UI football starts to take shape ahead of '24 season

Jan. 24—Idaho football coach Jason Eck continued to bolster his staff and roster over the last couple of days.

The Vandals signed two new position coaches on Tuesday: Deontae Cooper (running backs) and Hunter Hughes will lead the Sams (outside linebackers) and Nickels (cornerbacks).

Idaho also promoted several members from within its staff, including tight ends coach Tyler Sutton, who will now also coordinate the special teams unit.

Receivers coach Matt Linehan and defensive line coach David Lose added recruiting coordinator and edge coach, respectively, to their resumes.

And last Friday, the Vandals signed nine new players, seven of whom were transfers.

Here's a look at UI's additions over the last couple of days:

Hughes brings much experience

Hughes comes to Moscow after spending one season as the defensive backs and quality control coach for the New Orleans Breakers of the USFL.

The Nashville native helped lead the Breakers to a 7-3 overall record, good enough for a second-place finish in the South division.

Before New Oreleans, Hughes spent six seasons as the headman at West Texas A&M (DII), where he compiled a 32-29 record.

His best finish as a head coach came in 2021, when the Buffs finished 7-4 overall and 5-2 in Lone Star Conference play.

16 players earned all-conference honors for West Texas A&M in 2021, and freshman linebacker JT Cavender was labeled the conference's linebacker and freshman of the year.

Before leading the Buffs, Hughes spent a decade coordinating the Colorado State-Pueblo defense.

While leading the Thunderwolves, he was named defensive coordinator of the year from within the Division II ranks by FootballScoop in 2011.

In 2011, Colorado State-Pueblo led all of Division II in scoring defense (12.8 points per game), passes intercepted (29), defensive touchdowns (7), and turnovers (43).

He also led CSUP to a 13-0 victory over Minnesota State-Mankato in the 2014 championship game.

Hughes began his college coaching career as a graduate assistant at Colorado in 2003, where he worked alongside Eck.

"I am thrilled to join the staff here at Idaho and be a part of this special team that coach Eck has assembled," Hughes said in a news release. "I have known coach Eck for over two decades and jumped at the opportunity to work with him again. What he and his staff have done here in just two seasons is impressive, and I'm excited to be a part of building a great program here in Moscow."

Cooper is set to take on a new crop of backs

Cooper will have the opportunity to coach and elevate an inexperienced running backs room for Idaho.

The Perris, Calif., native comes to Moscow after a five-year stint as the headman at Highline High School in Burien, Wash.

Cooper led Highline to an unbeaten conference record and a trip to the Washington Class 2A state playoffs in 2019.

After going 2-2 during the shortened 2020 season, the Pirates went 28-7 over the next three years. Highline was a perfect 18-0 in league play during that span.

"I am really excited to be a Vandal and get my first opportunity as a position coach in the DI ranks," Cooper said in a news release. "I am excited to work with coach Eck and grateful for the opportunity and the chance he has taken on me. I am ready to get to work coaching a tremendous group of running backs."

Cooper spent one season as a recruiting assistant for his alma mater, Washington, from 2017-18.

Cooper had an electric career at Citrus Hill High School, tallying 7,450 rushing yards and 107 touchdowns. His yardage total was second all-time amongst Inland Empire (Calif.) rushers behind Toby Gerhart, who was a 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up.

He finished his college career with 555 yards and three touchdowns in two seasons and was named a team captain in 2014.

"Deontae did a great job at Highline High School and is a rising star in our profession," Eck said in a news release. "He came highly recommended by Vandal great Joel Thomas from his time at Washington. Deontae will do a great job of mentoring our student-athletes and recruiting Western Washington. We are happy to welcome Deontae to Moscow."

UI's roster grows

Idaho added 15 players who will be around for its winter and spring activities.

Of the fresh faces, four were previously announced freshmen (offensive lineman Nathan Knapik, defensive back Diezel Wilkinson, punter Owen Forsman and defensive lineman Titus Ringor), and defensive backs Ty Hillinger and Wyatt Gordon are grey shirts and were announced as members of the 2023 recruiting class.

Seven of the additions came from the transfer portal.

Defensive back K.J. Trujillo comes to UI with one year of eligibility remaining and has taken snaps for North Alabama, Wake Forest and Colorado.

In two seasons at North Alabama, Trujillo tallied 40 tackles, 10 pass deflections and an interception.

Corey Thomas Jr., a defensive back transfer from Northern Iowa, also has one year of eligibility remaining.

He played all 11 games for UNI and notched 44 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

The Vandals' two long snapper transfers are Xander Echols (UAB) and Dylan Fisher (Alcorn State).

Echols has two years of eligibility left, and Fisher has three.

Idaho went nine miles down the road to get its new pass catcher, Orion Peters (Washington State).

Peters played in 15 games for the Cougars and made two starts. He had 13 receptions for 138 yards and has two years of eligibility left.

The Vandals also landed linebacker Cruz Hepburn, who spent last season playing baseball for Lewis-Clark State.

The Lewiston High School product played 19 games for the Warriors and had a .308 batting average on 26 at-bats.

The last addition UI made through the transfer portal was running back Nate Thomas (South Dakota).

As a freshman in 2021, Thomas compiled 717 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 114 carries (6.3 per carry), which earned him a spot on the Missouri Valley Conference's all-freshman team.

Receiver Crew Clark and linebacker Calvin Macy are new freshman enrollees and will also be on campus for spring ball.

Clark, a 5-foot-11 receiver from Sugar City, Idaho, started at defensive back and receiver for Sugar-Salem High School.

He led the Diggers to back-to-back Idaho Class 3A state championships.

He comes to campus after serving a two-year mission in Arizona for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Macy, a 6-0 linebacker, attend Lake Oswego High School.

Macy had offers from several Big Sky and Ivy League squads but elected to play a season at the Air Force Academy prep school in Colorado.

Pixley may be contacted at, (208) 848-2268 or on Twitter @TreebTalks.