Coach Jason Eck has only been at the helm at Idaho for one season, but the rebuilding job appears to be way ahead of schedule. In Coach Eck’s first season, the Vandals earned a trip to the postseason for the first time since 2016 and beat rival Big Sky powerhouse Montana for the first time since 1999.
Idaho continued to make the FCS playoffs and wrap up a 7-4 season that came out of nowhere for many people. 15 Vandals earned All-Big Sky honors, while wide receiver Hayden Hatten was named an FCS All-American and quarterback Gevani McCoy took home the Jerry Rice Award for the nation’s top freshman. With all the success from 2022 comes a mountain of expectations in 2023.
The Vandals bring back a load of offensive firepower. Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson will take most of the headlines as a top-tier FCS wide receiver duo. Hatten is an elite deep threat and red-zone target. He hauled in 16 TDs including an insane 4 TDs in one half against Eastern Washington. Jackson has incredible speed which Idaho loves to use to blow the top off of defenses. He averaged almost 20 yards per catch and had over 1,000 yards on the year.
Throwing the ball to those two will be the aforementioned 2022 Jerry Rice Award winner Gevani McCoy. McCoy threw for 2,721 yards and 27 touchdowns with only 7 interceptions. It is reasonable to expect McCoy to only improve in his sophomore season with a full offseason exploring more of the offense and getting even more dialed in with Hatten and Jackson.
Idaho also had a freshman leading the backfield attack. Freshman Anthony Woods had a fantastic 2022 season rushing for 880 yards on 5.71 yards per carry. Woods got stronger as the season went on and got a heavier share of the workload down the stretch. The Vandals can expect more growth from Woods going into his sophomore year.
Defensively, the Vandals return an experienced secondary, including All-Big Sky performers, cornerback Marcus Harris and safety Tommy McCormick. Idaho has the highest-rated cornerback duo coming back in 2023, according to Pro Football Focus. As a team, Idaho tied for 10th in the nation last year with 16 interceptions, two off the national leading number of 18 (McCormick and Murvin Kenion III both had four). The Vandal’s defense allowed 6.77 yards per attempt, ranking 30th in the nation. Overall, it is reasonable to expect a top-25 pass defense in the nation going into next season. In the Big Sky, only Montana and Weber State managed better yards per attempt numbers and both of those secondaries see a lot of experience leave. Idaho can come into the season having the best secondary in the conference.
With all the talent Idaho has coming back and all the positive momentum Coach Eck has produced after just one season, pre-season expectations have grown dramatically this off-season. The Vandals earned top-10 rankings in both the STATS Perform and HERO Sports preseason polls. For a team that has not even won a playoff game, this is high praise.
Every year there are teams that get ranked highly but end up disappointing and crashing out of the national light. Just last season, Missouri State, Villanova, Kennesaw State, Southern Illinois, and Stephen F. Austin were all ranked in the STATS preseason top ten. None of them made the playoffs. Outside of SIU, they weren’t even close to playoff contention. This doesn’t even count East Tennessee State or Eastern Washington who were ranked 11th and 13th respectively and both finished with losing records. Will Idaho live up to this hype and challenge for the semifinals? Or was 2022 just a great year destined never to repeat itself?
The entire answer to that question probably comes down to the line of scrimmage. If the Vandals want to be one of the few teams competing to get to Frisco, they will have to answer several questions on the offensive line and front seven.
On the offensive line, they lose their two top players, while bringing back four main contributors. However, the offensive line struggled to move the ball on the ground against top opponents last year. Against the four FCS playoff-level teams Idaho played they managed, 4.2, 3.7, 4.2, and 1.2 yards per carry. That’s an average of 3.3 yards per carry and would have been barely top 100 in the nation carried out over a whole season. Of course, this was against some of the best defenses in the FCS, but in order to compete with teams like South Dakota State, North Dakota State, and even Montana State; Idaho will need to run the ball more effectively. Especially with the Vandals’ passing potency, the offense should be facing lighter boxes and need to be able to take advantage of it. If they cannot improve on the offensive line, Idaho will have difficulty beating any of the top-level teams.
There are similar questions to be answered in the front seven. Idaho’s defense gave up 4.29 yards per carry last season, 45th in the nation. In four out of their last five games, they gave up at least 4.7 yards per carry. The Vandals only managed 1.58 sacks per game (92nd in the nation). And all of this with many of the contributors from last year’s front seven gone.
To address the front seven, Idaho added four main transfers: three defensive linemen and one linebacker. Linebacker Tre Thomas comes in from South Dakota with plenty of experience in the Missouri Valley Conference to fill in for departed Fa’avae Fa’avae and Paul Moala. Defensive linemen Jahkari Larmond, Tylen Coleman, and Keyshawn James-Newby have transferred in from Division II programs. All three bring in good size and will add depth to Idaho’s front seven. For Idaho to meet pre-season expectations they will need all four of these transfers to play at a high level. There is a lot of potential for this group, but it is quite unproven at the FCS level.
The best answer to the offensive line question is Coach Jason Eck. Coach Eck’s background is as an offensive line coach and after only one year it is reasonable to think that even with some of the same players the group can improve after a full offseason. The Vandal’s offense will need to count on positional development and some of the recruits they brought in contributing on Saturdays. The good news is that the Vandal’s pass game will be elite to start the season and it should give the run game and offensive line time to gel. They have three out-of-conference games to prepare for their Big Sky schedule, which includes all four of the other Big Sky playoff teams from last year.
If Idaho lives up to their lofty pre-season expectations, it will be because of improvement on the offensive and defensive lines and because they have one of the best passing games in the nation. To beat the truly elite they will need to run the ball and be able to stop the run against teams like South Dakota State and Montana State. While there might be questions, there is no reason to think that Coach Eck, his coaching staff, and the Vandal program aren’t up to the challenge. The good news is, we will find out soon if Idaho will live up to the hype with the season starting in just a couple of weeks.
Follow @The Bluebloods on Twitter for ongoing coverage of FCS football news, notes, and opinions.