Linebacker play at Idaho the last few years has been solid, to say the least. There have been holes to fill, but pipeline has been filled. The unit has been led by Marc Millan the last three seasons, who started at both SAM and WIL during his Vandal career. In the middle last fall was the cerebral Broc Westlake, who led the Idaho defense in 2015 with 87 tackles. And then there was the hard-hitting Chris Edwards, who moved up from safety last year to take over at SAM for Idaho.
Last season these three seniors were among Idaho’s Top 4 tacklers on the team. They also accounted for half of Idaho’s interceptions (Millan with two picks, Edwards with one). What’s not on the ledger is the stability and work ethic they brought to a defense in flux, as the Vandals brought in new Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske and a philosophical change from a 4-3 defensive front to a 3-4 alignment.
Idaho’s senior trio helped ease the transition, and set the stage for what should be an improved Vandal D in 2016.
In their wake, the linebacking corps is talented but young and inexperienced. Highly regarded grayshirt freshman Kaden Ellis joined the program last spring, burst on the scene in the opener and never looked back. He started every game and finished the 2015 season second on the team with 83 tackles, which included eight tackles for loss and three quarterback sacks. He is your foundation for the future. At BUCK, a new linebacking position in Idaho’s new scheme, junior Kevin Shelton played in 10 games and logged 26 tackles. By season’s end redshirt freshman Ed Hall was seeing significant playing time at MIKE and finished with 30 tackles. Promising redshirt freshman Tony Lashley had his season cut short after just three productive games. And tightend-turned-linebacker Khalin Smith lined up at multiple linebacker positions by the end of the season, finishing with 22 tackles and a quarterback sack.
Others will be expected to contribute this fall, including big junior Leonard Hazewood (6-4, 230) at BUCK who redshirted last season, and several freshmen who redshirted including Mike Linehan and Darius Liles. But game day experience will be a premium, and that is where Idaho’s newest recruit, Jason Sylva, comes in.
A FIFTH-YEAR SENIOR WITH ONE YEAR OF ELIGIBILITY REMAINING, Sylva comes to Idaho from Western Michigan of the MAC, and the Vandals will be looking to get him on the field immediately. At 6-foot-2, 230-pounds Sylva fills a direct need on the field; an athlete with big-game chops and a successful playing career already under his belt.
As a high school senior at Tabor Academy (Marion, MA) and part of the 2012 recruiting class, Sylva was considered a 3-star prospect by Scout.com and was ranked the No.39 middle linebacker in the nation, No.8 MIKE in the east, and No.1 MIKE in Massachusetts. He signed his letter of intent with UConn, but had to take an alternate route to junior college first.
Sylva maintained his star status at Dean College where he was a Team Captain. As a sophomore he finished with 72 total tackles (36 solo and 36 assists) and eight tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one pass interception he returned for a touchdown. That season he was honored as a NJCAA All-American and was named to the All-Northeast Football Conference team for the second year in a row and was named the League’s 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
After Dean, Sylva signed with Western Michigan over an offer from Massachusetts. Injured and unable to play in 2014, Sylva redshirted his first year at Western Michigan. After fully recovering, last fall he was locked in a battle for starting duties and split playing time as a redshirt junior. In the end Sylva played in six games for WMU where he finished with 25 tackles (12 solo and 13 assists) including one tackle for loss. He also added a forced fumble.
SO WHAT BROUGHT SYLVA OUT WEST and to the Idaho program for his senior season? “I had a feeling for a little while that I might go this route,” Sylva told GoVandals.net recently. “I had the injury in 2014, but I just wanted a change. I just felt that I needed a change. I told my family that I made the decision that I wanted to go that route, even though it was very risky – what if nobody wanted me? People could have a negative perception of me, leaving my school. At Western we had some success, and individually I had some success there as a player; I played. It’s my senior year, and why wouldn’t I want to stay?
“After I got my letter of release,” Sylva continued, “it was definitely a shock to my coaching staff. They were very surprised. We accomplished a lot while I was here, and I worked very hard here to help the program. In some ways it was a very hard decision, I love Western a lot. But I think personally, for my success both in my football future and my personal future, leaving Western was the best decision for me.”
How he made his connection to Idaho goes back to the relationships that are built during the recruiting process, and how those relationships can open doors in the future. In this case, it was the connection he made with former UMass head coach Charley Molnar, who has been Idaho’s receivers coach since 2014. For those not familiar with Coach Molnar, he is an asset on Idaho’s staff who has a rich coaching career that includes a stint as the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame for one season (2011) before taking over head coaching duties at UMass for two seasons (2012 and 2013).
“I knew Coach Molnar from UMass when I was in junior college,” said the Massachusetts native. “I originally ended up deciding I was going to go to UMass after Dean and stay home-state. I had a very successful junior college career, and my teams were nationally ranked both years. At one point we had a very strong program; I was an All-American and Player of the Year, All-Conference both years. I had a great time at Dean, and it was a great experience at junior college.
“When it came down to picking schools though,” Sylva explained when asked about how he landed at Western Michigan, “I decided to go to Western over UMass and Coach Molnar. Stuff was going down [at UMass], and the program from my perspective was not going in the right direction. Coach Molnar always treated me very fairly afterward, and we had a pretty decent relationship. I didn’t have any bad feelings towards him, and I respected him for not having any bad feelings for me, even though right before he got fired I decided I wasn’t going to go play for him. Before that, he was excited about me playing for him, and I was excited to play for him too. But it just wasn’t right at UMass, the program had a bad atmosphere.”
That relationship would end up coming full-circle for both Coach Molnar and Sylva.
“When I decided to leave [Western] I knew I needed to contact people that knew I could play. There would be questions about why I wanted to leave. I do have a lot of football film, but when I contacted Coach Molnar to see what he thought, the second I told him he made it clear he really wanted me. The staff asked me to fly out a few days later.”
That visit, just before signing day, sealed the deal on both sides.
“I didn’t really know what to expect out there at Idaho,” Sylva said of his visit to the Gem State the weekend before signing day. “I was very excited; I was just very excited about the new opportunity, and I was very optimistic about playing football and an opportunity to get on with the next school I was going to.
“When I went out there -- I didn’t realize I could take it as an official, I thought it was going to be on my own. But I went out there and took my visit, and it was awesome. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to play somewhere and have a new experience, and to seize the opportunity that was given to me, and that I think I can make out of it -- me helping the team, and the team can help me; I think we can help each other.
“It was just perfect, everything I can tell you, from the defensive scheme to the personal relationship that I felt with the coaching staff and with the players. Every aspect I can tell you about was very positive.”
And what did he have to say about the overall process; were there other offers from other programs? “I was going to wait it out,” Sylva said of his viewpoint going into the process of changing schools. “I can’t go out there [enroll] till I graduate – and I was going to see what kind of offers I was going to get. I had some people telling me I was going to get some pretty recognizable school names. They tried to recruit me and were saying that they needed a guy from this division to come in and lead a defense. But I’ve got total faith in coach Petrino and all the other coaches [at Idaho], and I’m pretty excited.”
FOR A PLAYER OF SYLVA’S EXPERIENCE LEVEL, the expectation is that he won’t just come in as a role player, but will be expected to lead a young unit. Locked in a position battle last fall with a senior, it was feast-or-famine on the gridiron for Sylva. Coming out of the fall camp Sylva was the top back up behind senior Grant DePalma going into the season. But DePalma went down in the opener against Michigan State and that gave Sylva his shot on the field. Sylva played well against MSU, but overall defensive struggles the following week against Georgia Southern saw his playing time significantly diminish as the defensive unit was shuffled. Another injury opened the door for Sylva later in the season against Eastern Michigan and a couple more starts, including his best game of the season against Ball State. But by the last two weeks of the season DePalma was back as the starter and Sylva’s time was reduced.
“For the amount of time I played on the field, it didn’t really amount to a lot on the full season,” Sylva said of his one season playing at WMU. “But between the guys, my relationship with my teammates has always been really strong. I think I’ve had a long career playing so far, and I think I can help a ton of these guys and make them better players. I think that will be neat, but I also think the best way to learn things and get better at things is to teach things. That’s 100% the truth, and I’ve learned that through teaching younger guys and being taught by the older guys. It will be my 5th year of playing ball, and I’m really excited to be with this group of guys that I’ve met so far.”
He’ll undoubtedly be leaning on the experience he gained while starting at middle linebacker against Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State. The matchup was played in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and it was an event for the school, the alumni, and the community.
“That was an unbelievable experience,” Sylva said of the day the Spartans visited WMU. “It was my first Division 1 game -- I had been injured the year before. Kalamazoo was shut down, the town was just crazy. They called it was the biggest day since 19-I-don’t-know -even-know-when, the biggest day since a President came to Kalamazoo or something. It was insanity. That game was sold out, and it was just like an event. It was unbelievable. The way that worked out for me, I was able to go out and play. My dad was out there, my mom was out there, and everyone.
“It was a day to remember for sure.”
The outcome wasn’t what Western had hoped for, but it was a tremendous experience for the team. Sylva was solid in that game, but his best game of the season would come later against Ball State. “We held them to about 50 yards rushing,” Sylva recalled. “They didn’t even run the ball in the second half. We shut it down, absolutely.”
The Idaho coaching staff will be eying Sylva to replicate those performances this fall with the Vandals.
FROM AN OUTSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE, it is easy to see that the Idaho program made progress under first-year Defensive Coordinator Mike Breske. The team won four games, and in the first half of two others the D thoroughly shut down their opponents (however, 2nd half defensive collapses in those two games resulted in losses). But, from outside the program, it’s difficult to assess just how much advancement is being made. What kind of development is happening inside? Is it healthy? Do the players have faith in what is happening?
Sylva – a member of multiple successful programs in his career – has an opinion.
“I can tell you what I know,” Sylva said of what he learned on his visit and subsequent conversations with the Idaho coaching staff, “from the inside after being there for the weekend, and being in there and being around, I have gotten to know Coach Breske and Coach Brown and everyone else down the line. I’m telling you, I’m seeing this program turning around. I committed to Western Michigan when they were 1-11. When I joined their program I didn’t know they were going to have 8 win seasons, but I thought we could have even been better the past two.
“But I’m telling you Idaho’s going to be alright, they’re going to be alright out there. They’ll be fine; they’re going to be a good program.”
And he has his sights set on bigger things for Idaho this fall.
“I want to get to a bowl game and help change the culture of the program there.”