SPRING NOTEBOOK: Report #2

Led by redshirt junior runningback JAYSON BIRD, a native of Shelley (ID) and one of the Vandals top 'backs since he stepped on the Idaho campus in 2004 (becoming the featured back as a true freshman), the Vandal offense is beginning to take form under first year offensive coordinator Steve Axman. Make no mistakes about it; the Vandal D is still dominating drills. But the O is making progress.



THE MOST LOADED POSITION ON OFFENSE... Easily, that would be runningback. With both senior tailback Brian Flowers and touted star 2006 recruit Andre Harris sidelined to focus on academics, the rest of the Vandal runningback depth chart is taking advantage of the opportunity. A wise move too. This is not the same offensive attack from a year ago, and the runningbacks are lining up in a wide variety of sets. It's different than anything we've seen the last few years, and the players in camp this spring are making significant strides.

At the top of the chart, as has been the case since the day he arrived in Moscow as a true freshman in 2004, is Idaho native Jayson Bird. Aside from being the featured back since his true freshman season, Bird has been arguably the most consistent, reliable piece of the offensive attack. You know what you get with Jayson. He arrived in Moscow as a freshman in outstanding shape, and arrives prepared for every camp...and this year is no exception. He takes his perch at the top of the chart because of his physical strength, determination, understanding of the game, and one more crucial reason...he rarely fumbles despite his bullish running style. He has earned his place at or near the top of the chart, and he will be expected to be a key contributor this fall.

Right up there is redshirt freshman Deonte Jackson, a swivel-hipped invited walkon out of Warren (Arkansas) who is splitting the most reps with the first unit offense along with Bird. Jackson brings exceptional vision, an elusive running-style, and good speed to the mix. It has been widely speculated that Jackson was offered an opportunity to burn his redshirt last season because of these traits, but chose to keep his 5th year of eligibility. Good for Jackson, and good for Idaho. He is another back that is expected to be a key component to the 2007 Vandal attack, and has been impressive this spring.


DEVON STURDIVANT
5-10, 205, RS-So
Two other backs getting valuable playing time with the thinned depth chart are redshirt sophomore Devon Sturdivant and redshirt freshman Yusuf Salahuddin. Sturdivant, a native of Boise (Idaho), signed with Idaho in 2004 - with Bird - and grayshirted his first year in Moscow following a knee injury suffered during his senior year at Timberline High School. He suffered another season ending knee injury in '05 and redshirted that season. A "raw" talent, Devon (5-10, 205) has exceptional physical strength and agility and is developing into the runningback position. Given the magnitude of injuries he has overcome, he is developing nicely and will be a 'back to keep an eye on.

As with the other 'backs in the chart, Salahuddin is impressive physically and is looking more and more comfortable each time he carries the ball. An invited walkon out of Illinois, he's getting about as many carries as Sturdivant, and the work this spring should pay dividends this fall.

Bottom line in all of this is that Idaho has proven veteran talent (Bird and Flowers), young talent that is climbing the ladder quickly (Jackson), and a stable full of potential (Harris, Sturdivant, and Salahuddin, not to mention the new recruits). We won't focus on the what-ifs, such as will Flowers and Harris be available this fall. If they are, this position will be stacked (although they are missing valuable practice time right now). Instead, based on what we've seen thus far from Bird, Jackson, Sturdivant, and Salahuddin, the position is shaping up to be one of the least worries on this team.


File photo of Yusuf Salahuddin from last fall.

WHAT'S UP AT WIDEOUT… Good question. As we said before, this is a very different offensive attack then what we've seen in the recent past. And, given the "newness" of the program (an entirely new offensive coaching staff, with the exception of QB coach Jonathan Smith), there is significant rotation going on right now at the wide receiver positions. Given this, what we're seeing the most breaks down as the following:


RAYMOND FRY
5-8, 170, Soph
Slot is being manned most frequently be junior Tracy Ford and sophomore Raymond Fry (now wearing jersey #8) running with the first unit. This position, the way it is run in Steve Axman's offense, definitely suits the dynamic duo's combination of elusiveness and quickness. Both athletes have played runningback at Idaho in the past (both solid on passing routes out of the backfield), Ford has been a receiver for the Vandals in the past as well, and the transition to the new position suits their capabilities well. They've provided some of the most fireworks AFTER they catch the ball of any position on the team (Fry hauled in a TD pass in Saturday's scrimmage). Others working into the position include senior transfer Thomas Quarles (transfer from Prairie View A&M), sophomore walkon Nick Conley (younger brother of T.J. Conley), and redshirt freshman walkon Phil Helbling out of Moscow High School. If grayshirt freshman rocket Princeton McCarty gains academic eligibility this spring and is able to joing the team in the fall, look for him to get a serious look at slot (in addition to tailback).


MAX KOMAR
5-10, 185, RS-Soph
We won't go into an estimation of who is and will play flanker or split end in the weeks and months ahead. Suffice it to say there is a LOT of substitution going on out here. In Saturday's scrimmage, it appeared to be junior Lee Smith and sophomore Max Komar getting the most reps with the #1 offense, with Smith appearing to line up at flanker most often. Both played prominent roles in Idaho's offense last year (Komar as a walkon redshirt freshman seeing serious PT at slot, Smith rising to a starting position at wideout), and we expect them to be battling for serious playing time again this fall. JC transfer Cory Rhoane was held out of contact drills so it is uncertain where he fits in at the moment…but he will most likely be a target this fall. Senior Ryan Heacock and junior Jomar Drake each played significant reps Saturday and had their moments to shine (Drake caught a nice TD pass this week).

There are more receivers currently in the mix (with an army coming in this fall out of high school), but two players to keep an eye on are redshirt freshmen Cary Jensen-Madison (6-2, 195, Encino, CA) and Daniel Hardy (6-2, 198, Anchorage, AK). They're young, big targets learning the position, but could become a bigger factor in the rotation in the weeks and months ahead.



SHILOH KEO
5-10, 175, Soph
VANDAL DEFENSIVE BACKFIELD… Idaho's defensive backfield may not be as "wide open" as the wide receiver battle – especially at the top of the chart – but the battle for depth chart positions will be significant this year, and likely won't be decided until fall camp. This is especially true with redshirt freshman cornerback Terrance McCoy missing spring camp to focus on academics, Jevon Butler slowed by nagging injuries, and JC transfers T.J. Taylor and Breyon Williams arriving this fall, along with the freshmen recruits.

But right now we're seeing what we expected from the three top returners – senior Stanley Franks (1st Team All-WAC and All-American recognition in '06) starting at corner, sophomore Shiloh Keo (Freshman All-American in '06) starting at strong safety, and senior Chris Smith (regular starter and significant playing time in '06) starting at free safety. All three have played as well as expected.


GENERAL PARNELL
5-9, 175, RS-Fr
At the corner starting opposite Franks is redshirt freshman General Parnell. The 5-9, 172-pound athlete out of San Bernadino, CA has played well this spring given his youth, and given the fact he is surrounded by one of the most veteran Vandal defenses in almost 10 years at Idaho. With opposing offenses likely choosing to throw away from Franks, the 2006 NCAA Interceptions Champion with a UI record tying nine interceptions in 2006, the athlete working this corner will likely get a lot of passes thrown his way in '07. The experience that Parnell is getting this spring will pay massive dividends this fall, whether or not he starts. If he doesn't earn the starting nod this fall, he will likely be one of Idaho's top backups and looks to get significant playing opportunities this fall.

Backups at safety are a couple of Idaho veterans in senior Lee Jones and redshirt sophomore Brandon Nystrom. Jones, backing up Smith at free safety, has had his shots working with the starting D this spring, and appears poised for significant playing time in 2007. Nystrom, the backup to Keo this spring at strong safety, had an exceptional high school career in Oregon and could make a run at significant playing time this fall. At backup cornerback are several walkon athletes, including junior Rory Fawley (5-9, 205, Sandpoint, ID) and redshirt freshmen Eric Hunter (5-6, 154, Pasco, WA), Samuel Botkin (6-0, 190, Bonners Ferry, ID), Chris Harris (5-10, 186, Sumner, WA), Tom Dowers (5-10, 195, Nampa, ID). Several in this group have worked at backup safety as well.


ROSTER UPDATES: We previously listed Mike Iupati (6-6, 330), currently Idaho's top left guard, as a junior. He will actually be a sophomore in 2007........Also, we were listing senior safety Lee Jones as a walkon, when in fact he was awarded a scholarship at Idaho last fall.........Slot-back Raymond Fry has changed his jersey number to #8.


IMAGES FROM LAST WEEK


Senior linebacker DAVID VOBORA lines up the defense with onlookers lining the sidelines for Saturday's scrimmage.


Redshirt sophomore runningback DEVON STURDIVANT takes a handoff from redshirt freshman quarterback NATHAN ENDERLE in Saturday's scrimmage.


Junior kicker TINO AMANCIO had an outstanding week of practice, including connecting on a 51-yard attempt.

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