Led by North Platte, Neb., native quarterback Nathan Enderle, the Idaho Vandals are coming off their first winning season in a decade, and there finally seems to be some momentum building in Moscow, Id.
With a plethora of experience returning at essentially every skill position on offense and the bulk of its defense coming back, Idaho head coach Robb Akey's team has the tools to pick up right where it left off in last year's thrilling win over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl.
The Vandals will get tested right off the bat, though, as they come to Lincoln to take on Nebraska just two games into this year's schedule on Sept. 11. Huskeronline.com sat down with Nick Jezierny of the Idaho Statesman to get his insight on things coming out of the spring.
One of the storylines surrounding this game that most people around here are excited about is Enderle's return to take on Nebraska. How has he progressed so far this off-season?
"The guy has been in the program for more than five years. He graduated high school early, and he's been the starting quarterback since he's been eligible. So he's probably their biggest storyline. He had a really, really good year (last year), and there's talk of him being an NFL guy because of his body and his arm strength. He's really smart, too. He really knows a whole bunch. That's probably the main thing for them. He's a legit guy coming in."
Has he talked much about playing Nebraska this season?
"I mentioned it in a story I did on him last year, and he just says his family is already trying to hoard as many tickets as possible. It's obviously going to be a big game, but when I talked to him about it, it was way back. We'll probably hit him again with it this fall, but I know his family was really excited about it."
So what else should Husker fans look out for when the Vandals come to town?
"Well, Enderle's got two of his top three running backs back and six of his top seven receivers back from last year. The issue for them is that they lost four of their five starting linemen. So basically they've got a ton of skill, but last year that line was kind of the big deal, and they had the big, powerful running back in DeMaundray Woolridge, who graduated as well. But Deonte Jackson - who's the nephew of Steven Jackson of the (St. Louis) Rams - he's in the mix there at running back and he's a former 1,000-yard rusher. Then the outside receiver, Maurice Shaw, he's another NFL guy. He competes in track also, and will probably be the No. 1 threat in the passing game."
How about on the other side of the ball? How are things shaping up on Idaho's defense?
"Defensively, they've got 20 of their top 22 back from last year, including 10 starters. But they also gave up 36 points a game last year, so it's one of those 'Is it really a good thing?' They think it is. They've got depth everywhere, and a lot of these guys were first-year players last year. So experience-wise, they'll be better. They'll know their assignments better and they're stronger for having been in the program. The big playmakers are Aaron Lavarias at defensive end and Shiloh Keo, who's a strong safety. Those are the two biggest playmaker guys. They also have every specialist back. Every kicker, punter, holder, returner - everyone is back in those regards."
What's the one area you see Nebraska being able to take advantage of the most?
"The line is a work in progress. They've worked in the spring, and they've got two junior college guys who don't come in until the fall who they think have potential to be in that starting line group. But they may be a work in progress for half of the season. The only guy who is back is the left tackle Matt Cleveland, so they need to replace all the way down."
I'm sure replacing a guy like former All-American guard Mike Iupati, who was a first-round NFL draft pick, won't be a very easy task either.
"You really can't. You can't replace a first-round NFL pick. There's not one waiting in line like some other programs. They've got a guy who's working at center and also working at guard - there's some of that going on. They're just tying to find the best five guys. They had some guys who redshirted, but to ask them to come in right away and be first-year starters is not an ideal thing. I think they definitely won't be as dominant of a line as last year, but I think what they're hoping to do is not be a liability."
Idaho is coming off its first winning season in 10 years, and it sounds like it has a lot of pieces to work with this season on both sides of the ball. Is there finally some excitement growing for the future of Vandal football?
"I think there's some optimism, but there's also some people that say, 'Oh wow, they've got a tougher schedule this year.' I mean, last year I think the thing they had going for them was they had a lot of home games and a lot of their road games were winnable. This year, you know, they've got to go to Hawaii. That's never an easy trip, even though they handled Hawaii at home last year. Even their home games this year are difficult. They have Nevada and Boise State at home. They probably can't beat those teams anywhere. So now you're taking them at home and now you have to go play some tougher games on the road that you won at home last year that you may not be able to get. No one up there will tell you, but I think if they finish .500, it's a good year. They have Nebraska, that's going to obviously be a handful."
Speaking of Nebraska, have the players of coaches started talking much about that game much yet, or are they focusing on the task at hand right now?
"They're focusing on the task at hand. The nice thing that they did was move their season opener (against North Dakota) to the Thursday before, so they'll have a full week plus to get ready for Nebraska. If they handle North Dakota, they'll get a lot of guys playing time and should be pretty healthy going into that one. They know that that's potentially the second-hardest game on their schedule. Boise State would probably be the tougher game. But I think the team is capable of doing good things if they can get the line put together and be remotely decent. Enderle had all kinds of time last year, and he responded well."
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