How High Can Idaho Finish in the Sun Belt?
(This is the first in a series previewing football teams in the Sun Belt Conference for 2014. Today: The Idaho Vandals
The Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns do not play Idaho in 2014. They also won't play in 2015. But the Vandals are back in the Sun Belt (they were members from 2001-04) and, while they won't be playing the Cajuns, all of their games will have a bearing on who wins the Sun Belt title.
After struggling to a 1-11 record as an independent last year, second year coach Paul Petrino has to feel more confident the Vandals will be an improved team in 2014. Idaho has plenty of question marks, as you would expect a 1-11 team to have, but they think they have a lot more answers than they did a year ago.
Offensively, quarterback Chad Chalis started seven games a year ago before being sidelined for the rest of the season with an injury. Chalis is fighting it out with highly touted redshirt freshman Matt Linehan for the starting spot. Idaho used three quarterbacks a year ago. One finished his eligibity and one was moved to wide receiver. The other big question is at running back. Idaho only had 12rushing touchdowns last season and leading rusher James Baker had six of them. He's gone. But the Vandals are high on JC transfer Elijhaa Penny, who originally signed with UNLV. Senior Jerrel Brown (216 yds) and sophomore RIchard Montgomery (196, 2TD) return to give Idaho some depth.
But all is not bleak on offense for Idaho. Dezmon Epps was among the leading receivers in the nation last year, with 79 catches for 980 yards and four scores. He also returned punts and kicks and wound up with almost twice as many all-purpose yards as anyone on the squad. Josh McCain, a very good athlete, has been moved from QB to WR for his senior season. He threw for two scores and was the second leading rusher on the team a year ago. Idaho will rely on several newcomers to provide depth at wide receiver. Idaho lost three tight ends and will need someone to step up there.
What has to make Petrino happy is the return of some veteran offensive linemen. That includes center Mike Marboe, who has been in the Rimmington Watch list every season. This is a veteran group, with three seniors and a sophomore who started every game last year as a freshman.
On defense, there's good news and bad news. The good news is Idaho returns most of their defensive starters and will have JC transfers at most other positions. The bad news is that defense gave up a lot of points last year. Granted, their schedule included nine bowl eligible teams including the eventual national champion, but this unit gave up 40 or more points nine times last year, including 59 or more on four occasions. Three returning lineman combined for 14 sacks a year ago. NT Quayshawne Buckley is the best of the bunch.
Austin Rehkow handles both punts and placements. He struggled early last year as a field goal kicker but made 9-12 down the stretch, although his long was just 41 yards. But as a punter, Rehkow is big time. He netted 40 yards per punt last season and topped the FBS with a 47.8 average. He was a Ray Guy semifinalist.
Idaho does not play Louisiana or Georgia State this year. Their out of conference opponents are Western Michigan at home, plus trips to Ohio, Florida and San Diego State. Idaho has five home games at the Kibbie Dome and led or was tied in their five home games a year ago. With seventeen full or part time starters returning and an influx of junior college talent, many expect the Vandals to be improved this year. But after winning just four games in the last three seasons, how that improvement will translate into wins is very much a question mark.