Idaho coach Paul Petrino’s initial takeaway from an unorthodox football season: The Vandals are on the right track.
By opting in to the Big Sky Conference’s scrapped-together six-game campaign, Idaho found some benefit in between the hurdles.
To Petrino, suiting up for competitive contests against proper opponents in the spring, rather than conducting the regular intrasquad team drills, will prove worthwhile.
“They fought, learned how to fight, learned how to work hard,” he said. “You take out of it a lot of experience and a lot of excitement for the fall season. We’re just a couple of people away from being really, really good.”
With the exception of Idaho’s opener — a 28-21 win Feb. 27 against Eastern Washington in Moscow — the Vandals “never really went into one game with a full squad,” the eighth-year coach noted. The pandemic played a consistent and significant role.
Four quarterbacks took snaps. A converted running back, Zach Borisch, started under center and rushed for 205 yards in a 38-31 loss April 10 at playoff-qualifying Eastern Washington.
The offensive line was anchored by freshmen on occasion. Sometimes, only three receivers were available. The secondary never was truly settled.
At its most depleted, Idaho was without nine key players in a 27-17 setback March 6 vs. UC Davis.
To be sure, there were positives that arose from the lack of depth. The Vandals’ younger players got meaningful reps they otherwise might not have. Several newbies made good cases for time in Idaho’s coming season, which kicks off in just four months.
Owing to the Vandals’ short-handedness, Petrino’s coaching chops — his weekly tinkering with formations and thin-roster management — were tested greatly. He said he’ll continue to implement some of the new schematic findings.
“This season, in general, some say doesn’t count,” junior linebacker Tre Walker said. “I feel it was more used to try new things, give players opportunities ... just seeing our range and depth chart as a team.”
The Vandals never lost by more than 10 points. Aside from offensive letdowns in defeats at Idaho State and in its finale at Northern Arizona, Petrino was thoroughly encouraged by the team’s performances.
“We know we’re just that far away from having a chance to go win a whole bunch of games and go to the playoffs,” he said. “We all just gotta improve a little bit. There’s no way we’ll ever go through another season with that many guys out week in and week out, and having so much uncertainty.
“There are some things you will move forward with, that help you, and there are some things you hope you’ll never have to do again.”
Aside from the weekly guessing game of availability, those include strictly enforced COVID-19 protocols — most prominently, the split-up team meetings and practices, meant to reduce the potential of virus exposure at the Kibbie Dome.
“That wore out the staff, some of the players. It was just different, that was very hard,” Petrino said.
“But a lot of other things in the offseason — being able to use Zoom more, being able to learn over video more — I think a lot of that stuff was really good.”
Pro-bound linebacker Christian Elliss termed it a “growth season,” one that improved the overall culture of the program. Selfishness from individuals in the past had weighed Idaho down, he said. But the buy-in this season was at an all-time high.
“For the first time, in my time here, it really felt like a family,” Elliss said. “Through all this adversity, through COVID, just the growth that the players and coaches showed ... that’s such a positive thing. I’m so excited to see these guys play this year.”
Walker, a unanimous All-Big Sky first-teamer and one of 12 all-conference selections, said it was “one of the funnest seasons I’ve played.” Idaho had grown antsy watching the Football Bowl Subdivision roll through its season in the fall.
The team captain expects the Vandals to tote more self-understanding and general football knowledge into this fall. Players will pick up summer workouts in July, a month later than usual.
Contemplating the future, Walker is optimistic.
“We’re on the road to a championship team,” said Walker, a finalist for the Buck Buchanan award, which recognizes the Football Championship Subdivision’s top defensive player. “We gave a glimpse of who we are as a program, who we’re working to become. The conference saw that from us. They saw our range.
“It let us know where we’re at heading into the fall.”
In short, the Vandals were most effective in their rushing defense, which ranked No. 1 in the Big Sky. Their passing defense finished at the opposite end of conference, statistically.
Offensively, a many-headed rushing attack was less fruitful than it had been in recent years. Borisch, who only played two games, led the team in rushing yards as backs Roshaun Johnson and Nick Romano, a Rocky Mountain High grad, were hit-and-miss behind a patchwork O-line.
In terms of passing, Idaho most likely will have a quarterback competition between grad transfer Mike Beaudry and versatile freshman CJ Jordan in the fall.
The Vandals brought new stars to light in sophomore receiver Hayden Hatten, who finished with 613 yards on 43 catches, and bruising junior fullback Logan Kendall, both Big Sky first-team picks.
Idaho will lose Elliss, four-year punter/kicker Cade Coffey and reserve running back Dylan Thigpen, each of whom have made their intentions clear of forgoing a final year of eligibility.
The Vandals also will need to find a new offensive coordinator before long. Kris Cinkovich, who’d held the post since Petrino arrived in Moscow, announced his retirement Tuesday after about three decades coaching.
Clark may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.