MOSCOW, Idaho – Friday marks Paul Petrino’s 110th day as the University of Idaho’s head football coach. More importantly, to him, it is the first day of spring football for the Vandals.
“I’m excited,” Petrino said at his Thursday afternoon news conference. “I wish we were going right now.”
The first practice begins Friday at 4 p.m. on the SprinTurf Field east of the Kibbie Dome. The rest of the spring schedule is March 26, 27, 29, and 30 (scrimmage), and April 2, 3, 5(scrimmage), 9, 10, 12, 13 (scrimmage), 16 and 18 with the Spring Game April 19. All weekday practices, with the exception of the Spring Game, are at 4 p.m. Saturdays are at 10 a.m. The Spring Game is at 6 p.m.
While the first three months have been filled with recruiting, conditioning and planning, it is the 15 practices over the next five weeks that will be most revealing to Petrino.
“We can’t waste a day,” said Petrino, who, along with his staff, has intoned throughout the winter that every day needs to be better than the day before. “We have to be 15 –for-15 in spring ball. We can’t waste a day. We have to improve every single day and come out of it with a real good base of understanding the offense, the defense.
“As much as anything, we have to come out of it a tough team. We have to come out and be a very physical, tough team.”
Petrino said he’s already seen glimpses of that developing through winter conditioning. He plans to see more with an up-tempo, full-on approach to spring ball.
“We’re going to coach on the run,” he said. “They have to learn how to play when they’re tired. We tell them: Do what you’re coached to do when you’re tired. A lot of times, that’s the difference between winning and losing.”
Petrino likes what he sees in both fronts, although there were extra sessions for some linemen in a special trim and tone program. The results, Petrino says, will be a quicker, fitter front.
“They’ve responded great,” he said. “We’ve made great strides in our attitude and our effort and our ability to go out and work as hard as we can. They’ve bought in.”
In assessing the Vandals as they head into spring, Petrino said the offensive front has a good base with four returners – center Mike Marboe, guard Dallas Sandberg and tackles Cody Elenz and Jordan Johnson. The queries then become who will fill the fifth starting position and who will be the sixth and seventh available players.
Senior Mike LaGrone, he says, has the tools to fit the bill at tight end, while senior receivers Jahrie Level and Najee Lovett impressed in the weight room over the winter earning praise from Petrino as possibly the two most improved over the winter. He said another senior, Roman Runner, likely will fit into the mix.
James Baker, a senior running back, has “all the talent in the world. He just has to put it to use and get going.” Pushing him to do so are junior college transfers Kristoffer Olugbode and Jerrel Brown.
“All those guys are really important,” said Petrino after the rundown of most of the offensive positions. “When it really comes down to it, it’s who is that quarterback going to be?”
There definitely will be competition this spring between returning senior Taylor Davis and redshirt freshmen Chad Chalich and Austin DeCoud. Transfer Anthony Neyer is big in the mix as Petrino seeks a player who not only can execute the Xs and Os but who is tough mentally and physically.
“The competition is going to be huge,” said Petrino, who said he will have a starter named after spring ball but that is a picture that could change after a summer of workouts and a fall camp that also will include signee Joshua McCain out of DeAnza College. “I’m hoping someone does step up and separate.
“Our scrimmages this spring are going to be live. I need to find out who’s tough, who can make plays, who can break tackles.”
Those doing the tackling also caught Petrino’s eye over the winter. The defensive front with returners at every position – ends Quinton Bradley and Maxx Forde, along with interior players Ryan Edwards, Jesse Davis, Marius Burgsmueller and Karel Kearney, will be the foundation of the defense.
In stark contrast, the linebackers mostly will be new with backup Matt Willis the lone returner. Four junior college players – Juan Martinez, Matt Millan, Eric Tuipulotu and Broc Westlake, will be battling for attention although Westlake will be limited as he rehabilitates an injury.
As different as the positions are, there is a similarity between the secondary and the offensive line – that being each is looking for the final player to fill the starting role and a couple key backups.
Sophomore-to-be Solomon Dixon was impressive in the winter conditioning and Petrino and his staff like what they’ve seen from Bradley Njoku and Trey Williams.
“They have all the tools,” he said. “We just have to get them to play. It’s kind of like the O-line in the secondary. It’s, Who’s that fourth guy going to be?”
When it’s all said and done, though, Petrino said there is just one question to have answered.
“The biggest goal, on both sides of the ball,” he said, “is who are our best 11 players?”