Vandals show strength in battles on the line

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MOSCOW — Considering the month he’s had, it’s not surprising just how drenched in sweat Idaho offensive tackle Logan Floyd was post-practice on Friday.

On any given day at the Kibbie Dome, he’s at his outside spot — where Phil Steele awarded him a freshman All-American credit last year — clashing with Kayode Rufai, Idaho’s tallest defender at 6-foot-4 and an imposing Boise State transfer.

In an instant, Floyd might swing to center, where his instructive role has inflated because offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Kris Cinkovich wants “the five best players on the field.”

“We gotta make sure it’s a good snap; we gotta get the O-line pointed in the right direction, the running backs, stuff like that,” Floyd said..

Then there’s the personnel before him. There’ll be no breaks for Floyd against one of Idaho’s 350-pounders, either former Mississippi State commit Noah Elliss or juco product Jonah Kim.

“In the Big Sky, I haven’t really seen anybody that size,” Floyd said. “With them, we’ve gotta stay low, get an inside hand definitely, because if not, we’re getting bull-rushed back.”

Judging by his face, it’s been tough.

The Vandals’ defensive line doesn’t look like 2018’s, with one consistent edge rusher and little inside pressure. On its face, there’s speed on the corners and a pair of faster-than-they-look bulls inside.

It’s not like Floyd’s losing, either. He’s often stalemated the beefy interior and sealed the edge, solidifying himself as one-fifth of Idaho’s most experienced group of hogs, with almost 90 combined starts, in three years — along with walls like fellow All-American Noah Johnson, the strong guard, and longtime Vandal center/guard rotator Conner Vrba.

Combative trench wars like Floyd’s have become perhaps the most engaging watch during Vandal fall camp.

For Floyd, it’s been bruising inside and a race to positioning at the line’s exterior. Floyd vs. Rufai, one of the best “scraps,” Cinkovich said, is defined by quick feet, like most outside battles.

And rhythm.

“(Cinkovich) calls it playing the piano,” said Floyd, whom the coach has lauded for pass-protection development. “As we set, we keep our hands low to keep our pad level low, then as we strike, we bring it up.”

Sometimes, Rufai’s walled from the tackling dummy; otherwise, he claws, rips and dashes his way in, taking advantage of any lift in an O-lineman’s stance.

“Our versatility — we have dudes from myself, to (buck Charles Akanno), who’s just fast, really fast,” Rufai said of the D-line’s top facet. “The more of a threat you are on the field, the more they have to respect every player.”

Rufai points to the D-line’s cohesion and deep rotation as a trait to be respected. As for the O-line, he admires its ability to disguise sets and sell run-pass options.

Its veteran wiliness and heightened use of RPOs aids Rufai and Co. in play recognition translating to Big Sky play.

At Boise State, Rufai played the dive frequently, but defensive line coach Luther Elliss — whose 10-year NFL background helped recruit Rufai — has stressed reading the mesh, which means playing freely, surveying the quarterback and running back, then making snap judgments.

To be sure that speedsters don’t burn Idaho outside — like last year — Elliss has also emphasized a workout.

“Lunging is really gonna help us turn the corner and get around that edge. ... We’ve been focusing on speed, but also on being violent and powerful,” said jack/buck rover Theo Griffin, whom Elliss name-dropped as one of five less experienced players to have developed quickly, alongside Carlos Collado, Correy Quinn, Luke Nemec and Nate DeGraw.

The packed rotation is about athleticism — decreasing strings of reps equates to hardiness, and full effort. Stamina is where the D-line’s topped the O.

But he admits there’s a ways to go. The big interior guys aren’t fully in shape, and have been playing a bit high.

“To be high and still hold the point, that’s good. That’s really good,” Elliss said. “Now, if we can get the pad level, we should be putting people in the backfield and causing havoc.”

The two have still triggered chaos, albeit limited thus far thanks to a resilient O-line. Two expected starters in guards Johnson and Matthew Faupusa will miss the next week or two, Johnson with a tweaked shoulder and Faupusa with an undisclosed leg injury.

Guards Brian Robinson, Bruce Burns and Darius Archie have filled the void, with Vrba, Floyd and tackle Sean Tulette spearheading leadership roles and stymying an improved D-line on crash collisions more often than expected.

Floyd said it’s the depth that drives the O-line, because “we don’t want to lose our spots.” Vrba sees the M.O. as “punishing people.”

That’s been about a 50/50 split.

“You’ve gotta keep on your toes,” Rufai said. “To bring your tools, you gotta sharpen ’em.”

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