Once again the Tribe from the North will start the season off facing a Pac-10 foe, this time in the form of the Arizona Wildcats. Unlike Idaho's little sister down South, the Vandals will actually "open" their season in the den of a BCS school, and lead by example. USC last year, Arizona this year… par for the course for the Vandals. And Idaho will come ready to play.
But who are the 2008 Wildcats?
Head Coach Mike Stoops is in his 5th year at Arizona, and has compiled a 17-31 record. But don't let that fool you. Arizona ended its 2007 season beating WSU, California, and Oregon before dropping its season finale rivalry game with ASU in a hard fought battle. The Vandals and Wildcats are in similar personnel situations. They have experience on offense, while trying to find out their identity on defense.
Quarterback Willie Tuitama
Arizona on Offense
Wide receiver Mike Thomas
At runningback, the Wildcats have a few weapons, but one in particular is high octane sophomore Nic Grigsby (5-10, 178), who is lightning fast and has soft hands out of the back field, which helped him amass 704 yards on the ground and 200 yards receiving last year. He's the dangerous weapon out of the backfield. The top backups are a couple of 5-11, 210 pound backs in Xavier Smith and Terry Longbons, both juniors who are familiar with the spot duties at runningback, adding more of a load to the running game.
The offensive line brings back four starters, but they lose their best offensive lineman and four year starter at left tackle last year. Enter Eben Britton (6-6, 310), a third year starter at RT, has now been moved to the LT spot. Both guards are returning starters; senior Joe Longacre (6-3, 315) and Colin Baxter (6-4, 295). Junior Blake Kerley (6-2, 285) will make his third season as the Wildcat's center.
Vandals on Defense
Strong safety Shiloh Keo
Top backups include sophomore DT Aaron Lavarias (6-2, 264), sophomore Fonomanu Sekona (6-2, 293) – a big athlete with good speed for his size who could see time at both DT and Defensive End for the Vandals this year – and the emergence of highly regarded redshirt freshman defensive end Andre Ferguson (6-2.5, 225). Also expected to factor heavily into the mix is redshirt freshman Michael Cosgrove (6-4, 265) as well. The reality is, it might be hard to keep freshman end Charles Smith (6-5, 256) and freshmen tackles Henry Asuega (6-0, 279) and Isaiah Lavea (6-2, 298) off the field, as all have the size and tenacity to play immediately. With that said, the question remains; how much pressure can this unit mount, and how effective will they be at stopping the run this year. These and more are the questions that will be answered against Arizona.
All three starters at linebacker are gone. Sophomore Jonathan Fariamo (5-11, 245) will take over the middle linebacker position after moving from his defensive end position from a year ago. The coaches believe Fariamo has sideline to sideline mobility and the strength to take on blocks. Two other sophomores, Joseph Dickson (6-1, 218) and Justin Allen ( 5-11, 218) will be the outside backers, playing weakside and strongside respectively.
The backups, senior Andrew Blevins (5-11, 225), sophomore Paul Senescall (6-1, 228) and redshirt freshman Tyler Brooks (6-0, 226) will rotate in. Add true freshmen Robert Siavii (6-2, 195) and Brad Marboe (6-3, 200) to the potential rotation as well as true freshmen who might be hard to keep off the field.
The defensive backfield loses All-WAC performer Stanley Franks, but could boast an even better group than last year. With the return of Idaho's defensive leader and tenacious hitter, junior safety Shiloh Keo (5-10, 213) is poised to continue eye popping play. He is joined at the other safety position by JC transfer Virdell Larkins (5-11, 190), who has been in an all out position battle with true freshman Shelton Miles (5-10, 175) and JC transfer junior Jeromy Jones (6-0, 200) – Jones has worked at both SS and FS this fall. At cornerback, freshman Kenneth Patten (5-9, 185), sophomores Isaac Butts (6-0, 171) and Eric Hunter (5-6, 160), senior Breyon Williams (5-9, 183) and true freshman Andre Robinson (6-0, 190) are all competing for the starting positions. Williams and Butts have been penciled in at the top of the chart all fall, but Hunter, Patten and Robinson are vying for serious playing time and could climb to the top of the chart. The athletic ability of this whole group will provide excellent competition throughout the year, and we could see some surprises in the lineup.
Arizona on Defense
Cornerback Devin Ross
The linebackers boast the star of the defense with Ronnie Palmer (6-3, 245) playing in the middle. Palmer is the biggest and most athletic of the linebackers. The strongside will be senior Adrian McCovy (6-3, 225) while the weakside's Xavier Kelly (5-11, 215) is in his junior season. Palmer amassed 83 tackles for the Wildcats last year. McCovy is known for his jarring hits, while Kelly is a blitz specialist who can cover sideline to sideline. Backups include JC transfer standout Vuna Tuihalamaka (6-2, 240) at strongside, and Sterling Lewis (5-11, 225) on the weakside. Both are capable backups who can come in without much drop-off. While the inexperience in this group is a concern, their athleticism should be a handful for the Vandals.
The secondary is replacing NFL caliber talent with NFL caliber talent in junior Devin Ross (5-11, 170). Ross is a physical, shutdown corner who has the ability to play at the next level. Senior Marquis Hundley (6-0, 175) slips into the other starting roll. A JC transfer, Hundley has the size and speed to shut down his receiver as well. At safety, the Wildcats return two starters, senior Nate Ness (6-1, 190 pounds) and junior Cam Nelson (6-1, 200). Ness has a knack for the ball and blankets receivers like a corner. Nelson started all of last year, amassing 60 tackles, four for a loss. This is also a deep group, having Corey Hall (5-10, 190) as a solid backup.
Vandals on Offense
Tailback Deonte Jackson
The runningback position returns it's offensive star, sophomore Deonte Jackson ( 5-8, 191) who amasses 1,175 yards and seven touchdowns in his debut season as a redshirt freshman. Even better news is the depth that has risen to challenge Jackson. Highly regarded redshirt freshman Corey White (5-8, 201) has been getting the most playing time as the top backup and will get serious playing time this fall. Speedster redshirt freshman Princeton McCarty (5-8, 171) is too good to keep off the field. His speed and moves are a rare combination. Furthermore, true freshmen Troy Vital (6-0, 207) and Kama Bailey (5-9, 209) have both looked excellent this fall. It's going to be a battle all season long, and Vandal fans can feel confident in the depth at runningback. This type of depth will allow Jackson some breathers, and an opportunity to stay healthy.
The position of wide receiver has been haunting the Vandals the past few seasons as no one has risen to be an offensive threat. Again, expect to see a number of players in rotation until someone answers the call of go-to-guy. Junior Max Komar (5-10, 213) and senior Lee Smith (6-0, 195) have the most experience, but no position is secure with the up and coming talent. Sophomores Maurice Shaw (6-3, 192) and Daniel Hardy (6-4, 206) along with sophomores Eric Greenwood (6-6, 206) and Steven Brown (5-10, 185) will all see playing time. Greenwood has been particularly impressive throughout fall camp at flanker, while Komar continues to develop at slot and Shaw appears to have earned the split end position. True freshman Preston Davis (6-2, 195) has been a consistent, sure handed receiver as well at flanker, and that's what the Vandals have been missing. It would be hard to forget senior H-back Eddie Williams (6-2, 240), as he's been the Vandal's most talented receiver the past few years. Add in Kevin Small (6-3, 248), a highly regarded tightend coming out of high school, and the H-back position is well-stocked. When the tightend position is called upon, expect Peter Bjorvik (6-4, 249) to get the nod first, followed by a solid lineup.
The offensive line has finally overcome the paralyzing depth issues of the past, and has found itself an excellent leader in senior center Adam Korby (6-2, 292). After 35 straight starts, it's safe to say that he will only get better. At left tackle, senior Billy Bates (6-5, 285) will start next to senior left guard, Kris Anderson (6-3, 285), and behemoth redshirt freshman Tyrone Novikoff (6-7, 306) has taken over strong tackle. With behemoth guard Mike Iupati (6-6, 330) and starting left tackle Matt Cleveland (6-4, 309 FR) sidelined, the Vandals have had to switch some players into different positions, but the depth is there. The most fierce position battle remaining is for starting right guard, where a pair of juniors - Adam Juratovac (6-3, 297) and Irvin Stevens (6-3, 275) – are battling for the top spot. Junior Bryce Sinclair (6-5, 326) is in the mix at left tackle and has game experience heading into the 2008 season.
Special Teams Heros
The Vandals have the luxury of having an excellent kicking game. Senior kicker Tino Amancio has been stellar since taking over the job two years ago. Currently, he is on pace to set a new University of Idaho career fieldgoal percentage record, having connected on 75% of attempts in 2007. For the season, he converted 7-of-8 attempts inside 39 yards, was 3-of-5 between 40-49 yards, and 2-of-3 from 50 yards or more.
T.J. Conley has been Idaho's starting punter each of the last four years at Idaho. He struggled a bit with consistency early in his career, but emerged as one of the better punters in the Western Athletic Conference last year (2007) as a redshirt junior.