Thursday, February 5, 2009

Getting Out Our Crystal Ball

Okay, so I stole this photo from the Northwestern Rivals site, but it still fits: here's what I think we think we know about the state of the Idaho State football program as of Feb. 5, 2009.

First, you get all the disclaimers: 1) I haven't seen ONE of Idaho State's recruits play, so I really can offer nothing about their potential abilities. 2) A fair number of the athletes who signed letters of intent or scholarship agreements Wednesday will never see the field as Bengals. 3) There will be changes between now and the kickoff of the Western Montana game -- new players that no one knows yet will arrive; and there will be players who ended last season as contributors, or who signed with ISU yesterday, who will not show up for fall practice next August, and may never step foot in Pocatello again.

How do I know this? Paul Nix, Peter Anderson, Cody Clark, Travis DeRaad, Taylor Kerbs, Darin McDonald, Kevin Nelson, Dane Edmunson, Craig Garnett, Kenny Helmandollar, Scott Jossis, Wiliam Liebert, Ernie Pierce, Pete Richter, Colby Robison, Matt Johnson, Tyrus Beckwith, Eric Bullen, Devin Clark, Ryan Hunt, Bruce Minnett, John Morales, Todd Parker, Jimmy Recourt, Morris Wooten: these are all players who signed with Idaho State over the last five years who made virtually no impact on the playing field.

So given all those unknowns, here's what we can deduce at this point, anyway. First, I believe it's obvious that ISU Coach John Zamberlain and his staff have been given the backing of the administration to rebuild this program the right way. That's not to be naive, and conclude the Bengal coaching staff didn't work hard to find some immediate help for their 1-11 team through the junior college ranks. Hopefully, the handful of JC offensive and defensive linemen they signed Thursday will be able to step right in and fill the most gaping holes -- at left tackle on the offfensive line, and just about anywhere on the d-line. I can almost guarantee you that Jarrid Nash, the 245-pound inside linebacker, will be on the field just about every down the Bengals go with three linebackers.

If Nash's fellow JC recruits on the defensive side of the ball don't pan out, well Bengal fans can at least take heart in the sheer numbers of defensive linemen -- nine -- who signed on the dotted line Wednesday. I hope that Zamberlin and defensive coordinator Brian Strandley are not shy about putting true freshmen on the field at the beginning of the season, and allowing them to take their lumps and get beneficial experience. The Bengals gave a few true freshmen, most notably linemen Braeden Clayson and Kevin and Kyle Whimpey, only tastes of action last fall -- just enough to use a year of eligibility, but not enough to qualify as a real growth experience. Hopefully this fall, the coaching staff will make early decisions about which of the freshmen will see the field, and then let them get their feet wet.

Defensive line is a good place to execute that policy -- typically, the Bengals will play eight different linemen in a game, so theoretically you won't be over-exposing freshmen who may not be physically or mentally mature enough to be on the field for 40 plays. ISU can mix in the most mature freshmen linemen with the two JC transfers and holdovers like Jake Rouser, Jeff Tuua, Sean Rutten, Mykel Durr, David Tyler and Jason Jones.

At linebacker, Nash joins holdovers Nic Edgson and J.T. Albers in competition for playing time at the inside position; Philip Arias, who started most of last season, Jeremy Gibson and Daniel Urias return on the outside. I can see a position change or two coming to upgrade the depth here, perhaps Keith Goins moving up from the secondary. I can also see some late recruiting additions at this position.

The secondary is another place where I'm pretty sure the coaching staff would have liked to add some experienced depth, but they wound up with only one nominal DB recruit: freshman Cameron Gupton. That leaves Michael Wright, Kelvin Miller, A.J. Storms and Chris Holmesly as the likley starters, with redshirt freshman Phillip Pleasant a highly-regarded candidate for playing time, and a bunch of role players and other redshirts left to provide the depth (although there is rumor of a D-1 transfer from Nevada rumbling around the message boards.)

So in analyzing the defense, in all honesty, no matter how good this recruiting class turns out to be, it will likely be another tough year for the Bengals. The best they can hope for is that there is a lot of good, young talent among the redshirt freshmen and the incoming recruits. An improvement in speed and athleticism would be a good start, and the young kids can build strength over time.

Offensively, the Bengals needed immediate help in three areas -- at left tackle, in the backfield and at wide receiver. Most importantly, they need to add speed to the program at just about every skilled position.

They signed a couple of JC offensive linemen who, one can surmise, will be in competition to fill that left tackle spot. The other four starting O-line jobs return incumbents, but beyond Clayson and redshirt freshman Kyle McGuire, there's not much depth. But hey, the Bengals are used to playing five or six offensive linemen for an entire game, so this will not be a new experience.

At running back we have been told the Bengals are not done recruiting just yet, so here's hoping they bring in a dynamic JC player who can bring some speed to the position. Holdover Clint Knickhrem and redshirt Ben LaPorta are power back types, and who knows if incoming freshmen Skylar Morgan is ready to contribute? You know the coaches would prefer not to have to find out.

I was pleased to see the Bengals sign several wide receiver candidates who appear to fill two upcoming needs -- tall outside receivers, and speedy slot guys. I'm just going on what I read about the incoming freshmen, of course, but if you can believe numbers and track times, it looks like the Bengals got themselves some playmakers at this position. That is critical given the departure of Eddie Thompson and Kenyon Blue, last season's two most gifted offensive weapons.

Finally, I like the fact ISU brought in two freshmen quarterbacks to cultivate, while Kyle Blum and Russell Hill finish out their careers competing for the starting job. For some reason, ISU has had difficulty "growing their own" QBs over the years, frequently falling back on JC or four-year transfers when their freshmen signees didn't pan out. Here's hoping one of the two incoming freshmen break that trend.

Depending on whether ISU can land that "home run hitter" at tailback, the Bengal offense will likely be at least serviceable next year. A lot will ride on who wins the quarterback competition and how they perform under fire. Overall, this is a team that appears to be on the uptick from a talent perspective. It may not be reflected in the record next year, particularly early on when ISU has to take on Arizona State and Oklahoma, but the goal should be to show marked improvement and real potential as the season goes on. Follow that with another recruiting class like this year's, and you may finally see the program begin the long arc upward.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Big Sky: It's All About the Guards

If you follow Big Sky basketball at all, you've probably heard it said more than once: "The Big Sky is a guard's league." But what does that mean? Well, you could have seen no better object lesson than the Weber State-Idaho State series completed last weekend. The Wildcats won both games with great guard play. Exhibit A:

Kellen McCoy, 5-foot-4 inches tall (above), had 14 rebounds in the two games for the Wildcats. David Busma, 7-feet-tall, and Lucas Steijn, 6-foot-11, combined for seven rebounds for the Bengals.

McCoy best embodied the athleticism, quickness and mental toughness that gave Weber State the advantage over the Bengals from the beginning of the second half of game one all the way through game two of the series. The little junior college transfer from Norman, Okla. executed the two signature plays of each game. In the first, he stole a potential offensive rebound from Demetrius Monroe that could have resulted in a tied game in overtime, and led a fast-break the other way to give the Wildcats a two-possession lead that broke ISU's will. In game two, with ISU having clawed back into the game and down by three with four minutes to go, McCoy rose up over two Bengal defenders to drain a three-pointer as the shot clock was expiring. That led Weber on a 20-point run that put the game away.

In addition to those 14 rebounds, McCoy accumulated 26 points, 6 assists and 6 steals in the two games, while he and his fellow Weber guard mates drove their Bengal counterparts crazy with their aggressive, in your face defense. Damian Lillard, a true freshman, finished the two-game set with 32 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. Daviian Davis, the jumping-jack small forward/off guard, came off the bench to combine for 32 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals.

The Weber double-dip simply reinforced what most Big Sky basketball observers have known for years -- it's great to recruit the occasional "impact" big man if you can find one, but guards win games in the Big Sky Conference.

You probably all remember last year when the Bengal coaching staff talked about the need to get a "true center" -- and then went out and got the 7-foot Busma. The coaches even talked about the possibility of playing both Busma and Steijn together at times, creating a real "twin towers" set-up. But here the Bengals were in the final minutes of regulation and overtime against Weber State Thursday night, and who was on the floor? Felix Caspari and Monroe, two 6-6 small forwards, and three guards. Busma had been banished since the three minute mark of the first half and Steijn was once again a victim of foul problems.

The Wildcats, meanwhile, were getting big plays from their three guards/wings and Kyle Bullinger, a 6-6 SF.

College basketball has long been a "guard's game," but nowhere is that more in evidence than in the Big Sky. Take a look at the top 10 scorers in the league -- eight of them are guards or small forwards. Who was last year's Most Valuable Player? That would be 5-foot-6 Jeremiah Dominguez of Portland State. Who will likely be this year's MVP? My early bet is the diminutive McCoy, who tops the league-leading Wildcats in scoring and ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring, assists and steals.

Even the best "big men" in the league are players like Divaldo Mbunga of Montana State and Jabril Banks of Northern Colorado, two post players in the athletic, 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 mold. And a team like Idaho State, which actually has some size at its disposal, hasn't found a way to fully utilize it. Busma, who has made 58 percent of his field goal attempts, has attempted only 90 shots -- which ranks him sixth on the team, behind four guards and Monroe. Steijn, who is shooting 50 percent from the floor, has attempted only 68 shots.

When I talk to the opposing coaches in the league, they all marvel over Idaho State's "length" and "size." But ask them who they are going to focus their defense on, and it's two guards -- Amorrow Morgan and Matt Stucki. It's true, their 6-5 and 6-6 size gives them a decided advantage over many of the guards in the league, but even with Idaho State, it all starts at the guard line.

--Brad B.

And thanks for being a Bengal fan, it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.