|Nick Groff | Argonaut|
|The 2011 Vandal football campaign will start almost exactly as the 2009 campaign ended — with a matchup against Mid-American Conference foe, the Bowling Green State Falcons.The season opener against the Falcons, set for 6 p.m. Thursday in the newly-remodeled Kibbie Dome, gives the Vandals another chance to prove they are a more prepared team, and coach Robb Akey said he is excited to get the chance.
“Everybody wants to win your opening game, so that, I think, just adds to the excitement of what this game is going to be,” Akey said. “They are a football team that is improved from where they were. They had a lot of youth on their team last year, and that youth got to play a lot.”
The youth and inexperience in its previous season held Bowling Green to two wins, but Akey said he is expecting an improved team on both sides of the ball.
“They’ve got another receiver that gets the ball an awful lot and he’s faster than the last one,” Akey said, referring to former Falcon and NCAA single-season receptions all-time leader Freddie Barnes.
Akey said the Vandals are ready to play against a team other than themselves and most of the players that dealt with injuries through the summer and fall will be available to play in the first game.
Akey said receiver Justin Veltung, who is battling turf toe, is likely to miss the first game and receiver Preston Davis, who recently suffered a foot injury, will also not be available for Thursday’s game.
Akey said the team has multiple personnel units, depth and is overall a faster squad than in the past.
“I think this football team is faster,” Akey said. “We’re a faster football team, as a team.”
He also said he likes the way the team’s chemistry is working and the that truth will be exposed in the first game.
Vandal schedule quick hit
Even though the Vandals are not scheduled to make long trips within their WAC schedule, the team will still log significant miles with trips to Texas A&M, Virginia and BYU.
The most difficult test the Vandals will face comes in week three when they head to College Station, Texas, to play No. 8 Texas A&M.
The Vandals are not likely more than a blip on the Aggies’ radar as they take on all ranked Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma later in the season.
But, non-conference opponents BYU and Virginia are not near as strong as the Aggies, and if the Vandals are healthy and play mistake-free football, a win might come from one of these road trips.
Because Fresno State, Louisiana Tech and Hawaii all travel to the Kibbie Dome, it is important Idaho recognizes these games as must-win situations in order to reach a bowl game this year. The three programs are still considered to be in the top half of the conference.
If the Vandals are perfect at home and win one road game, the team will likely be invited to a bowl game.
Nick Groff | Argonaut
A handful of returning starters with significant game-time experience is something the Vandal defense has not had in recent years.
But this year, defensive coordinator Mark Criner is more optimistic about his team’s experience and said he sees confidence in his defense, as preparation for the Vandals first game continues. Criner said he feels he can put his trust in multiple players across the defensive depth chart.
“I can trust a lot more press coverage,” Criner said. “I can trust more roll coverage to where that guy is not having to play man or vertical all the time. We can give those guys more rest.”
Criner said even though his returning players and new additions are all athletic, the game time experience and trust is something that will help the entire defensive unit.
Starting cornerback and Seattle native Aaron Grymes echoed his coach, saying the depth of the whole side has improved.
“It feels a lot better … I know the ins and outs of the defense, but now all the other linebackers and DBs (defensive backs) do too,”Grymes said. “I feel a lot more experienced and I know there is a lot more experience around me too.”
Grymes said the defensive schemes are mostly the same, but Criner may open the playbook up a little more than in previous seasons because of the trust he has in players to make the correct decisions.
“He can trust us a lot more. He’s always trusted us, but now with what we’ve been working on, he might open it up a little more,” Grymes said.
The account is no different from fifth year Vandal Quin Ashley, who, after a diverse career as a Vandal, has landed a starting job at the safety position.
Ashley hails from the football factory state of Texas and was recruited by UI as an athlete. Ashley has played for the Vandals at quarterback, receiver and defensive back and is now confident in his role as starting safety.
“When I first moved over there (safety), it was kind of a struggle for me, but now I know the ins and outs,” Ashley said. “I feel real good about myself and this whole defensive unit going into the season.”
Ashley and Criner both said the defense has capable athletes spanning across the defensive side of the ball. Conrad Scheidt, Trey Williams, Korey Toomer and Homer Mauga are all linebackers that will be seen “early and often,” and Tre’Shawn Robinson will fill the center linebacker position in a unit that will be deep and productive, Criner said.
Criner said even with the loss of now-NFL player and former Vandal defensive captain Shiloh Keo, the defensive secondary is a stronger unit than last season.
Criner said competition builds excellence, and players are competing for starting spots at every position. He also said the experienced defensive line gives the secondary an advantage.
“We’ve got a bigger defensive line. We’ve got bigger players up front,” Criner said. “I think we have more defense to play as a defensive team. I think we’ve got more skill, more bodies and more players to be able to play. I think we’ll have a better pass rush outside of (Aaron) Lavarias.”
Lavarias was a standout defensive end for the Vandals last season and even with the loss of Lavarias, Criner sees an overall improvement from the line.
“I think we’ve got the ability to be pretty multiple within our defensive schemes to give ourselves a lot more help,” Criner said. “That ball (from the opposition) has to come out a lot faster.”
Criner said he thinks the Vandals offense will keep the defense off the field more than in past seasons, providing more recovery time for the defense.
Grymes said the defense is clicking better and better as the first game nears.
“Everything has really been working,” Grymes said. “ No holes — not in this defense.”