Idaho finished 2014 with its third consecutive one-win season, but, believe it or not, the Vandals made progress. Idaho was outscored by only 135 points in 2014. That sounds bad, but consider that the Vandals were outscored by 343 points in 2013 and 319 in 2011. For a team that’s lost 42 games in four seasons, any sign of real progress is notable.
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Previewing Idaho’s Offense for 2015
Coach Paul Petrino welcomes back the top rusher and passer from an offense that averaged 25 points and 417.5 yards per game, and the third-year coach is expecting even better numbers this season.
Quarterback Matt Linehan had his ups and downs during his redshirt freshman season when he started all 11 games and completed 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,540 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also threw 18 interceptions, a number that will need to dwindle if the Vandals are to show the improvement Petrino predicts.
The return of wide receiver Dezmon Epps should help the passing game. Epps was Idaho’s leading receiver in 2013 when he caught 79 passes for 980 yards and four touchdowns. He was kicked off the team last summer for an off-the-field incident and didn’t play last season. The senior received a second chance from Petrino for staying in good academic standing. Between Epps and junior tight end Deon Watson (37 catches in 2014), Linehan has two athletic playmakers at his disposal.
Senior running back Elijhaa Penny led Idaho with 589 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the 6'2", 254-pound bruiser is expected to spearhead the ground game again. Sophomore Aaron Duckworth is the speedier, change-of-pace back.
The biggest question comes up front. Petrino must replace four-year starter Mike Marboe at center and rebuild a unit that yielded 41 sacks. Junior Steven Matlock assumes the center spot and will anchor a young unit that has only one senior starter — guard Dallas Sandberg. If the O-line jells and can protect Linehan, Idaho’s offense should improve.
Previewing Idaho's Defense for 2015
After being one of the worst FBS defenses last year, the Vandals are changing to a 3-4 scheme designed to get more speed on the field. Idaho allowed 462.7 yards and 37.3 points per game, prompting Petrino to bring in five defensive backs in the offseason to help fortify the pass defense.
Senior cornerback Jayshawn Jordan (62 tackles) and junior safety Russell Siavii (52 tackles) are the top defensive backs returning, but competition will be fierce in the back end.
End Quinton Bradley (six sacks) and tackle Ryan Edwards (19 tackles) are the best up front. Linebacker Marc Millan led the team with 102 tackles last season, and several other contributors are back at that spot, but Petrino is very high on grayshirt Kaden Elliss, the son of former NFL Pro Bowler Luther Elliss.
Bottom line: For this unit to improve, it will have to generate more than the 18 sacks and 17 takeaways it did last season.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
Previewing Idaho’s Specialists for 2015
The kicking game is solid with junior Austin Rehkow, who handles the placekicking and punting duties. Rehkow is accurate from inside 40 yards but inconsistent from long range. As a punter, he’s averaged better than 47 yards on 119 career punts. The return of Epps solidifies the return teams, which haven’t produced a touchdown of any kind since 2012.
Perhaps the best news since the end of last season was the NCAA lifting a bowl ban and sanctions limiting practice time because of poor APR scores. The Vandals need every bit of practice to try to become competitive and put together their first winning season since 2009.
The offense should be improved now that Linehan has a year under his belt and some proven playmakers. The real key for Idaho will be on defense. In Idaho’s 10 losses last season, it gave up 34 or more points. If the Vandals can slow down the opposition and give their offense a chance, this team can make a move in the Sun Belt.