Mauga, Scheidt in fierce battle at SAM

WHAT DOES A FULLY LOADED DEPTH CHART do for a defense? For starters, it allows you to open up the defensive playbook. Speed and experience are the name of the game, and this fall Idaho will have its most loaded defense in the Akey era. It's been four years in the making, but the Vandal defense can finally boast some serious depth for 2010. And nowhere is this more evident than at linebacker.

All you have to do is watch 15 minutes of practice, and you can see a switch has been flipped on the Idaho defense. They have the experience to know what to expect, and that translates into game speed. Players aren't thinking about where they need to be, doubting themselves or their teammates. They know, and they are executing their responsibilities with more confidence.

Now, is that going to mean a defense gives up fewer points, registers more take-aways, or wins some games when the offense struggles? Time will tell.

But the improvement is immediately evident.

Where this really shows up is in the linebacker rotation, and in particular the SAM position, where Idaho is going to realistically go three-deep with an active rotation. Newcomer Homer Mauga has been impressive, as has true sophomore Conrad Scheidt. Both backup a three year starter, senior JoJo Dickson.

What does this do for Idaho? It gives the staff options. All three can play multiple positions, and you will see them moved to fit certain situations and packages that Idaho simply couldn't run last fall. JoJo may move inside to MIKE at times. Both Scheidt and Mauga can play WILL.

"Conrad Scheidt can play SAM or WILL," Vandal defensive coordinator Mark Criner told in an exclusive interview. "He was recruited for a reason, because he's a good player. He's been a pleasant surprise this fall, what he wants to do and what he's doing. He's got a good drive. He had a good spring, but he's having a better fall camp [EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a significant statement, because Criner told GVN in the spring that Scheidt made possibly the biggest improvement of anyone defensively as a result of the Bowl practices]. He was held out of the scrimmage, but he gets back Tuesday. He and Homer are two really good additions to this linebacking corps.

"And we knew Homer Mauga was going to play this fall," Criner continued. "There's still a fight going on there between Conrad and Homer for the No.2 spot. But Homer has done a great job, he just needs to clean up a few things. He's an exceptional pass rusher. He can blitz. He uses his hands well. For everything we're asking him to do, his learning curve is really high."

"I suspect one of them will be able to go back and forth between SAM and WILL."

Roll these options in with the regular 2-deep depth chart at MIKE of Treshawn Robinson and Paul Senescall, as well as the WILL depth chart of Robert Siavii and Korey Toomer, and you've got yourself a new look defense.

Criner was complimentary of the entire linebacking unit and the depth that has developed (the MIKE depth chart is solid and returns intact, as does the WILL), particularly the emergence of Toomer this fall. "The guy that was having a really good camp until he hurt his hand was Korey," Criner said. "He's been hurt the last week, but he'll be ready to go on Tuesday. Korey's an athlete and he's really coming around. And that curve is going to be huge for him."

The depth should allow Idaho to do some things defensively that weren't possible a year ago. "We've got some skilled players," Criner said of the entire linebacking corps. "We've got some good linebackers that are skilled players. We've got linebackers that are good linebackers, but they've got lots of skill in them too. Again, size and speed. You can't coach speed."

SO WHY IS THE VANDAL DEFENSE going to be improved in 2010? It's a legitimate question for a defense that struggled mightily at times in 2010.

"You know, nobody's giving us a chance to be good," Criner told "But we've got a lot of returning guys. We've got more players that have been in the system. We've got some older players - some leadership - and plenty of youth still. You've got more speed. You've got more competition.

"Whenever you've got numbers -- they're better numbers, but we're still not at the best numbers we can get -- but whenever you've got numbers, and you've got some speed players, and you've got some size -- and we're getting bigger -- you're going to have more competition within your defense. That makes you a better defense. That makes kids better players, because they know they have to be better or they're going to get beat out. You better be productive, or you're going to get beat out.

"At certain positions we can legitimately say that now. We couldn't necessarily say that in the past."

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