In many ways, the Vandal offense has the looks of a unit that should have more fire-power this fall. A powerful offensive line, strong competition under center, outstanding depth at tailback, and a receiving unit that is developing.
However, as good as the potential is for the Vandal offense, the weight of the season truly rests on the shoulders of the Vandal defense. Idaho can't get caught up in shootouts week after week with a defense that yields the 40+ points per game the Vandal D allowed last season.
Saturday day is a statement game for the Vandal defense, and the tone will be set by the bigs working in the trenches.
Up front, the Vandals will be led by junior Jonah Sataraka, a 6-2, 289-pound noseguard out of Puyallup (Wash.) and a preseason First Team All-WAC pick. Next to him will be sophomore Michael Cosgrove (6-4, 280-pounds) who added 20-pounds to his frame this off season. The "backups" are senior Oga Faumui (6-1.5, 285) and junior Fonomanu Sekona (6-1.5, 282) -- although officially listed as No.2 for each position, both Fono and Oga will get extensive reps in the game day rotation.
At defensive end the Vandals experience the biggest change on the line from '08 to '09, as redshirt junior Aaron Lavarias (6-3, 248), starting defensive tackle in 2008, shed about 15-pounds and moved to strongside end. The move is welcome on all fronts, in particular because Idaho finally has enough size on the interior for the first time since Lavarias joined the program for him to move to his more natural position at end. Rush end will be manned by Andre Ferguson (6-3, 228, Sophomore), one of the top recruits of the '07 class who earns his first career start this weekend in the opener at New Mexico State. The Vandals go young for the backups, with true sophomore Charles Smith (6-5, 250) backing up Lavarias at strongside end, and true freshman Benson Mayowa (6-3, 205) is listed as the backup rush end.
More importantly, Vandal fans can also expect Idaho to mix and match this personnel, moving these eight players around to give Idaho an advantage in certain situations during the game.
Below is an overview of the bios for the 2009 Vandal defensive line. Aside from the players listed below (from the official 2-deep depth chart published this week), as the season progresses look for others to possibly break into the rotation, including converted offensive lineman Bryan Wilson (6-4, 300) who signed with Idaho as a projected defensive lineman before moving to the offensive line last season.
6-2, 289, Junior
For the first time since joining the WAC, Idaho has a preseason All-Conference defensive tackle in big Jonah Sataraka, one of the strongest players on the team. Jonah joined the Vandals in 2006 and redshirted the season. Then, as a redshirt freshman in 2007 he earned significant playing time at noseguard (started the first THREE games of 2007) for the Vandals behind then-senior Siua Musika (a four year starter at Idaho), and finished with eight tackles in 10 games. As a sophomore last year he split starting duties with touted JC transfer Oga Faumui and finished the season with 21 tackles. Despite the modest stats, his effort in the trenches last year made an impact throughout the league, and earned him preseason recognition on Phil Steele's All-WAC First Team defense going into this fall. With a solid group around him, Sataraka is poised to take over as one of Idaho's top interior defensive linemen in 2009.
6-4, 280, Sophomore
Last season Michael Cosgrove broke into the Vandal defensive line starting rotation as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle. In 11 games last season he finished the year with 19 tackles (eight solo take downs), plus 2.5 tackles for loss including a quarterback sack. This offseason Cosgrove impressed those close to the program, thickening up his 6-4 frame by adding 20-pounds following a dedicated offseason lifting regimen. This season he brings a solid combination of size and strength to the Vandal defensive front, including a year of starting experience under his belt.
6-3, 248, Junior
After spending the last two years working at defensive tackle (a two year starter for Idaho), this spring junior Aaron Lavarias moved to defensive end on the Vandal D-Line. Aaron joined the Vandals in 2006 and redshirted his first season in Moscow. As a redshirt freshman in 2007 Aaron earned immediate and significant playing time at defensive tackle and defensive end for Idaho, including starting FIVE games at defensive tackle and finishing the season with 24 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble. As a redshirt sophomore last year Lavarias finished with 21 tackles, including three tackles for loss and two QB hurries. This fall his motor, agility and strength - as well as two years starting experience - are expected to be major assets in 2009 as he takes over as Idaho's starting strongside defensive end.
6-3, 228, Sophomore
Ferguson joined the Vandals for fall camp in 2007 as one of the prized recruits of the class (he originally verballed to Arizona State, but changed his commitment to Idaho in a signing day surprise). A three-star prospect ranked 39th nationally as a high school senior strongside linebacker and the No. 6 linebacker in California, Ferguson had consecutive triple-digit tackle seasons at Redlands East Valley. He had an exceptional redshirt year in 2007, and last year as a redshirt freshman focused on making the transition to defensive end while also working with the linebacker unit as injuries mounted during the season. This fall Ferguson climbed to the top of the rush end depth chart and has been impressive throughout camp.
Below are bios for the top backups at each position, as listed in the official Idaho pregame press release. Others could work their way into serious playing time, including Derek Weiting plus true freshmen Michael Terry and Vincent Keener.
6-5, 250, Sophomore
Charles joined the Vandals last fall as a true freshman out of Desert Pines (Nev.) High School in Las Vegas and earned immediate playing time at Idaho. Blessed with outstanding size (6-5, 250), Smith appeared in six games and recorded two tackles, including a tackle for loss. Despite the modest first year stats, Smith gained valuable experience that will yield major results in the years ahead. As a high school senior, the versatile Smith picked Idaho over offers from Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah State, and Wyoming. He came into his senior season ranked the No. 13 prospect in the state of Nevada, and his career honors included being named a First Team All-Sunrise Region Class 4A selection at defensive end as a senior (52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks), and a Second Team tightend selection. He was also named a First Team All-Northeast Division selection at both DE and TE. To top it off he was named a Review Journal Nevada Class 4A Second Team All-State selection at Defensive End. At Idaho, with a year of experience behind him and the 2009 season fast approaching, Smith will be battling for significant playing time all season in the defensive end rotation.
6-2, 282, Junior
Junior Fonomanu Sekona has been a member of the Vandal defensive line rotation since his true freshman season in 2007, when he picked Idaho over an offer from San Jose State University following an impressive senior season at Leuzinger (Calif.) High School. Last year he saw his most action, lining up at defensive end and tackle, and in 12 games recorded 13 tackles including 1 tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry. As a true freshman he had a productive season for Idaho. What he lacked in stats (seven games, three tackles) he made up for by starting FOUR games at defensive tackle for the Vandals and earning significant playing time at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Sekona is blessed with good agility and strength for a big athlete. His versatility gives him the ability to play both DE or DT for Idaho in the years ahead, and Fono is poised to be one of the defensive line's top contributors in 2009.
6-1, 285, Senior
Oga joined the Vandals last year as a highly regarded junior college transfer and earned an immediate starting job in the Vandal noseguard rotation. He finished the '08 season 8th on the team with 41 tackles (28 solo), five tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and one pass breakup. He came in with the the attributes the Vandals needed immediately: Strength and agility, and in 2006 had offers from Washington State and Hawaii. Oga played both defensive tackle and defensive end in junior college, racking up 47 tackles and eight tackles-for-loss in 2006 while earning second team all-conference honors at Garden City College in Kansas. As a prep senior in 2004 he was named Defensive Lineman of the Year in the South Puget Sound League - North Division. With his power and motor, Oga will be expected to be one of Idaho's top defensive linemen in 2009.
6-2.5, 203, Freshman
Benson joins the Vandals this fall following a solid high school career in which he moved from his customary linebacker position to defensive end. The move was a success, earning him First Team All Ocean League selection at Inglewood (Calif.) High School. The lanky 6-3, 205-pound athlete has earned a spot on the Idaho two-deep depth chart for the season opener, and will get his share of reps at rush end for the Vandals against New Mexico State in Las Cruces. Below is a highlight video on YouTube summarizing Benson's high school career.
LINK: Benson Mayowa Highlight Video