Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of nine articles previewing Western Athletic Conference football teams. Today, the Appeal takes a look at the University of Idaho, one of three new WAC members.
By DARRELL MOODY
Appeal Sports Writer
From national champion USC to the University of Idaho. Nick Holt has gone from the lap of luxury to the biggest challenge in his life.
Holt, who was USC's linebacker coach for three years, took over the University of Idaho program last season and guided the Vandals to a 3-8 record, including a 1-9 mark in the Sun Belt Conference.
Not a pretty start, but Holt remains optimistic that he can get things turned around. He's hoping that the move to the WAC will help draw better players to the Moscow, Idaho campus.
"Things are going according to plan," Holt said at the recent WAC Media Day in Reno. "The progress is right on schedule. Obviously it's not as fast as you want it sometimes, but we're realistic about where we're heading; where we've come from.
"We recruited 16 more freshmen this year, which has allowed us to create a little depth. We don't have a lot of juniors and seniors. In some instances, true freshmen will play. I had been at Idaho eight years ago. I knew what I was getting into. The Kibbie Dome is a great site. The artificial surface is fast and the fans are great."
The Vandals' offense must improve. They averaged only 19.1 per game a year ago, and that won't win many games.
Michael Harrington, younger brother of Joey Harrington, the Detroit Lions starting quarterback, returns under center for the Vandals. He threw for 2,222 yards and 12 scores, but was also intercepted 11 times. Steven Wichman, a transfer from Delta College in Stockton, Calif., is the current No. 2.
"One of these two guys has to rise up, or both of them will have to play well to be successful," Holt said. "It comes down to the offensive line and the quarterback. If those guys are playing well, everything falls into place."
The offensive line returns four players - left guard Jade Tavick (6-5, 320), right tackle Hank Therien (6-7, 322), left tackle Nate VanderPol (6-6, 312) and right tackle Desmond Clark (6-3, 300) - all played extensively last season. Redshirt freshman Kris Anderson (6-3, 280) is No. 1 at right guard and Adam Korby (6-2, 285), another redshirt freshman, is No. 1 at center.
"Depth is an issue in the line," Holt said. "We have good players back, but we don't have a lot (of them). We have to count on some young guys. That's just the way it is in the program right now."
Matthew O'Donnell (6-4, 288), Brandon Schulte (6-3, 283) and John Neddo (6-2, 265) will provide depth.
Holt likes what he sees at running back. Jayson Bird (6-0, 220), who gained 859 yards and scored eight touchdowns, is back. So is Rolly Lumbala (6-2, 241), who gained 614 yards and scored six times. Antwaun Sherman, who carried 11 times for 73 yards a year ago, gives the Vandals some outside speed.
"I feel good about them," Holt said. "They are young, but getting better. A year ago, we didn't know who are running back was going to be. It's a lot better now. We converted Sherman from a cornerback. We have to find a position for him."
Christian Populis (4 catches, 68 yards), Desmond Belton (15-230-1), Ryan Heacock (10-120-1), Wendell Octave (36-368-2), Daniel Smith, Matt Askew and Jeff Stowe form an improved wide receiving group. Luke Smith-Anderson (6-5, 255), who caught a career-high 16 balls last season, will start at tight end.
On defensive, Holt has better depth on the defensive line, but the talent and experience is still suspect.
Jeff Edwards (6-3, 263), who had 21 tackles and one sack last year and Siua Musika (6-1, 302), who also had 21 stops, anchor the interior part of the defensive line. Mike Bonelli (6-2, 236), who had nine tackles in limited duty, and redshirt freshman Taylor Rust (6-2, 210) are listed as the top defensive ends. Marcus Fennell (6-2, 260), Andrew Stobart (6-2, 249) and JC transfer Ryan Davis (6-0, 272) provide depth.
Cole Snyder (5-11, 230), who racked up 136 tackles, four sacks and recovered two fumbles, starts at middle linebacker. Mike Anderson (6-3, 237), Nate Nichols (6-2, 223), Robert Davis (6-4, 225) and Josh Bousman (6-2, 208) all saw extensive action a year ago. Davis had 76 tackles, second-best to Snyder. Nichols added 40, Bousman 37 and Anderson 32.
"They know the system," Holt said. "They have to hold the defense together."
The Vandals will have two new corners this year. Jason Martin (5-9, 182) a JC transfer, Reggie Jones (5-10, 190) and Herbert Cash (5-11, 161) are the top candidates. Safeties Jevon Butler (6-0, 205), who had 19 tackles, and Dan Dykes (6-3, 180), who had 72 tackles, are back.
"I think we'll be a solid secondary when it's all said and done," Holt said.
Mike Barrow, who was the team's punter and place-kicker last year, will only handle place-kicking right now. True freshman T.J. Conley is the No.1 punter.
Darrell Moody can be reached at email@example.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281