The challenge Idaho faces with the loss of senior slot receiver Dezmon Epps will be significant. The obvious impact is what he was able to do on the field in pure production -- in six games he's accumulated 61 receptions and 757 yards, ranking 14th in the nation in yards on the season, No.7 in yards per game, and No.3 in receptions per game.
His receptions and yards on the season are three times those of Idaho's No.2 receiver.
But what you won't see on the stat sheet is the attention opposing defenses put into containing him, and how that attention allowed other receivers to exploit gaps and weaknesses in the defense. Epps was a factor in the passing game whether passes were going his way or not. Throw on top of that the fact he was seeing time in the Vandal defense at corner and nickel the last couple weeks, and his role on special teams as a punt returner with the speed to break things open.
In a nutshell, the impact effects all aspects of the game for UI and won't be easily shaken off.
But as much as this is a set back to the Vandal aerial attack, it's also an opportunity for someone to step up their game and fill the void. Who will pick up the load? That remains to be seen, but the early expectation is it will likely come down to several players elevating their game, not just one receiver taking things over, and Idaho's QBs distributing the ball around more each week.
Below is a look at who Idaho has in the mix.
- Deon Watson - The junior out of Coeur d'Alene made the move to tightend in the spring but has seen limited reps in the TE rotation this fall. Officially he's listed No.2 at both tightend and split end, but his most significant impact in the Idaho offense this fall has been when he's lined up wide. Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe the 6-foot-4, 222-pounder caught two touchdown passes (24- and 36-yards) in the second half that allowed Idaho to build 14-point lead, and on the season is Idaho's No.2 receiver with 21 receptions for 241 yards and three touchdowns. His size (he's six inches taller than any other wideout with experience in the Idaho depth chart) is a wrinkle Idaho needs in its passing arsenal.
- Trent "Buck" Cowan - The other receiver that was moved inside along with Watson, Cowan (6-foot-3, 224-pounds) has taken the bulk of the reps at tightend this fall for Idaho. Saturday he got the Vandals into the endzone in the first half to give Idaho a 13-10 lead at halftime and finished with three receptions for 81 yards. Against Wofford his seven receptions for 107 yards and a touchdown were a career best and the most productivity by a UI tightend in years. Buck lined up at tightend and Watson lined up outside gives Idaho lanky receiver options with experience, especially as they move into the redzone.
- Callen Hightower - The junior college transfer saw a lot of action earlier in the season, putting up five receptions against USC (49 yards) and another five against Wofford (70 yards), including a 45-yarder over the middle. For the season he's Idaho's No.4 receiver with 190 yards on 19 receptions, including four against Arkansas State and one last weekend against ULM after missing the Troy game. He reportedly runs a 4.40-40 and has at times exhibited the ability UI needs to stretch the field and get separation.
- Reuben Mwehla - Listed as Idaho's starting split end, Mwehla has the speed to make a difference in the passing game. Idaho's coaching staff has been high on the 5-10, 187-pound sophomore out of Bellevue (Wash.) since signing him a couple years ago. He's played in all seven games and has 12 receptions for 73 yards, and a season and a half of experience under his belt.
- Jante Boston - One of Idaho's top signees this off-season, Boston has seen his role in the Vandal offense grow as the season progresses. Two weeks ago against Troy he caught two passes for 21 yards and last week in the victory over ULM he caught three more passes for 33 yards. With sophomores Ungerer and Sannon still out (see below), and with Epps gone, Boston will likely be a target more in the coming weeks.
- Calvary Pugh - Intriguing. Pugh is listed as the No.2 slot behind Boston in this week's official depth chart, and things could get interesting as the season progresses. The 5-foot-9, 165-pound rocket out of West Palm Beach has blistering speed - a confirmed 4.30-40 - which should come in handy if he's called into action more in the coming weeks. Officially listed as having played in three games this season, he had two receptions for 12 yards against USC. It's probably too early in their development to expect either Boston or Pugh to explode on the scene, but both have the potential to make a situational impact.
- Kareem Coles - Recruited to UI as a quarterback this off-season, Coles is a gifted athlete who has lined up for UI at wide receiver in one game this fall. This week, with the accumulation of injuries and loss of Epps, Coles (6-foot-1, 190-pounds) is listed as Idaho's No.2 option at flanker. Ideally Coles is one player, if he's going back to QB as planned, where keeping the redshirt this year would be the best option for the long run. But Idaho needs players that can go now, and Coles is athletic enough that he could have an immediate impact on Idaho's remaining schedule.
- Elijhaa Penny - Idaho's workhorse runningback is listed here because he also happens to be the Vandals' No.5 receiver with 17 receptions for 109 yards. He won't be a go-to receiver in the true sense, but his ability to catch passes out of the backfield is a weapon Idaho can use to keep defenses on their heels.
- David Ungerer - All we can really go on here is potential, and Ungerer has plenty. At the beginning of the season Ungerer, a sophomore, was considered Idaho's No.2 receiver behind Epps. However, an injury suffered in the first quarter of the first game has sidelined the speedster up until now, and he's not expected to play this weekend. Based on his productivity in spring and fall camps we expect he will make a major impact in the passing attack as soon as he gets back into action, and if he's close to 100% look for him to get plenty of passes thrown his way.
- Jacob Sannon - Similar to Ungerer, Sannon came into the season as Idaho's No.3 target. Early in the season the junior hauled in 11 receptions for 86 yards in the first four games. But for the last three games he's been out with an injury and is not expected to return this week at New Mexico State. His experience and ability to stretch the field would be an asset going into the game at Las Cruces - a return we'll have to wait at least one more week to see.
So who will step up? We will start finding out in just a few days.