‘There’s no secrets now’: High expectations placed on Idaho football during Big Sky media day

By Colton Clark
‘It’s a chip on our shoulder’: Big Sky media, coaches rank Eastern Washington in middle of the pack
Entering the 2022 season, Idaho’s football team was an afterthought in the Big Sky. One year later, the Vandals are now considered to be conference championship contenders.
At this time last year, Idaho wasn’t expected to make much noise in the Big Sky. The Vandals hadn’t posted a winning season from 2018 through 2021 – their first four years back in the Football Championship Subdivision. It seemed Idaho might be heading toward a rebuilding season in 2022 under first-year coach Jason Eck.
Instead, the Vandals turned heads. Powered by an impact offense – featuring an elite wide receiver duo and one of the nation’s best young quarterbacks – Idaho compiled a 7-5 record (6-2 Big Sky), tying for fourth in the conference standings and earning a berth in the FCS playoffs.
Entering the 2023 season, no one is overlooking the Vandals.
“It’s important that our team knows we’re gonna get everybody’s best shot this year,” Eck said Monday during the Big Sky’s media day at Northern Quest Resort and Casino. “We’re not gonna sneak up on anybody. Everyone is gonna be excited to play Idaho, and we gotta embrace that. It’s part of the process of growing your program.”
Big Sky media members picked the Vandals to finish second in the conference standings. Eight voters predicted Idaho to win the Big Sky. The Vandals checked in at fifth in the coaches poll, but came within seven voting points of second place.
Six Idaho players were selected to the all-conference preseason team, and fifth-year receiver Hayden Hatten earned preseason offensive MVP honors.
“It’s a huge honor and I’m very fortunate to be named that,” Hatten said. “I definitely couldn’t have done it without the people around me. … I try to stay very level-headed and never let my statistics get in the way. All I can do is trust the process, trust the brand we’re building, and I’m fortunate to be in this position.”
Hatten led the Big Sky and finished second nationally last season with 16 receiving touchdowns – a single-season program record. He topped the conference with 1,209 receiving yards and raked in numerous All-America accolades.
“He’s grown in his understanding of our offense,” Eck said of Hatten’s offseason progress. “Now, we’ll be able to move him around a lot and have him play multiple (receiver) positions. … Obviously, his best asset is just what a great catcher of the ball he is. He can make fantastic circus catches, even when he’s well-covered.
“I expect him to do great things.”
Opponents will key in on Hatten, of course, but “it’s tough to put all of your attention on stopping him, because we’ve got a very good running back and a very good secondary wide receiver,” Eck said.
Senior slot receiver Jermaine Jackson landed on the preseason all-conference team after producing 1,049 yards (second in the Big Sky) and five touchdowns last year.
“We’re always looking for ways to improve and not thinking about what we did last year,” said Jackson, who joined Hatten and Eck at the media day. “We just feed off each other.”
The Vandals were one of four teams in the FCS to boast two 1,000-yard receivers.
“Having a guy like J.J. next to me is fantastic,” added Hatten. “Vandal football is a fun, exciting brand of football to watch. We have a lot of weapons.”
Sophomore quarterback Gevani McCoy, the reigning Jerry Rice Award winner (FCS freshman of the year), earned a preseason All-Big Sky nod after an impressive debut season that saw him throw for 2,719 yards and 27 TDs against seven interceptions.
“We’ve talked a lot about growing as a leader and he’s responded well to that,” Eck said of McCoy. “A telling sign is that he was voted a captain by his teammates, and he was really the top vote-getter.”
Sophomore tailback Anthony Woods was also recognized on the preseason all-conference team. He paced Idaho last year with 872 rushing yards and three TDs. Veteran cornerback Marcus Harris was Idaho’s lone defender on the preseason All-Big Sky list. He tallied 14 pass deflections last season, tying for third in Idaho single-season history. Senior placekicker Ricardo Chavez, an All-Big Sky second-teamer last season, also landed on the preseason all-conference team.
“We got six guys on the first-team all-conference team coming in, and we only had one last year,” Eck said. “But probably what is going to determine a lot of our season is the guys who weren’t on there.”
Idaho is well-provisioned at the skill positions, but there’s work to do elsewhere. The Vandals will be conducting position battles on their offensive and defensive lines, and looking to find replacements for a few departures at the linebacker positions during fall camp, which kicks off Monday.
The Vandals open their season Aug. 31 at Lamar.
“Everyone is gonna give us their best shot,” Jackson said. “I like being that team. There’s no secrets now. The sky’s the limit for us. We just gotta go get it.”

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