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‘It’s great to be out there:’ Idaho football finally takes Zoom lessons to the field

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 27, 2020

By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

MOSCOW, Idaho – When they get to play games, if they get to play games, Idaho’s football players should be packed with more knowledge than a PhD dissertation.

As a result of the on-again, off-again schedule forced on them by the evolving response to the coronavirus, the Vandals have spent a greater amount of time from a variety of perspectives installing their offense and defense than in any other season, head coach Paul Petrino said.

Over the summer, coaches and players communicated via Zoom meetings. In August, they were permitted to go through walk-throughs in preparation for a hastily arranged nonconference meeting with Temple after the virus blew up their original season.

When that game was axed as the Big Sky Conference announced its members would move all football to the spring, the Vandals returned to Zoom. Finally, this fall the team has been allowed to adopt a spring football-like regimen of 15 practices, sessions that are ongoing and that include scrimmages.

“We’ve had real good energy,” Petrino said. “We’re improving all the time. It’s great to be out there and playing some football.”

The heavy reliance on virtual coaching may pay unexpected dividends.

“I think they understand it a lot better,” Petrino said of his players. “They got way more mental reps and mental work.

“Definitely, mentally-wise, it has helped a ton. All that extra work and Zoom meetings lets them understand the game of football better, too.”

Among returning players, Petrino first pointed to linebackers. Last season’s leading tackler and All-Big Sky second-team linebacker Tre Walker, first-team All-Big Sky linebacker Christian Elliss and Charles Akanno, who was having a monster year before getting injured in the eighth game, have all been standouts this fall, as has defensive lineman Nate DeGraw.

“He’s done some really good things,” Petrino said of DeGraw.

Idaho is in need of a new starting quarterback following the graduation of Mason Petrino and Colton Richardson’s decision to sit out the year for health reasons. Mike Beaudry, a graduate transfer from Connecticut, has impressed this fall, as has freshman C.J. Jordan, from Portland.

“He’s got a great future here,” Petrino said of Jordan.

Junior Logan Floyd, who has experience starting for the Vandals at tackle and center, continues to lead the offensive line. But Petrino noted a pair of California freshmen, Nate Azzopardi, from Pacifica, and Elijah Sanchez, of Palm Springs, have also settled in quickly.

Another junior, Logan Kendall, who specializes in moving defenders from the tight end and fullback positions, “is kind of dominating there,” Petrino said.

Sophomore Hayden Hatten started three games for the Vandals as a tight end last year. This fall, he has been moved to wide receiver.

“He’s going to have a lot bigger role,” Petrino said.

Petrino also pointed to sophomore running back Nick Romano as a standout in offseason practices.

Following the fall workouts, Idaho will reconvene as a team when the second semester begins in January.

After two weeks of walk-throughs, agility and conditioning work, the Vandals will begin preparing for opponents.

All this is in service to a spring schedule that remains a work in progress.

“It will be nice to get it and know exactly when and who we are playing,” Petrino said.

Petrino still doesn’t know how many games Idaho will play.

“As many as they will let us,” he said.

To merely get to this point, the Vandals have needed optimism and discipline.

“Everybody has to be disciplined,” Petrino said. “I am proud of the guys. They have done a great job of working at it.”

While the Vandals have had players test positive for coronavirus, none has recently. Petrino said under the leadership of Chris Walsh, director of athletic training services, Idaho has developed protocols among the best in the nation for limiting exposure to the virus and mitigating its effects on the team.

“People can come in from across the country and see what we’re doing,” Petrino said.

Such measures require the Vandals to realize it’s not a typical season, Petrino said.

“You have got to stick with the guys you live with,” he said. “Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Do everything in your power to be as careful as you can be to keep yourself and your teammates healthy.”

While experiences among Big Sky teams vary depending on state, county and institutional regulations, including some schools where players haven’t gathered yet, Petrino said coaches’ meetings have shown him that most Big Sky teams have more in common than not.

For a football season that will begin in winter, the Kibbie Dome could give Idaho an advantage.

“We have that dome to go in and practice,” Petrino said.

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