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1. Checking in on the JUCO experiment
Last season, Idaho head coach Paul Petrino tried to speed up the rebuilding process.
Both [New Mexico State and Idaho] hired new coaches before the 2013 season. One (NMSU's Doug Martin) is taking the long road to success and attempting to build mostly through high school recruits, redshirting, and development. The other (Idaho's Paul Petrino) is taking a path that is almost 180 degrees different. Of the 25 players NMSU signed in its 2014 class, 23 were high schoolers. Meanwhile, of the 24 non-grayshirts Idaho signed, eight were high schoolers. Petrino brought in 16 junior college transfers, seven of whom signed in December and are already enrolled, in an attempt to immediately change the Vandals' faded fortunes.
Neither approach is correct or incorrect, mind you, but there's no question that Petrino's approach is risky. If JUCO transfers don't create immediate improvement, they're going to result in another quick-fix JUCO class two years later. [...]
Petrino took a hard swing at immediate improvement, and there's a possibility that he could manufacture a four- or five-win season with it, with the promise for more in 2015. But if they aren't able to make much of animpact, then we're looking at the same team and a perpetuated rebuilding job.
Good news: Petrino's risky maneuvers paid off from a pure improvement standpoint; Idaho was better than it had been since at least 2010.
Bad news: Improvement is relative, and thanks to a poor close-game record, improvement still meant an all-too-familiar 1-10 record. It was the Vandals' fourth consecutive season with double-digit losses and third straight with one win. Robb Akey took Idaho to eight wins and a bowl in 2009, then nearly pulled off another postseason bid in 2010, going 6-7. Since then, Idaho is 5-42.
So the gambit failed, and Petrino (or somebody else) will be starting from scratch when a crazy number of seniors graduates after 2015? Not exactly. While the makeup of his 2014 class was rather urgent, Petrino did redshirt quite a few. Combined with another JUCO-heavy 2015 class (12, by my count), the result was a decent spread of experience: this year's receiving corps will be made up of both juniors and seniors, the offensive line will be mostly juniors, the defensive line will be juniors and seniors, and the secondary will be juniors and seniors. Really, only the linebacking corps is senior-heavy.
So there's that. If Idaho improves to a similar degree, that could put the Vandals close to a No. 100 rating, and they could move into the 90s in 2016. Of course, the development of a sophomore -- quarterback Matt Linehan -- could matter more than any JUCO signee.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 1-10 | Adj. Record: 1-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 112|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|4-Oct||at Texas State||95||30-35||L||27%||-14.6||7%|
|11-Oct||at Georgia Southern||57||24-47||L||29%||-12.6||2%|
|18-Oct||New Mexico State||124||29-17||W||67%||10.4||97%|
|8-Nov||at San Diego State||76||21-35||L||23%||-17.2||2%|
|29-Nov||at Appalachian State||104||28-45||L||29%||-12.9||7%|
|Points Per Game||25.0||91||37.3||114|
2. Undeniable improvement (relatively speaking)
This first week of the 2015 preview series has predictably focused on pretty bad teams, programs for which improvement is a relative term. Georgia State improved but still went 1-11. NMSU showed improvement by being semi-competitive in September. Troy improved in November but still went just 3-9.
The Vandals went just 1-10 last year, and only two of their 10 losses came by fewer than 12 points. But after decreasing returns in September, they were far more competitive in October and November.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 4 games): 16%
- Average Percentile Performance (last 7 games): 34%
After averaging 5.0 yards per play through six games, they averaged 5.5 over the last five. And while the defense was never good, it still cut its per-play average from 7.4 (!) to 6.4 in that same span.
Most impressively, they outgained Texas State, Arkansas State, and San Diego State, all three of which won at least seven games in 2014. Granted, they lost all three of those games (which is pretty difficult to do, actually), but we're looking for progress, not results.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||42.6%||53||Succ. Rt. +||100.5||68|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.4||75||Def. FP+||99.0||76|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.0||88||Redzone S&P+||97.0||70|
|Q1 Rk||85||1st Down Rk||57|
|Q2 Rk||72||2nd Down Rk||67|
|Q3 Rk||59||3rd Down Rk||94|
3. A Petrino is going to move the football
Paul Petrino and his brother Bobby are known as irascible guys. The Petrino face can get awfully red, and a restless streak runs in the family.
But they also know offense. Bobby has been one of the more consistently successful movers of the football in recent history, and Paul was with him for steps along the way. (He was also responsible for a top-50 offense during his two-year tenure as Illinois' offensive coordinator, which isn't the most common accomplishment in the world.)
So it shouldn't be a surprise that Idaho took a nice step forward offensively in his second year in Moscow. The Vandals ranked 115th in Off. S&P+ in Akey's last year, improved slightly to 110th in 2013, then jumped to 81st in 2014.
The Vandals were efficient on the ground, sending big Elijhaa Penny to fall forward between the tackles, and Petrino was able to coax decent efficiency numbers out of a redshirt freshman quarterback (and Vandal legacy), Matt Linehan.
Linehan had a bit of a "throwing the ball to the other team" problem, tossing 10 picks in his first five games and three each against Arkansas State and Troy (which turned otherwise close games), but he was, after all, a freshman. We'll see if he can cut down on the mistakes, or if Petrino begins to lean toward big redshirt freshman Jake Luton or three-star true freshman (and one-time Utah State commit) Kareem Coles.
Regardless, one can assume Petrino will figure out how to put a top-100 offense on the field again.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Matt Linehan||6'3, 202||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533||220||377||2534||11||18||58.4%||39||9.4%||5.5|
|Jake Luton||6'6, 218||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7783|
|Kareem Coles||6'1, 194||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8072|
|Elijhaa Penny||RB||6'2, 254||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||138||590||12||4.3||3.0||32.6%||0||0|
|Matt Linehan||QB||6'3, 202||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533||45||209||1||4.6||2.9||48.9%||4||2|
|Aaron Duckworth||RB||5'8, 203||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8006||22||88||1||4.0||3.6||31.8%||1||0|
|Richard Montgomery Jr.||WR-W||13||56||2||4.3||2.0||53.8%||2||1|
|Matt Donaldson||RB||6'1, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A|
|Denzal Brantley||RB||6'0, 207||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7974|
4. Every young QB needs a mauler
Elijhaa Penny is rather confounding from a stat standpoint. One of last year's many JUCO newcomers, his Opportunity Rate (percentage of carries that gain at least five yards) was poor, and he showed next to no explosiveness, which isn't much of a surprise given his size. His 4.3-yard average was mediocre.
But he was able to consistently generate three to four yards, which helped Idaho create short-yardage situations; he was also good at converting those. Plus, he improved over the course of the season.
Penny, first 6 games: 56 carries, 200 yards (3.6 per carry)
Penny, last 5 games: 82 carries, 390 yards (4.8 per carry)
He was one of the primary reasons for Idaho's high-quality rush efficiency numbers (49th in Rushing Success Rate+) even though his own stat line gained little from it.
You can see how much of an asset such a runner can be for a young quarterback. Linehan wasn't very good on passing downs, but Idaho was pretty good at avoiding them. And between Penny, sophomore Aaron Duckworth, JUCO transfer Matt Donaldson, and freshman Denzal Brantley, Penny should have a big backup as well.
Combine that with a potentially enormous line -- average size of the four returnees with starting experience: 6'6, 317 -- and you've got potential for a smashmouth running game, bereft of big plays but good at creating second-and-6s.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Dezmon Epps (2013)||WR-W||5'10, 170||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A||120||77||971||64.2%||31.5%||45.1%||8.1||37||6.7||90.1|
|Richard Montgomery Jr.||WR-W||70||50||543||71.4%||17.4%||80.0%||7.8||-50||8.1||64.4|
|Deon Watson||WR-X||6'4, 210||Jr.||NR||0.7700||65||37||343||56.9%||16.1%||60.0%||5.3||-115||5.3||40.7|
|Jacob Sannon||WR-Z||5'11, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A||31||22||285||71.0%||7.7%||45.2%||9.2||24||9.8||33.8|
|Elijhaa Penny||RB||6'2, 254||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||16||12||107||75.0%||4.0%||43.8%||6.7||-34||6.4||12.7|
|David Ungerer||WR-W||5'8, 165||So.||NR||0.7000||15||8||96||53.3%||3.7%||53.3%||6.4||-4||6.4||11.4|
|Jake Manley||FB||6'0, 245||Sr.||NR||N/A||4||4||20||100.0%||1.0%||50.0%||5.0||-25||4.8||2.4|
|Buck Cowan||WR-X||6'3, 209||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7500||2||0||0||0.0%||0.5%||50.0%||0.0||-3||0.0||0.0|
|Michael Garner||WR||5'11, 171||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8035|
|Callen Hightower||WR||5'10, 168||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A|
|Khalin Smith||TE||6'5, 245||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7611|
5. Welcome back, Dez
Last July, Petrino dismissed leading returning receiver Dezmon Epps following a drunk driving charge. Then-senior Josh McCain stepped up and produced numbers similar to Epps', and since-dismissed underclassman Richard Montgomery showed promise as an efficiency guy.
With both McCain and Montgomery now gone, Epps' winter reinstatement is welcome news.
Epps has plenty of experience and did relatively well in 2013, but he's part of a receiving corps that will be awfully unfamiliar to Linehan, who loses three of his top four targets. Between Epps, juniors Deon Watson and Jacob Sannon, freshman Michael Garner, and JUCO transfers Callen Hightower and Khalin Smith, the talent level of the receiving corps should be similar, but the familiarity level is nil.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Mike Marboe||C||46||2nd All-Sun Belt|
|Dallas Sandberg||LG||6'5, 303||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7840||22|
|Steven Matlock||LG||6'2, 285||Jr.||NR||N/A||16|
|Mason Woods||RT||6'9, 355||Jr.||NR||0.7000||15|
|Jordan Rose||RG||6'6, 323||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7800||7|
|Calvin White||RT||6'5, 294||Jr.||NR||N/A||0|
|Jeff Travillion||OL||6'3, 283||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7578||0|
|Kato Fawkes||OL||6'4, 303||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652||0|
|Andrew Erbes||OL||6'2, 324||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7900|
|Darius Peterson||OL||6'6, 285||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.6%||89||Succ. Rt. +||93.9||91|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||30.6||53||Off. FP+||100.0||63|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.9||110||Redzone S&P+||97.2||74|
|Q1 Rk||127||1st Down Rk||115|
|Q2 Rk||106||2nd Down Rk||121|
|Q3 Rk||89||3rd Down Rk||113|
6. So, so many big plays
On a per-attempt basis, Idaho had a solid pass rush and showed improved efficiency numbers against both run and pass.
But the Vandals still allowed more than 37 points per game because they didn't believe in small cuts, only gashes. They gave up 43 gains of 30-plus yards; that was the fourth-worst total in the country and the worst on a per-game basis. They allowed 15 such rushes (117th) and 28 such passes (122nd) and ranked 123rd in the country in IsoPPP+, an opponent-adjusted measure of big plays.
Perhaps most damning: opponents had all sorts of big-play opportunities through the air against the No. 122 pass defense, averaging a ridiculous 15 yards per completion, but they tended to be content with running the ball. Idaho's run defense was better (less bad) than its pass defense, but it wasn't great, and running the ball allowed opponents to both avoid the Vandal pass rush and, most likely, kill clock with a lead.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Quinton Bradley||RUSH||6'3, 252||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||41.5||6.5%||9.5||6.0||0||1||1||0|
|Ryan Edwards||NT||6'3, 320||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||14.5||2.3%||2.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tueni Lupeamanu||DT||6'1, 301||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7400||10||9.5||1.5%||1.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kaylyn Ayers||DE||6'2, 244||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593|
|Max Martial||DT||6'4, 320||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7583|
|Glen Antoine||DT||6'4, 354||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719|
|Leonard Hazewood||DE||6'4, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7594|
|Kevin White||DE||6'4, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7511|
7. Size: not an issue
It appears Petrino's new defensive coordinator will be Mike Breske, Mike Leach's former D.C. from down the road in Pullman. After improving Washington State's defense in each of his first two years, his 2014 D fell apart. But he's shown a proclivity for aggressiveness and flexibility within the front seven, and it will be interesting to see what he does with what he inherits (assuming he actually ends up becoming the D.C. -- "sources" confirmed he was the guy back in mid-January, and it's strange that it still isn't official).
Whether he leans toward a 3-4 or a 4-3, he should have the size to do either. Rush end Quinton Bradley should do solid work whether he lines up with his hand on the ground or not, and between senior Ryan Edwards, junior Tueni Lupeamanu, and former JUCO signees Max Martial and Glen Antoine, he's got four mammoth tackles for either a four-man line or nose-guard arrangement. Bradley's the only returnee who saw any major time at end last year, but between JUCO reinforcements and maybe even bigger linebacker Tony Lashley, Breske should have options.
But seriously, Idaho's got some beef on both sides of the trenches.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Marc Millan||SLB||6'1, 218||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7400||11||83.0||13.0%||14.5||1.5||0||1||2||0|
|Broc Westlake||MLB||6'3, 224||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7300||10||30.5||4.8%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tony Lashley||MLB||6'1, 230||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7667||7||17.5||2.7%||2.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Chris Edwards||LB||6'2, 217||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7433||6||13.0||2.0%||1.0||0.0||2||0||0||0|
|Daniel Peterson||LB||6'0, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||7||9.5||1.5%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
8. Some aggressive pieces
When Idaho wasn't giving up a big play via ground or air, the odds were decent that either Quayshawne Buckley, Quinton Bradley, or Marc Millan was close to making a big play of his own. The three combined for 39 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and a couple of forced fumbles, and both Bradley and Millan return.
There were too many personnel issues elsewhere on the back seven for this defense to have any consistency. Safety/linebacker Chris Edwards was briefly dismissed from the team, and of the seven linebackers who averaged at least one tackle per game, only three played in all 11 games. It was the same story in the secondary -- eight defensive backs averaged at least a tackle per game, and four played in all 11 games.
With decent health, the linebacking corps could be solid; Millan is a keeper, Lashley is a former star recruit, and Edwards is pretty athletic, be he a safety or linebacker (he's currently listed as an LB). But the secondary will be undergoing some turnover. Last year's two most aggressive DBs, Jayshawn Jordan and Russell Siavii, return, but they're the only two of last year's top six tacklers returning. New blood isn't a bad thing when you have such a porous unit, but there's no guarantee the new guys will be any better than the old ones. The return of early-season starter Jordan Grabski from a lingering injury won't hurt, and if one or two of the four former JUCO guys can make an early impact, there could be some stability.
The defense is still lagging behind the offense, but assuming Breske is the new D.C., his aggressive tendencies could match well with some aggressive personnel here. And if you're going to give up a ton of big plays, you might as well make some of your own.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jayshawn Jordan||CB||5'9, 184||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7500||11||52.0||8.1%||3||0||2||3||1||0|
|Russell Siavii||SS||6'2, 200||Jr.||NR||0.7000||10||42.5||6.6%||3.5||0||2||1||0||0|
|Jordan Grabski||SS||6'0, 183||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A||2||13.5||2.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Armond Hawkins||CB||5'10, 187||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933||7||10.0||1.6%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Doyin Sule||S||6'2, 187||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||6||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dorian Clark||DB||6'0, 173||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7583||9||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Isaiah Taylor||CB||6'0, 186||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7806|
|D.J. Hampton||CB||5'11, 191||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7544|
|Kendrick Trotter||CB||5'11, 178||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533|
|Willie Fletcher||CB||6'3, 188||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||N/A|
|Trenton McGhee||S||6'0, 211||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933|
|Austin Rehkow||6'3, 215||Jr.||44||47.8||3||11||17||63.6%|
|Austin Rehkow||6'3, 215||Jr.||54||59.4||14||2||25.9%|
|Austin Rehkow||6'3, 215||Jr.||28-29||9-10||90.0%||2-9||22.2%|
|Richard Montgomery Jr.||KR||24||21.9||0|
|Jayshawn Jordan||KR||5'9, 184||Sr.||10||29.7||0|
|David Ungerer||PR||5'8, 165||So.||10||6.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||16|
|Field Goal Efficiency||99|
|Punt Return Efficiency||58|
|Kick Return Efficiency||40|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||36|
9. Rehkow smash
When a team is sketchy at linebacker and in the secondary, that bleeds into special teams. Linebackers and defensive backs (along with receivers) are often key pieces in kick and punt coverage.
But thanks to Austin Rehkow, that wasn't a concern. Rehkow has possibly the strongest leg in FBS; for the second straight year, he averaged 47.8 yards per punt -- 47.8! -- and his place-kicking was nearly automatic under 40 yards. Granted, it became scattershot beyond 40, but the fact that he was asked to attempt nine 40-plus kicks tells you the faith they have in his leg ... and that Idaho's offense stalled.
But if you're listing Idaho's best players, Rehkow goes at the top of the list. What a leg.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||2014 F/+ Rk|
|?||at Arkansas State||66|
|?||at New Mexico State||124|
|?||at South Alabama||89|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-38.0% (122)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||126 / 124|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-11 / -10.9|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||0.0|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||13 (7, 6)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||1.9 (-0.9)|
10. That No. 90-100 sweet spot
There are some pretty good teams in the Sun Belt. Georgia Southern ranked 57th in F/+ (the Eagles didn't simply win the conference because the conference was a horror show), Arkansas State ranked 66th, and UL-Lafayette finished 72nd. That placed those three ahead of plenty of power-conference teams.
Still, there's no question that there's dead weight; after all, Idaho was the fourth-worst team in the conference but easily one of the 20 worst in FBS. South Alabama and Texas State ranked 89th and 95th and each reached bowl eligibility. Hell, Appalachian State went 7-5 with a No. 104 ranking thanks to late-season improvement.
So when you look at where Idaho ranked, realize that the Vandals need to only improve by about 15-20 spots in the rankings to start threatening for bowl eligibility. Eight of 12 opponents (and five of the six teams who visit the Kibbie Dome) ranked 89th or worse last year.
So when spring and fall camp reports feature quotes from players and coaches talking about a bowl or a winning season, realize they're not a complete pipe dream.
Of course, they're also not incredibly realistic, at least not yet. Give Linehan one more year to get settled (or surpassed, I guess) at quarterback, give the offensive line a chance to gel with just one senior (and the secondary with just one to two), and give the front seven time to match innate aggressiveness with scheme, and Idaho might be on to something.
Of course, at Idaho, three wins would be remarkable at this point. So let's set the bar there. Beat Wofford, some other home opponent, and NMSU on the road, and call it a successful growth year.