What we learned from Idaho's spring football camp

May 5—A relentless pass rush, a conservative offense and a couple of individual standouts highlighted the Idaho football team's five-week camp.

Let's dissect how the Vandals fared this spring:

The best unit, without a doubt

Idaho's defensive line is an experienced and dominant group, even without its sack leader, Keyshawn James-Newby, who missed all of spring camp with an injury.

The Vandals' starting four of Malakai Williams, Sam Brown, Amarii Notice and Dallas Aflava would routinely beat their offensive counterparts this spring.

Idaho's starting unit tallied 9.5 sacks in the spring game, albeit against an offensive line mostly comprised of second and third-stringers.

The group also fared well against the run, holding the backups to 11 yards rushing on 12 carries.

The Vandals' defensive line has the potential to be one of the best groups in the Big Sky Conference.

Idaho can also improve its sack numbers, a category it has ranked in the bottom half of the Big Sky the last two seasons.

The preseason darling

Nobody raised their stock this spring like redshirt freshman linebacker Zach Johnson.

The Lake City of Coeur d'Alene product received high praise from Eck dating back to last season as a special teams player.

The spring game was his coming-of-age party.

Johnson tallied 2.5 sacks and has emerged as one of the team's best pass rushers.

"We've been playing him more at linebacker," Eck said. "But we've been getting him over to rush the passer, like in one-on-one pass rush and third-down situations. He just has a natural knack for rushing the passer. That's tough to teach."

Johnson didn't rush the passer much as a member of the Timberwolves, either. He was mainly a linebacker and a tight end. But Eck intends to put the freshman on the field in any way that he can.

"To get a great pass rusher at this level, you almost need someone who didn't do it in high school," Eck said. "If you show you're a great pass rusher on your high school film, you're going to get recruited by big places. I think we got to keep using him and find ways to get our best guys on the field."

Switching Johnson to edge, or just putting him on the field in pass-rushing situations will add to an already dangerous Idaho front.

Methodical movement

The starting Vandal offense went on drives lasting 16, 18, 13 and 10 plays during the spring game. And although offensive coordinator Luke Schleusner and Eck weren't the ones calling the plays, it was business as usual for that side of the ball.

"I thought the starting offense did a good job of moving the ball consistently," Eck said. "We have to do a better job of creating a few more big plays. The O-line was getting tired on one of those long drives, and I said, 'Well, if you block better on that drive, that 6-yard run might've been a 26-yard run, and you won't get as tired."

Idaho's starting quarterback, sophomore Jack Layne, appeared to have complete control of the offense. He was methodical in his reads and didn't take many chances outside the numbers.

"He's done a good job; he knows the offense so well, and he studies so much film," Eck said. "I think he gets through his reads really fast, which helps him get to his checkdowns. ... The (running) backs and tight ends will probably get more touches with him because if it's not quite right, he'll keep going through his reads and find the wide-open guy."

The only knock for Layne this spring has been arm strength. He can get a pass to a streaking receiver downfield. But when he's under pressure and has to deliver a long ball, it sometimes falls short of his intended target.

Idaho set up a last-gasp Hail Mary play before halftime of its spring game. The Vandals were 48 yards away from paydirt. Layne's pass, while under pressure, didn't even make it into the end zone.

The Vandal receivers also need to get in better shape.

Sophomore Jordan Dwyer is expected to be the No. 1 target this year and at times during the spring game, he looked winded.

"He's growing," Eck said. "I thought there were some times he got tired and didn't block good enough. This is a good learning experience with a game-like situation with some long drives. He's been more of a guy used to playing like 25 snaps and getting a break. ... He needs to have a really good summer conditioning to get ready to be the No. 1 guy and to not come off the field in the fall."

Idaho's rushing attack didn't break off any highlight reel runs. But it was consistent between the tackles, grinding away tough yardage.

"I thought we were pretty consistent," Eck said. "We had some solid 5-6-7-yard runs, and usually that is a good sign. I kind of look at the percentage of when you get five yards or more (on the ground). That's a great state to evaluate your O-line. Sometimes the bigger runs are on the back, or the receiver gets a big block downfield. But I thought we did a solid job running the ball. But we got to keep growing and developing that group."

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