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UI looks to build on 2009

Vandals say success wasn’t anomaly

By Josh Wright Correspondent

MOSCOW, Idaho – The Idaho football team met in mid-January, its first time together since the program’s defining victory of the last decade, and quickly the focus became the season eight months down the road.

After an eight-win year and memorable 43-42 triumph over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl, everyone from soon-to-be seniors to redshirt freshmen didn’t want to forget 2009 – but they also knew it was time to move on. Even before the city of Moscow threw them a post-bowl parade.

“I think those kids understand what is in front of us,” coach Robb Akey said. “We’ve got a reason to have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”

During his remarks at the WAC media days last week, Akey mentioned several times how some will view the Vandals as “one-shot wonders.” But the fourth-year coach saw 2009 merely as the next step in cultivating a long-lasting program.

How UI will respond to last year’s success will start to be revealed Thursday, when the Vandals open fall camp with a 3:30 practice at their outdoor field. They’ll scrimmage three times and go through three weeks of training before starting preparations for their Sept. 2 opener against North Dakota at the Kibbie Dome.

Most of the uncertainty at the start of camp revolves around an unproven offensive line – just one starter, left tackle Matt Cleveland, returns – and a veteran-but-vulnerable defense that brings back 10 starters from last year.

Yet the Vandals also must prove they can thrive under wildly different circumstances. Entering fall camp last year, Akey’s record at Idaho was 3-21 after two seasons. He and his predecessors had combined for just six WAC wins in the team’s first four years in the league.

In the first month of last season, UI eclipsed the three-win mark and went on to reach a bowl for the first time since 1998.

As a reward, Akey has a new five-year contract that will pay him nearly $356,000 this season – up from $258,000 last year.

But that’s not all that changed in the offseason. Quarterbacks coach Jonathan Smith left for the University of Montana, and Akey responded by handing Smith’s duties to offensive coordinator Steve Axman while hiring Al Pupunu to coach tight ends.

While the offensive staff was reshuffled, much of the team’s key personnel returns. Quarterback Nathan Enderle enters his senior year as a four-year starter and is “slated to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” Akey said.

The strong-armed Nebraskan will have a fleet of experienced targets to throw to, including deep threat Maurice Shaw, top tight end Daniel Hardy and lanky receiver Eric Greenwood. Skilled wideout Preston Davis is recovering from knee surgery and could be back early in the season.

“I think we’ve got a good football team coming back,” Akey said. “If we handled the summer season well, that gives us a chance. Now we’ve got to take the fall camp season. If we can handle that well, that gives us a chance when we get into the beginning of the season.”

Because they play at Hawaii this season, the Vandals were allowed to have a 13-game schedule. They’ll play five non-conference games – headlined by a trip to Nebraska on Sept. 11 – before starting WAC play on Oct. 16 at Louisiana Tech.

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