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Isaiah Saunders

Isaiah Saunders

MOSCOW — As far as team themes go, UI coach Paul Petrino has been stressing four key motifs to his players throughout fall camp.

The Vandals are to institute his ideals of “passion, accountability, effort and character” each day. He’s seen lots of that thus far, and although some of the “little details” of the game require some brushing up, Petrino’s been pleased with his crew’s exhibit of those morals.

And as for traits which make this group stand out? Well, it’s a bit of everything, but Petrino cited one particular quality which has protruded.

“A trait of the team I’d say is speed. I think we’re pretty fast,” Petrino said. “What we’ve tried to do recruiting, the longer we’ve been here, is get longer and faster. And I think that’s something we’ve done a pretty good job of.”

Everyone seems to have peppered their step, and that swiftness was manifest in full pads on the first morning practice of fall camp Wednesday in the Kibbie Dome.

Depth and power too, especially at the skill positions.

Isaiah Saunders, UI’s top returning rusher and one of the catalysts of the Vandals’ 2016 Potato Bowl championship, was pleased to know that his offseason work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

It was kind of hard not to heed that aspect, though. Saunders looks to have made headway in his acceleration facet, often squirting through the line with unanticipated bursts and picking up big chunks of yardage with zips around the edge.

“One thing I was definitely working on in the offseason was my speed, especially my top-end speed, you know, change of speeds, change of directions and all that,” Saunders said. “That was something I worked on for five or six months and I’ve gotta praise the coaches for that, praise my dad, my trainer back home, everybody for that.”

A power-speed brew is what the skill positions might be ticketed as. Though the bull-rushing backfield features guys who, on paper, fit the bill as a wholly brawn-based quartet (Saunders, Roshaun Johnson, Aundre Carter and Jack Bamis), Saunders doesn’t want anyone to “get it twisted.”

“We have a great mixture of power and speed. Power at the running-back level — we’ve got speed there too,” Saunders said.

Johnson, who Petrino said is the No. 2 back currently, put an exclamation point on that medley-notion early during full-team drills.

He took a zone handoff, but didn’t find much space. So he changed directions, broke two tackles at the left side of the line of scrimmage, powered past the box, stiff-armed two defenders and dashed into the open field.

It was full, to-the-ground play, so Johnson just had himself a scoring play — one which featured both quickness and force.

And zone running isn’t all the Vandals’ tailbacks will flaunt come game day.

“(Running read options) will definitely will be something that we can (do), and I think they’re (running backs) all powerful and downhill and fall forward, so I could definitely see that,” Petrino said.

UI’s ball-snatchers appear largely to personify that adroit nimbleness, but the tight ends — a position group without a clear-cut head last year — like the running backs, have a little of both. Currently, it looks like a three-man-repetition split. Kaden Elliss, Harrison Ashby and Conner Whitney have each had fine camps.

Elliss cradled about 10 receptions, a team-high, on Wednesday, and again, he looks to have augmented his knowledge of the offensive playbook. Drag routes, seems, crossers — he made plays all over the field.

But because he and Whitney are both two-way players, there’s still got to be an established guy at the spot. Petrino said it’s Ashby right now, an imposingly physical 6-4, 245-pound freshman from Boise.

Green, yes, but he won’t be without help.

“Obviously Jeff (Cotton) and Dave (Ungerer) are the front of the line, but I think DJ Lee and Cutrell (Haywood) continue to get better,” Petrino said. “Brandon Luckett’s had a good first couple days. He’s done some nice things. (Steavenson) Fernand’s done some nice things. I think (the receiving core has) a chance to be a good unit, especially with having guys that can run and catch the ball at tight end.”


Receivers Brandon Luckett and Steavenson Fernand invigorated the entire offense during one-on-one drills against defensive backs. On back-to-back snaps, they juked their defenders out of their cleats, and were met with a team-wide ballyhoo.

Jack Bamis, a cut 6-3 running back, has seen time on both sides of the ball—which makes three Vandals who go two ways (Bamis, Elliss and Whitney). He spent a chunk of time Wednesday at a stand-up defensive end spot.

David Ungerer, Michael Noil, DJ Lee and Cutrell Haywood have been rotating as kick and punt returners. Currently, it seems, all four are in a deadlock race for that spot.

Petrino noted the emergence of freshman offensive linemen Logan Floyd and Matthew Faupusa as two guys who “got a chance to be really good players.”

As of right now, according to Petrino, Harrison Ashby is the “top guy” at tight end — when Elliss isn’t in, of course.


Isaiah Saunders on his nickname, “Big Smooth”:

“I got that my freshman year. I think it was after the first three spring practices, it was just the way I ran. Coach Cink, one day — I guess he ain’t let me know — but I’m walking around upstairs by their offices and I’ve got (graduate assistants) and other coaches saying, ‘Hey Big Smooth, what’s up Big Smooth, how you doin’, Big Smooth?’ and I’m looking around like, ‘I don’t know what Big Smooth is.’ Coach Shumaker came into the running backs’ room and was like, ‘Hey, how do you like your new nickname?’ and I was like, ‘I didn’t even know that was for me.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, Coach Cink came up with it.’ It’s something that definitely stuck.”

Paul Petrino on playing two-way players:

“What we’ve kinda been doing is, one day the offense doesn’t have either one of them. The next day we have Kaden (Elliss), the next day we have Conner (Whitney) and the next day we don’t have either one of them. We keep them rotating like that. Except when we got seven-on-seven, the first half of it we have Conner and the second half we have Kaden. That’s kind of how we’ve been working the two of them on both sides of the ball.”

Petrino on the first five days:

“I think the pace has been good, I think everybody’s been working hard. It’s been pretty even until today, the offense kind of got after the defense today. Most of fall camp it’s been even and that’s what you really want, especially as the head coach, and today, I think the offense came out a little bit more fired up than the defense and got after it.”

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