The Idaho Vandals football team is ready to spring into the new season

Mar. 23—The Idaho football team has consistently gathered positive momentum since third-year coach Jason Eck took over the program in 2022.

In his first year with the Vandals, he helped them return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for the first time since 1995.

Eck also got career years out of quarterback Gevani McCoy, who earned the Jerry Rice Award, and receivers Jermaine Jackson and Hayden Hatten, who both eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving.

The Vandals continued their positive trajectory in Year 2 under Eck and finished 9-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Sky, good enough for second place in the conference.

This propelled Idaho to the postseason for the second year in a row — the first time since '94 and '95.

The Vandals' 2023 season ended with a 30-22 loss to Albany in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. It was Idaho's fifth all-time trip to the quarters.

The Vandals now turn their sights to the 2024 campaign with spring practices beginning Tuesday at the P1FCU Kibbie Dome.

The practices extend through April 25 and wrap up with the annual spring game April 26.

What was lost on the field

Eck has put Idaho in the conversation as one of the best FCS clubs in the country in just two years. But with that success comes competition with the transfer portal and the almighty dollar — a fight above the Vandals' weight class.

Idaho lost seven starters to the portal 10 days following the conclusion of its season. The Vandals lost a total of nine players via transfer, including starting quarterback McCoy (Oregon State), starting running back Anthony Woods (Utah), starting linebacker Xe'ree Alexander (Central Florida) and starting defensive back Marcus Harris (California).

Idaho also lost a significant chunk of production through graduation, namely receiver duo Jackson and Hatten.

The pair of pass catchers accounted for 62.8% of the Vandals' receiving yards over the last two years and more than half their touchdown receptions.

Idaho's special teams also took a hit, losing ambidextrous placekicker and punter Ricardo Chavez. The Vandals will also have to replace kickoff specialist Logan Prescott, long snapper Hogan Hatten and 2023 second-team All-Big Sky special teams selection Sean McCormick.

The Vandals also lost starting linebacker Tre Thomas and defensive end Tylen Coleman to graduation.

All totaled, Idaho will have to replace 93.4% of its rushing yards, 89% of its receiving and 82% of its passing.

The departures on the Vandals' defense are a little less significant, but a hit nonetheless. They'll have to replenish 42% of their tackles and 58% of their turnovers.

A new coaching staff

Idaho coaches, much like the players, were able to part ways with the Palouse for a pay raise.

The Vandals most notably lost defensive coordinator Rob Aurich, who is now the edge rushers coach at San Diego State.

Idaho lost several more position coaches in the offseason, including running backs coach Thomas Ford, defensive line coach David Lose and edges/linebackers coach Kapono Roy Asuega.

Idaho inked Dan Jackson to fill the DC vacancy. He spent the last two seasons as the defensive backs coach at Vanderbilt. He will also spearhead the linebackers.

Deontae Jackson will lead the Vandals running backs, and it'll be his first college coaching gig. He spent the last five years as the headman at Highline High School in Burien, Wash.

Loni Fangupo will be in the trenches with the D-line and has spent the last five seasons with Utah Tech in the same position.

Matt Hughes was added to Idaho's staff to coach the Sams (linebackers) and Nickels (defensive backs).

Who is coming back?

It could be said the Vandals faced a "mass exodus" this offseason. But through it all, they maintained their best offensive minds — a huge bonus.

Eck, along with offensive coordinator Luke Schleusner and receivers coach Matt Linehan, will all remain in Moscow this season.

The continuity on the sidelines will benefit redshirt sophomore quarterback Jack Layne, who is expected to be the starter this season.

Layne's sample size is small yet impressive. The Lake Oswego, Ore., native has two starts, both of which came against Idaho State.

Layne led the Vandals to victory in both games and was a combined 38-for-55 passing for 530 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Vandals' gunslinger has patience while going through his progressions and has a deep ball that would make Aaron Rogers smile.

While he seemingly has the tools to be "the guy," Idaho's skill position returnees are scarce.

The Vandals' top two returning receivers are redshirt sophomore Jordan Dwyer and redshirt senior Michael Graves.

Dwyer was a reliable No. 3 receiver last year and tallied 328 yards on 30 receptions. He had his best outing when Layne was under center, accumulating a career-high 100 yards receiving in a 63-21 win over the Bengals on Nov. 18.

Graves has been inconsistent at best and has dealt with his share of injuries. He only played in eight games in 2023.

Sophomore receiver Mark Hamper also saw the field quite a bit at the end of last season and should see an increase in 2024.

Next to Layne in the backfield will mostly be redshirt junior Eli Cummings.

Cummings missed all of last year and tallied 442 yards rushing in a limited role in 2022. Underneath Cummings are mostly unproven freshmen who were able to maintain their redshirt status.

It'll be interesting to see who will protect Layne and open holes for Cummings this season.

Most of the Vandals' offensive line is returning, with sophomore Layton Vining, redshirt junior Nate Azzopardi and junior Ayden Knapik set to have a spot in the starting five. But the rest will be up for grabs.

On defense, the Vandals are bringing back a mix of young players with game experience and a handful of three-or-four-year stalwarts.

Idaho's defensive backs are a prime example, with sophomores Dwayne McDougle and Andrew Marshall receiving numerous snaps in 2024. The group also has senior leadership in Tommy McCormick, who is consistently one of the team's best tacklers.

The Vandals' D-line is probably their best unit and returns a bulk of their starters, including defensive tackle Dallas Aflava, who had 26 tackles, eight for a loss and five sacks.

Idaho also brings back its sack leader, redshirt junior Keyshawn James Newby, senior defensive tackle Jahkari Larmond, redshirt junior defensive end Malakai Williams and redshirt junior Amarii Notice, who all played significant snaps last year.

Idaho's linebackers were probably its most exciting unit last season, just based on potential.

The Vandals lost their standout Alexander but maintained sophomores Jaxton Eck and Dylan Layne, who are primed for a jump in Year 2.

The LBs also have senior leadership in Mathias Bertram, who has been a consistent piece in Idaho's defense the last two years. It also has solid depth with the likes of redshirt junior Isiah King and senior Syrr Barnes.

What's new?

The Vandals used the transfer portal to their benefit and added several key pieces.

Idaho bolstered its secondary and added senior Abraham Williams, redshirt senior Corry Thomas Jr., and fifth-year player K.J Trujillo.

The signing of Williams caused waves in the Big Sky as he came from Weber State.

Williams was a first-team All-Big Sky selection as a kick returner last season, beating out Idaho's Jackson for the distinction.

He has 1,433 career return yards and five touchdowns — all over 100 yards.

On defense, he tallied 33 tackles, five pass breakups and an interception last season for the Wildcats.

The Vandals had another massive signing class, inking 37 freshmen to their 2024 recruiting class.

Idaho attempted to bolster positions of need through its freshman class, signing nine receivers, four special teamers, eight offensive linemen, seven defensive backs and five linebackers.

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