Understanding the 'why'

Oct. 26—There are definitely some offensive coordinators from the Football Bowl Subdivision who would love to work with the weapons Idaho OC Luke Schleusner has in his arsenal.

The playmakers on the Vandal offense include, but are not limited to, reigning Jerry Rice Award winner Gevani McCoy and two former 1,000-yard receivers, Hayden Hatten and Jermaine Jackson.

Idaho's firepower on offense is well documented. But Schleusner and the coaching staff can take credit for player development, leading all three of them to career years last season.

This year, the offense has been focused on taking the next step mentally by better understanding the minute details of the offense.

"I just think across the board, guys are more confident," Schleusner said. "They're playing faster. It's Year 2 in the system, and guys are understanding the concepts. Last year was kind of algebra 1, and this year we've moved on to calculus. It's a lot more fun as a coach too because we can expand on things and guys have a lot more knowledge of the offense."

The coaching staff began expanding on the mental side of the game with "football school," a weekly meeting to discuss the 'why' behind what they do on the field.

"If their why to do something is because coach Schleusner said so, that's a bad why," he said. "So we want them to understand the game, understand concepts, understand defenses and understand how we're attacking people so that it makes sense to them."

As for the efforts on the gridiron, the biggest jump in Year 2 of Schleusner's offense came in the backfield. The running back tandem of sophomore Anthony Woods and senior Nick Romano have combined for 1,026 yards rushing through seven games.

During the offseason the pair of runners were challenged by the coaching staff to become more complete football players. And so far, they've more than delivered on their request. Woods leads the conference in rushing yards (703), and Romano is on track for a career year.

"We challenged Anthony to be a complete football player," Schleusner said. "He's done that, and he's playing at a high level. Then Romano was in a tough situation. But credit to Nick; he stuck it out. Again, another complete back. Those are the types of players that strive in this offense: complete football players."

McCoy, the Vandals' signal caller, has also made a dramatic leap.

The Vandals' QB1 has been under duress a lot this season. But his escapability has quickly become one of his best traits. And while these situations have been exciting to watch and have sometimes led to big plays, they've also led to some mistakes. Despite this, the Baldwin Hills, Calif., native's calmness under pressure, another key trait of his, speaks volumes about his development.

"I think his confidence is through the roof, and he's playing fast at a high level," Schleusner said. "Not all of the turnovers have been his fault. There's been a couple of balls he's forced. But there's a couple between pass protection or maybe a wrong route. He never gets down, even when he makes a mistake. He's ready to learn from it and get to the next play."

The final set of Vandal A-listers, Jackson and Hatten, have dominated the target share for the second year in a row, accounting for more than half of Idaho's receptions and yards. But up until its 23-21 loss to Montana on Oct. 14, the pair were kept out of the end zone relatively well.

Hatten was held to two scores in six games until his two TD game against the Grizzlies, where he broke the program's all-time TD reception record (28). But for the most part, teams have dialed in on the Phoenix native, especially in the red zone, resulting in him being double-covered most of the time.

In order to counteract this, Schleusner has been dialing up RPOs (run, pass option) in this situation, and it has greatly benefited the run game.

"We tell the QB if Hatten has one-on-one coverage, take advantage of it, and throw him the football," Schleusner said. "We've got a lot of that last year and took advantage of it. This year, teams have been cognizant of him, and he's attracted more defenders. So when they double-team him, it leaves one less hat in the run game. It's been a huge benefit to our run game to have one less guy to block."

As for Jackson, he's continued to be the Vandals' big play guy, having 23 receptions for 366 yards. He's contributed in multiple ways this season with the ball in his hands, whether that's from a deep reception or a big gainer off a screen.

He's also been the perfect recipient or decoy for Idaho's trick plays because defense always has to account for No. 1 when the ball is in his hands.

"I think I'm doing a better job this season of getting them called," Schleusner said of the trick plays. "You kind of have to have a plan for when you want to call them. The players love them; they ask me all week or when we're going into the game what we're going to have for trick plays."

So, who ends up scoring if opposing defenses are focused on Jackson and Hatten? The tight ends.

Idaho has three tight ends with two touchdown receptions each, which is a major jump from last year, when the group had just one TD catch.

"It's been nice to see those guys step up," Schleusner said. "They all have unique skill sets. The thing about the tight end is that, just where they are in the formation, they have a better chance of popping wide open as opposed to a wide receiver, where they don't have busted coverage that often. With linebackers and safeties, you can put those guys in a tough spot with their eyes with play action."

The effort to develop Idaho's offense to where it is today has been a team effort, with each position coach bringing something to the table.

"I think that's what it's about: not having egos, and the best idea wins," Schleusner said. "It doesn't matter whose idea it was. So the guys have done a great job. I'm fortunate to have coach Eck, Linehan, Booth and Ford. Everybody does a great job of bringing things to the table."

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