Vandals open practice with high expectations, emotions
MOSCOW – The air crackled before Idaho’s first 2016 practice with the excitement of a team whose expectations are unusually and unabashedly high.
While many teams (and even more politicians) have spent this summer trying to downplay expectations, the Vandals are setting lofty goals: the third bowl game in school history, and even more.
And the players acknowledge that hasn’t always been the case.
“Oh, yeah, there’s a big change,” said defensive lineman Tueni Lupeamanu. “On our shirts it says, ‘Expect to win,’ and Coach (Paul) Petrino goes over that with us a lot. We have a totally different mindset. When I first stepped on campus it was kind of iffy.”
Starting quarterback Matt Linehan, whose presence drives many of those expectations, shares a similar sentiment.
“Three years ago I couldn’t tell you how it was going to be going into camp, what our mindset was,” Linehan said. “But definitely the first couple days here you can sense a sense of excitement in that locker room and all throughout the building.”
“The bar isn’t six wins,” tight end Buck Cowan said. “It’s nine or 10.”
That aura of expectations doesn’t extend far beyond the Moscow city limits. Already smarting from the news that the Sun Belt does not want the Vandals beyond 2018 (UI will then join the FCS Big Sky Conference), the media picked UI to finish eighth in its 11-team league this year, despite a team full of returnees from last year’s squad.
The Vandals fell two wins short of a bowl a year ago, and blew two late leads that could have sent them to the postseason.
Not much can be read into a team’s first practice. The Vandals were in helmets only, and will have another helmets-only practice and two in shells before they can don their full pads. But Linehan’s presence alone made it a successful first day.
The three-year starter under center injured his foot last season and underwent an extensive rehab process that prevented him from participating in spring football and summer offseason workouts.
“Today was a huge step forward for me,” Linehan said. “It was my first real team action since Texas State, so get a chance to get back in there and get back in the swing of things. It’s been a long road to recovery, a lot of rehab, but it was all worth it for today.”
Linehan’s health will be a major storyline throughout the season. Backup quarterback Jake Luton transferred during the offseason, leaving the Vandals with only a pair of local freshmen behind Linehan.
Pullman High’s Mason Petrino, the coach’s son, enters camp as the third-string quarterback, while Coeur d’Alene’s Gunnar Amos, who redshirted last season, will be Linehan’s primary backup. Both appeared to throw the ball well on Thursday, but the passing game bogged down because of an abundance of dropped passes.
Those miscues did not dampen the mood for a team that finally feels ready for a breakout season.
“I just think it’s a more confident vibe,” Paul Petrino said. “The expectations are higher, all the players are more confident and they all know what to expect. They know how we do things but there are just a lot more confidence with the players.”