With the 2016 college football season just four months away, the Idaho football team has wrapped up weeks of spring competition in preparation for the fall.
The Vandals will be looking to earn a berth in a bowl game for the first time since 2009, following a breakout 4-8 record last year in the Sun Belt.
The 2016-2017 Idaho schedule consists of eight conference games and four nonconference matchups, including games against Big Sky opponent Montana State and regional rival Washington State.
While the team will be looking to fill the void left behind by graduates Quinton Bradley and Elijhaa Penny, several athletes have already stepped up for the program and showcased their abilities this spring.
Matt Linehan â€“ Quarterback
Quarterback Matt Linehan will be returning to the helm for the Vandal offense, despite a strong spring showing from sophomore Jake Luton.
The junior threw for 2,972 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, maintaining a quarterback efficiency rating of 135.
The quarterback showcased an improved intelligence at the position following his experience with the Vandal offense last year.
Injuries are the only detriment to the quarterbackâ€™s performance.
Last year, Linehan missed the teamâ€™s road game at Arkansas State with a foot injury. He also missed the entirety of the spring season recovering from foot surgery.
Despite the lack of spring repetitions, Linehan is projected to resume on-field activities this summer, providing the junior with an ample amount of time to prepare for the season. If he suffers another injury, the team possesses a strong backup in Luton, who has displayed growth and progression this spring.
Fans should expect Linehan to surpass the majority of his statistics from last season. The Vandals possess a deep core of wide receivers, providing the quarterback with a wide variety of receiving options to choose from.
Aaron Duckworth â€“ Running back
With the departure of Penny, the Vandals entered the spring with a murky picture of the running back battle.
A trio of young running backs emerged as potential replacements for Penny. Idaho head coach Paul Petrino named junior Aaron Duckworth, redshirt freshman Denzal Brantley and sophomore Isaiah Saunders as the three main athletes competing for the role at the beginning of the spring.
Duckworthâ€™s consistency in April, coupled with his previous experience on the college gridiron, provides the junior with the necessary tools to take the backfield for the Vandals this fall.
Duckworth rushed for 289 yards on 73 attempts for Idaho last season, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The junior also recorded three rushing touchdowns over the course of the year.
While Idaho is primarily a passing-oriented offense, Duckworthâ€™s contribution to the running game will prove vital in establishing a balanced counterattack to catch opposing defenses off guard.
Deon Watson â€“ Tight end/wide receiver
Senior Deon Watsonâ€™s versatility and speed provide the Vandals with a unique asset at tight end.
The senior is quicker than the majority of his peers at the position, allowing Watson to consistently line up outside as a receiver.
Idaho head coach Paul Petrino noted the senior has progressed in his blocking abilities, providing Vandal offensive line with an additional boost to the running game.
Watson had 42 receptions for 551 yards for the Vandals last year. The tight end also led the team with seven touchdown receptions.
Watson will likely combine with senior wide receiver Callen Hightower to provide the bulk of the receiving yardage for the Idaho offense in the fall.
Noah Johnson â€“ Guard
In perhaps the most surprising performance of the spring, freshman guard Noah Johnson took the majority of reps with the first-team offensive line.
The 6-foot-4-inch Arkansas recruit joined the Vandals in January after graduating from Fayetteville High School the month before. Johnson was named the 7A West Outstanding Offensive Lineman during his senior season with Fayetteville.
Petrino has not been shy about starting young players who display a talent for the game, and Johnson appears to possess the skillset to contribute to the program in a starting role.
The young guard will immediately face a tough challenge during his first few games with the team. The Vandals travel on the road to face potential AP Top 25 teams in Washington State and Washington early in the season.
Johnsonâ€™s performance against these Pac-12 powerhouse programs could allow fans to catch a glimpse of the teamâ€™s future on the offensive line.
Tueni Lupeamanu â€“ Defensive line
The departure of Bradley left a huge hole in the already slim Vandal defensive line.
Senior Tueni Lupeamanu stepped up into a leadership role for the defense this spring, providing Idaho with a strong and competitive presence in the trenches.
The Vandals have struggled with containing the running game of Sun Belt opponents. This was highlighted by the teamâ€™s performance against Appalachian State, as the Mountaineers rushed for 401 yards against Idaho in the Kibbie Dome.
Lupeamanu had 38 tackles for the Vandals last year and provided constant defensive pressure in the backfield of opposing offenses.
The impact of the Lupeamanu will be a deciding factor in slowing the rushing attack of conference opponents.
Kaden Elliss â€“ Linebacker
As a true freshman, Elliss recorded 88 total tackles last year and was responsible for eight tackles for a loss from the linebacker position.
With a year of college football experience under his belt, Elliss will take the field in an attempt to bolster the Vandal defense with a strong pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Although Elliss only recorded one sack last season, he was responsible for four quarterback hurries during blitz packages.
If the sophomore can improve upon his freshman season with the program, he will provide a key role for the Vandal defense during the fall.
Jordan Grabski â€“ Defensive back
Although defensive back Jordan Grabski dealt with injuries last year, the junior finished as the teamâ€™s sixth leading player in total tackles.
The junior seems to perform his best against elite opponents. Grabski recorded 12 total tackles against SEC powerhouse Auburn and made 10 tackles against Sun Belt heavyweight Georgia Southern last season.
Now that the defensive back is fully healthy, Grabski will anchor a secondary that had six interceptions and 31 deflected passes last year.
Although the junior had a relatively quiet spring, his presence as a defensive back could prove to be the deciding factor in defending the passing game of Sun Belt opponents.