NELKE: Vandals starting to get excited for Big Sky

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The fans have a pretty good idea what Idaho’s getting into when the Vandals rejoin the Big Sky Conference in football this fall.

The players are excited, but are still trying to figure out their new league.

“Obviously I don’t know the teams very well,” said Kaden Elliss, a senior linebacker/tight end from Salt Lake City who has played in the Sun Belt Conference since he arrived in Moscow.

With Idaho beginning its summer workout schedule this week, three players and head coach Paul Petrino were made available to the media Monday.

The Vandals have played Sacramento State and Montana State in recent years, so they’ve seen a couple Big Sky teams at least.

Elliss said he was familiar with the Sun Belt, which made preparation against those teams, especially the top teams on the schedule like Appalachian State and Troy, easier.

“This year, I’ve got to study everybody, because I don’t know everybody very well,” he said. “The big difference is having to spend extra time in the film room, learning these teams.”

Elliss said he’s looking forward to the game at Idaho State, because his family will have a short trip up I-15 from Salt Lake to watch.

“My fiancé’s from Spokane, and I’ll go up and hang with her and her family and friends and they’ll go, ‘Do you think you can hang with Eastern Washington? How do you think you’ll do in the Big Sky?’ I can’t wait to show them how well we’re going to compete, how well we’re going to dominate.”

PETRINO, IN his sixth season at Idaho, coached in the Big Sky roughly a quarter century ago, when he was an assistant at Idaho from 1992-94.

Idaho left the Big Sky following the 1995 season, when the Vandals moved up to what was then called NCAA Division I.

Now, they’re back in what used to be called I-AA, now called Football Championship Subdivision.

“Twenty-some years ago, when I was first here as an assistant, we used to joke, ‘first one to 50 wins,’” Petrino said. “That’s how the league was back then, and it really hasn’t changed a whole lot.”

Comparing the Sun Belt to the Big Sky, Petrino said, “If you had to look at it as a whole, you’d probably say the Sun Belt was a little more defensive dominated, and the Big Sky’s a little more offensive dominated. A lot of the teams in the Sun Belt win with their defense first, whereas in the Big Sky most teams win with their offense.

“There’s some good quarterbacks in the league, some good players in the league; it should be fun.”

ELLISS has pro football aspirations after this season. He was recruited to Idaho as a linebacker, and heads a group this season which is perhaps the strength of the team.

But he’s also played some tight end for the Vandals, and shined there as well. Petrino said he wants to use Elliss on offense as much as he can — but not at the expense of the defense.

“I’m working on getting an overall grasp of the offense,” Elliss said. “Last year, I knew maybe four or five plays. Hopefully this year I know everything, so we’re not limited to the play calls when I’m in there.

“I remember Troy, one of the safeties, said, ‘You’re running the same route.’ I said, ‘That’s all I know how to run.’”

BACK TO the “rivalries.”

Isaiah Saunders is a fifth-year senior running back. His dad, Walter, played receiver at Idaho from 1991-93 when Petrino was a Vandal assistant.

“My dad used to talk about playing against Idaho State,” Saunders recalled. “He used to make fun of how they used to imitate the Kibbie Dome with their dome.”

Who knows how the Vandals will fare in their new league.

Something called HERO Sports came out with an FCS preseason top 25 recently. Idaho was ranked 23rd. Three other Big Sky teams were ranked — Eastern Washington (No. 4), Weber State (No. 18) and UC Davis (No. 22).

David Ungerer, a fifth-year senior wide receiver, starred at nearby Pullman High. Even with that possible “local knowledge,” he’s still trying to figure out Idaho’s new league.

“Everybody seems passionate about all these Big Sky games,” Ungerer said. “Coming into this conference, the people I’ve been talking to, they’re making every game seem like a rivalry. You’ve got all these teams that want to take us down. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Idaho faithful (get excited) for these rivalry games.”

Indeed. With all the chatter from Vandal fans begging to return to a “more regional” league and the “good ’ol days” when Idaho played in the Big Sky — where the Vandals won nine conference titles as a charter member from 1963-95 — we’ll see what kind of support those fans show on Saturdays this fall in the Kibbie Dome.

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter@CdAPressSports.

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