New University of Idaho linebackers coach John Graham must feel like he bought a house and found the former owner left a trio of luxury vehicles in the garage and a note: “They’re yours. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Graham, who joined the Vandals in February, replaced Eric Brown, who moved on to UNLV after five years at Idaho. Graham now has the keys to what is likely to be a premier linebacking corps in the Big Sky Conference, featuring three senior starters.
All-Sun Belt first-teamer Tony Lashley led the Vandals last year with 123 total tackles, including two sacks.
Kaden Elliss, a Sun Belt second-team selection, made 80 tackles last year, 16 for loss. He recorded six sacks and also caught seven passes, with two touchdowns.
Ed Hall was a Sun Belt honorable mention with 78 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions. Hall also made the College Sports Information Directors of America’s All-Academic District team. A mechanical engineering major, Hall is excused from the first 90 minutes of spring drills on Mondays to take a machine component design class, which may be tougher than football practice.
“But I did pretty well on the last test,” Hall said. “I got a 98.”
“These guys have played a lot of football here and made a lot of plays,” Graham said of the seniors. “I stepped in a room with high expectations.”
Behind the starters, the Vandals have a bench full of promising young linebackers.
Christian Elliss could already play regularly for many teams. He saw action in all of Idaho’s games last year as a freshman. He made 31 tackles and intercepted a pass.
Graham’s son, Ty, a junior from Cheney, played in eight games and made 28 tackles, four for loss.
Aaron Pue, a redshirt junior, and Kyle Perry, a redshirt freshman from Sandpoint, are taking advantage of regular reps this spring. Although it was only a bag drill, redshirt freshman Christian Blackburn in a recent practice displayed quickness and textbook low-pad level.
“The older guys are teaching the younger guys,” Graham said. “Not many of those guys have played much football here.”
Among the starters, Graham notes Hall’s intelligence. He said Lashley is going to be one of the best inside linebackers in the Big Sky and Elliss is a fantastic playmaker.
In practices this spring, Elliss has lined up as a linebacker, defensive end and receiver.
“If any guy on the team can do it, it’s Kaden,” Graham said. “Everything we’ve asked on defense, he’s done it.”
Graham likens the three to the linebacking corps he had in 2010, when he was the defensive coordinator for Football Championship Subdivision national champion Eastern Washington. That group was led by J.C. Sherritt, Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year and winner of the Buck Buchanan Award, honoring the outstanding FCS defensive player.
Graham coached at EWU from 2008-2016. He was defensive coordinator for seven seasons.
Before that, Graham spent 13 years at Central Washington University as a defensive backs and linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. He was part of a staff than won an NAIA championship in 1995.
After a year away from football, Graham returns to the game with Idaho.
“The juices get flowing in a hurry,” Graham said. “It’s awesome to be a part of it. It’s like I never left.”
While he is refining techniquewith the Vandals this spring, Graham is also wise enough to coach with a light touch, to “get out of their way” and let his proven seniors do their thing.
With the Vandals about one-third of the way through spring workouts, Lashley said practices for the defense are going well.
“It feels good,” he said. “Everybody is flying around.”
Lashley relishes the opportunity for one final season with his talented linebacking teammates.
“It’s just like having brothers next to you,” he said. “Our chemistry is unmatched.”
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