THE FRONT ROW with MARK NELKE: Still questions to answer for Vandals

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Following a two-hour scrimmage disguised as a spring game, preceded by roughly a dozen practices, Idaho senior offensive lineman Noah Johnson looked like he wanted to go out and move some more defensive people.

“I can’t wait for the season, honestly,” said Johnson, a guard who was named third-team All-American last year by HERO Sports, said after Friday night’s Silver & Gold Game at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow. “It sucks that it’s so far away. We’re definitely trying to improve on last year. Last year, we didn’t do as well as we thought we were going to do. This year, we definitely want to do a lot better.”

BUT WILL they?

Last year the Vandals were picked to contend for the Big Sky Conference title, or at least a berth in the FCS playoffs, in their return to the conference after spending the last 22 seasons in the FBS.

But Idaho finished just 4-7, and 3-5 in the Big Sky. In particular, teams with playmakers on offense gave the Vandals fits on defense. That can’t happen this year if Idaho hopes to contend as, while the Sun Belt was more of a ground-and-pound league, the Big Sky is more of a league with players who can create in space.

“We’ve just got to make plays,” Idaho sophomore linebacker Tre Walker said. “We had the game schemes for it, we were in the right positions, we’ve just got to make plays. I definitely feel like we’ll be making those plays now.”

That remains to be seen. It was hard to tell at the spring game, as it pitted starters vs. reserves, so naturally the team with the starters was going to shine.

WHEN PAUL Petrino took over as Vandals coach in December 2012, one of his favorite phrases was “Feed the studs;” meaning, get the ball to your playmakers.

This year, two of those include Jeff Cotton, a senior wide receiver, and redshirt sophomore Cutrell Haywood, who was moved from outside to inside receiver this year.

Cotton, in particular, showed signs of being a big-play guy last year, his first in Moscow after two seasons in junior college. He had 49 receptions for 656 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns.

“When I think back (to last season), when I got the ball in my hands, I felt rushed, like I had to make a move right away,” Cotton said. “This year, just having a year of experience in the Big Sky, and D-I football, I feel more confident and just more relaxed on the field.”

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN usually aren’t noticed unless they get beat for a tackle or a sack, or they’re whistled for a penalty.

Vandal players and coaches alike say this year’s O-line is more experienced and deeper, which should help the offense.

“The offensive line is doing great, giving the quarterback time to actually get us the ball,” Haywood said. “We can make moves at the top of our routes to get open so they can get us the ball, either in the first or second window.”

“It’s a lot faster pace in the Big Sky,” Idaho redshirt sophomore running back Roshaun Johnson said. “All the linebackers, they flow really fast, and they flow hard. Just being able to run behind those guys (on the O-line), and being able to climb to the second level, third level, is going to be really key this year.”

JUST DON’T ask about the quarterback situation.

Well, you can ask, but Petrino’s standard response is, “We’ve got to get them all ready.”

Senior Mason Petrino, Paul’s son, started the last 10 games last season. He can throw it a bit and run it a bit, and he has the smarts you would expect from a coach’s son.

Junior Colton Richardson, the former Lewiston High star who started the season opener, has the strongest arm, but has been slowed by injuries.

Redshirt freshman Nikhil Nayar can run it a bit and throw it a bit.

So that much we know so far. The x-factors are the junior college guys coming in this fall, and the returning players who were held out or limited in spring ball due to injuries.

If Idaho can be a little more explosive on offense, and if the Vandals can figure out how to slow down the explosive offenses in the Big Sky, they could be right in the mix for a conference title and/or a playoff berth.

Those are big “ifs.”

What wasn’t an “if” was the emotion the Vandals showed at halftime of the spring game, when they honored former player Collin Sather, from West Valley High, who was diagnosed with advanced renal cancer in January, and died a few weeks later, in late February.

Paul Petrino, who generally doesn’t show much emotion (unless he’s upset over something), got a little choked up after the scrimmage, talking about Sather.

“It’s just super sad, and hard, but what a great family, and what a great young man he was,” said Petrino, who presented two of Collin’s jerseys to his parents at halftime Friday night. “It was great to have everybody here to honor him, because he was such a special person.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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