Idaho aims high in 2009

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

When Idaho opened camp earlier this month, coach Robb Akey and his staff treated the Vandals to steaks to celebrate the start of a new year.

But as the players looked for plates for their steaks, all they found were bowls.

“It’s a little thing, but I want bowls in their heads,” Akey said. “And make that be a goal.”

Since Akey arrived in 2007, the Vandals have posted a 3-21 record and they’ve won one conference game. Idaho hasn’t had a winning season since 1999 and hasn’t been to a bowl since 1998.

But Akey has confidence in this year’s squad. For the first time since he arrived, he feels like his players are strong enough and fast enough to compete with the other teams in the WAC. He now also has an experienced team that knows what he and his staff expect.

“I think, realistically, this is where you’re going to be when you’re looking at building a program,” Akey said. “It takes a period of time, especially in football with the numbers that are involved, and you take into consideration when we first came in here there were some issues.”

Akey was the fourth coach to take over the Vandals since 2003. There was no continuity and there was a lot of distrust from the players toward the coaching staff. During his first season, Akey had to dismiss 17 scholarship players, some of who were engaging in drug use and other things Akey said were detrimental to the team. The consequences of the move were two-fold. Not only did Akey dismiss almost all of the most athletic players on the team, the school also took an APR hit from the NCAA and have played with a limited number of scholarship players the past couple seasons.

“Those were kids who did have the size and speed and we’re able to help, but if they can’t do things the right way it wasn’t going to give us a strong foundation,” Akey said. “So the result of getting rid of those guys, we not only lost some depth there with guys that were upperclassmen, but then the NCAA hits you with the APR, so we lose scholarships the following year as well as initials in the next class. It was a tough situation from the start.”

It was a necessary move if Akey and his staff were going to build a program. And heading into Saturday’s game against New Mexico State, that’s what he thinks he’s done.

The Vandals return 16 players, including quarterback Nathan Enderle, running back Deonte’ Jackson and safety Shiloh Keo. Akey has encouraged competition this season and has rewarded players for winning. The team has responded with the most competitive and spirited camp in Akey's tenure.

Akey knows his team still faces challenges. The Vandals don’t have a lot of depth on either the offensive or defensive line and they’re also a little thin at linebacker, but there’s good competition at quarterback and the receivers and running backs are playing on par with some of the better skill players in the conference.

And Akey’s continued to drill the thought of bowls into his players' heads. He knows his team isn’t ready to win the conference, but he believes there are six wins on the schedule, enough to get the Vandals bowl eligible for the first time since 1999.

“I’m talking to them about bowl expectations, and I know people think Akey’s got to be crazy because Idaho won one conference game last season,” Akey said. “But there’s a fine line in the difference in a lot of the games that went one way or another regardless of what the scoreboard read. There’s a fine line in a lot of the teams in our conference.

“I really believe you never want to limit anybody’s expectations. I think you’ve got to take a realistic look at things, but if you set your goals high you’ve got a better opportunity to do it. If you don’t set those goals high, there’s no way that they can have a chance to do it.”