Idaho scant on special teams survivors

Apr. 5—The special teams unit for the Idaho football team will undergo a complete overhaul this season.

The Vandals must replace ambidextrous superstar and first-team All-Big Sky Conference kicker Ricardo Chavez. The Los Angeles native also garnered second-team honors as a punter.

Idaho will also be without second-team all-conference punt returner Jermaine Jackson, kickoff specialist Logan Prescott and long snapper Hogan Hatten who, alongside Chavez, declared for the 2024 NFL Draft.

That's all of the Vandals' specialists from a year ago.

A new face will also be leading the unit as tight ends coach Tyler Sutton takes over for Thomas Ford, who departed for Oregon State to coach its running backs.

Sutton has experience as a special teams coordinator, holding the coaching position at his previous two stops.

"I was super thankful and eager for the opportunity," Sutton said. "Coach Ford did a heck of a job with that unit the last two years and I was heavily involved with him and helping day in and day out. The great news about our staff is we have a lot of guys who are super involved, and we want to be great on special teams because we know being a really good team last year, to be a national power, we need to find little details we got to get better at."

No double duty this year

What Chavez did for the Vandals is hard to replicate. The kicking specialist put his boot to the ball nearly every time the situation called for it. But this year, there won't be anyone pulling double duty for Idaho.

"We were really blessed with Ricardo," Sutton said. "He did an awesome job for us, and (him punting and kicking) is not normal. We'll see who's going to give us the best chance to kick it through the uprights or give us the best field position. Those will be the guys."

The Vandals have several kickers/punters vying for playing time in 2024, including junior LJ Harm, redshirt sophomore Cameron Pope, freshman Owen Forsman and freshman Owen Adams.

Harm, Pope and Forsman are garnering reps at spring camp, and Adams will join the regime following high school graduation.

It's a three-person race at punter between Harm, Pope and Adams.

Harm, a Ventura College transfer, recorded two punts for the Vandals in 2023, totaling 129 yards.

"LJ is doing a good job," Sutton said. "He's gotten a lot stronger this offseason; you can see it in his core and his legs — just how the ball is coming off his foot, and that's really good to see. We're going to continue to work on being able to place the ball wherever we want and make sure it's up in the air long enough to give our coverage units a chance to go get it."

Pope, a Wenatchee, Wash., native, can punt and kick. He's competing for both jobs but looks more primed for kickoff duties.

Pope is going leg-to-leg with Forsman this spring for an early advantage in the starting kicker battle.

Forsman, a Lakeland High School product, graduated early so he could attend spring practices. The extra reps have paid off, as he's looked like the Vandals' best leg-swinger so far. He nailed a 52-yard field goal on a March 29 practice.

"Owen is doing a really good job," Sutton said. "He's really hard on himself. But he should still be in high school right now. This is a great opportunity for him to be here early and get these extra reps and just learn how the speed of the game is faster and everything just needs to be quicker for him. But he has all the leg talent in the world."

An unlikely upgrade

Chavez's consistency will be hard to replace. But trying to replicate Jackson's explosiveness in the return game is a completely different beast.

The Oakland, Calif., native tallied four special teams touchdowns and 1,178 return yards in his three-year career in Moscow.

So how did the Vandals respond? By signing the only Big Sky returner to put up better numbers than Jackson in the transfer portal: defensive back Abraham Williams.

The Weber State transfer has 1,433 career return yards and five scores — all over 100 yards. He averaged 34.1 yards per kick return and was a consensus All-American returner as a sophomore in 2022.

Trying to elevate the long snappers

The Vandals brought in two long snappers to compete for the starting job via the portal.

Dylan Fischer, a redshirt sophomore, comes to Idaho by way of Alcorn State. He played in three games for the Braves against Tulane, Alabama State and Grambling.

Xander Echols is a redshirt junior and spent the last two seasons at UAB. He was the Dragons' full-time snapper in 2023 and has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

"What the specialists are doing is very similar to a golf swing," Sutton said. "They're watching it on video and making little tweaks. ... The specialists do a really good job watching themselves and being their own toughest critics, so when we go into meetings and watch that stuff, they already kind of know exactly what they did or what they need to do to continue to improve."

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, or on Twitter @TreebTalks