work out at SJSU and Rufus took his game to Mt. SAC. Fortunately for Vandal fans, this time Rufus not only verballed to the Vandals but signed his LOI with Idaho. Hosted by junior starting outside linebacker Marc Millan on his official visit to the Moscow campus on January 17th, everything fell into place with Rufus making his verbal commitment that weekend.

Rufus with the pick.
WHEN ASKED IF HE WAS AWARE of Idaho's defensive struggles last year, his answer was something most Vandal fans would consider music to their ears. "That's gonna change," the All-American with six interceptions in 2013 (including one returned for a TD) said bluntly.

"I can't wait to get up there to Idaho."

When asked what attributes he brings to the Vandal D this fall, he considered the question for a minute and thoughtfully said, "I'm very competitive, and I like to play man-press … and I don't like to lose." Considering his Mt. SAC Mounties went 9-2 with two defenders named to the All Region IV first team defense, and as a junior his Charter Oak High School team went 13-1, he's used to coming out on top.

"I also like to be the leader of the secondary."

Asked what part of his game needs the most work to prepare to join the program this June, and looking ahead to the season opener at Florida, his response was that of someone who knows what lies ahead to make an impact at this level. "There's always work to be done," Rufus said, deflecting the successes he's enjoyed at the junior college level and returning to his naturally competitive roots. "There's always work to be done on your game. I want to get faster and stronger ... and work on getting into that starting rotation."

With everything Dennis Rufus brings to the field, there is little doubt he will be in the thick of the hunt for significant playing time at some point, if not immediately, this fall.

Be sure to check back in with GoVandals.net for more updates after Dennis reports for fall camp.

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