More than football: Senior cornerback Vai Peko playing in honor of his late brother

Vai Peko’s phone kept ringing and ringing. It wouldn’t stop.

As soon as one call went to voicemail, a text message would pop up. The senior defensive back at Idaho State was consumed with homework, so he tuned out the ringtone and vibrations.

Finally, at around 1 a.m. on March 6, Peko looked at his phone. The next few minutes changed his life.

“I had a text from my dad saying, ‘Call me ASAP,’” he said. “Right when I was about to call, I got a call from my aunt. She said that my brother was gunned down, had been in the hospital and didn’t make it.”

Peko’s brother, 21-year-old Shailo Leafa, had been shot and killed in the parking lot of a strip mall in Harbor City, Calif., near Los Angeles.

Police officers said they have found no motive for the shooting and no suspects or vehicle information was available.

“No one saw anything,” Los Angeles police Lt. Eric Holyfield told the Daily Breeze.

The family is left to pick up the pieces of a life ended too soon. For Peko, that means hitting the football field harder and with more energy than ever before.

“I have a lot of motivation right now,” Peko said. “I usually just come out here and do my thing for my family, but right now my season is dedicated to (Leafa). I want to play hard for him and I want to do anything I can for him. I’m not going to stop.”

Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer hasn’t seen a dropoff in intensity or ability from Peko since the tragedy.

“Vai doesn’t let his personal stuff come down the ramp,” Kramer said. “A lot of us deal with all sorts of family issues that can impede our progress day in and day out. He’s done a nice job of staying within himself. He’s a good student, but it has interfered with an ongoing part of his life because he can’t change what has already happened.”

Peko’s laser-focused eyes began tearing up when he discussed his memories of his brother.

“He was a really good basketball player. I was trying to get him to play again,” Peko said. “He was going back to school and had enrolled when the tragedy happened.”

Leafa played one year at Fresno City College. He and former Idaho State point guard Tomas Sanchez were teammates and good friends, according to Peko. Leafa was a 6-foot-2 point guard who led his varsity basketball team to the L.A. City Division II title while earning player of the year honors his senior season.

Peko missed a number of workouts with his Idaho State teammates in March to return home to Los Angeles for the funeral. In honor of his brother, the family held a basketball tournament.

“(We) separated into five teams to play and did our best to remember Shailo,” Peko said.

The tournament ended with Peko holding a tangible reminder of Leafa, one that he doesn’t plan on giving up.

“My team actually won,” he said. “I got the trophy.”

Peko was in Los Angeles for Easter as well. Even before his brother’s death, he enjoyed being with his family. Now their time with one another carries a special meaning.

“We’re always together. There’s not a weekend when we’re not together,” Peko said. “There’s hardly a day when we’re not all together. We’re with each other every holiday and we make time for each other. We are together right now to fill this hole in our hearts.”

With a mere three days of spring practice remaining, Peko is focusing on football. When it ends Saturday, Peko’s push to honor his brother’s memory will continue over the summer and into next fall.

“I’m not going to sit here and grieve,” Peko said. “I’m not going to keep my head down and feel sorry for myself on the field just because something happened in my personal life. I’m going to use it as motivation.

“I’ve been through a lot. In high school I was doubted many times. I use all the negatives and turn them into positives.”

ISU Football Alumni Team to host golf scramble

The Idaho State Football Alumni Team (F.A.T.) is holding a golf scramble Saturday, June 21 at Highland Golf Course.

Proceeds from the event benefit the Idaho State football program.

“The revenues from the tourney will be directed towards safety and education,” said Don Neves, a former ISU quarterback and current F.A.T. president. “We have specifically targeted helping with the cost of replacing helmets and providing funds to help the summer school budget.”

Neves says many Bengal football alumni will be attending and playing in the event, including Dirk Koetter, Ed Bell, Merril Hoge, Jim Lane, Pago Togafau, DJ Clark, Dustin Schroeder, Sale Key and Emery Beckles.

“Our website is up and running and the registration information is (available),” Neves said.

The deadline to register and respond is June 7, or when the tournament field is complete. Neves said that as of Tuesday, 80 of the 180 openings are filled.

Visit for more information and to register for the golf scramble.

Something’s Cookin’ — Josh Cook redefining the tight end position at Idaho State

He’s listed as a tight end on Idaho State’s roster, but it’s not that easy to define Josh Cook.

At 6 foot 3 and 240 pounds, Cook certainly looks the size of a prototypical Big Sky Conference tight end. During games, however, the Santa Calif., native runs routes and hauls in passes like a receiver.

“He’s a little skinnier. I would say he’s a little more elusive,” said ISU quarterback Justin Arias. “Whereas (tight ends) Ty Graves and Tyler Wright are a little beefier. He’s more of a hybrid between wide receiver and tight end.”

And that’s why Cook stands out among Bengal pass catchers. His unique ability to bridge the gap between two positions — and his football pedigree — have made him a weapon that is just beginning to round into form.

“He’s a cornerstone of our program right now,” said Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer. “He’s very familiar with what he has to do. He’s still not focused as I want him to be, but his blocking is greatly improved, his strength is better and he catches the ball away from his body, which a lot of tight ends are unable to do because they’re really just extended linemen.”

Thrust into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman one season ago because of an injury to starter Tyler Wright, Cook found himself trying to keep his head above water.

“It was a little overwhelming because I wasn’t expecting it,” he said. “I was anxious to get out there, but I wasn’t ready for it. This season I will be a lot more ready.”

For inspiration in 2013, Cook hearkened back to his time in high school. He attended Mater Dei, a football program that churns out Division I players year after year. Former University of Southern California quarterbacks Matt Leinert and Matt Barkley attended Mater Dei. Max Wittek, who is transferring from USC, was Cook’s quarterback for a time.

Cook was playing big boy football before he got to Idaho State.

“It was amazing,” he said. “There were so many opportunities and I got to meet a whole bunch of people. I played with Max (Wittek) and (wide receiver) Victor (Blackwell), who is now at USC as well.”

Cook said playing with college-ready athletes helped prepare him for what he would face at ISU. The Bengals benefited from his readiness as he contributed 31 catches for 324 yards as a redshirt freshman.

“It got me better with the timing and arm strength,” Cook said of playing at Meter Dei. “They were all about routes and timing. Before and after practice we were working on that and we were ahead of the game. That got me ready for college football.”

Kramer was impressed with Cook’s athleticism and competitiveness, which he saw firsthand on the basketball court.

“He was a starter in the post, and he’s only 6 foot 1,” Kramer said. “He might say he’s 6 foot 2, but he’s not. But he played post. In Los Angeles, there are some pretty good schools with a lot of scholarship guys. He was competitive and a grinder in basketball that showed up in football as well. He’s a guy who’s played against a lot of really good players. But he also knows how to be a big player himself.”

Cook also benefited from a redshirt year when he got to watch former ISU tight end Josh Hill do his thing as a senior. Hill now plays for the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League.

“It was crazy,” Cook said. “I knew Josh was good, but I had never seen him play before I got here. He had a crazy senior season and now he’s out there in the NFL. It’s weird seeing him at Idaho State one year and with the Saints the next. It shows what you can do from Idaho State.”

Kramer sees potential in Cook, potential that can be reached if he continues to work as hard as he has in two and a half years at Idaho State. He also suggests a nickname.

“(Cook) has got to change his first name to ‘Go-to’ because he’s a go-to guy, just like all the tight ends that come through here,” Kramer said. “He’s a third-down guy that Justin (Arias) looks for and Justin trusts. We’re pretty proud of our heritage here at tight end and he has some pretty big shoes to fill.”

With three spring practices remaining, Cook is looking forward to parlaying a strong offseason into a solid fall with the Bengals. He knows there is still work to be done, however.

“I want to see everything come together,” Cook said. “We’ll be good on our run game one scrimmage and the next will be our passing game. We need to get (the) full package together.”

Notes: Junior offensive lineman Christian Diehm dislocated a finger during Saturday’s scrimmage as he was involved in a collision on the sideline as an innocent bystander. Senior cornerback Brandon Golden did not practice Tuesday. He had a slight limp, favoring his right leg. Junior wide receiver Madison Mangum did participate Tuesday, his first practice since week one of spring ball. The Bengals will play tennis baseball after practice Friday as a way to relax and have fun. Kramer says the coaches are undefeated in three years of playing.

Former Idaho State cornerback to transfer to Boise State

Pat Carter, a redshirt freshman cornerback at Idaho State during the 2013 season, is transferring to Boise State to continue his football career.

Carter confirmed his intentions to the Journal Monday night.

Carter, a native of Boise and former Capital High School standout, voluntarily left ISU’s program before spring practice commenced in April. He is looking forward to going back home and playing in the same stadium he did as a prep star.

“My next move is to Boise State,” he said. “It will be nice to be back home on the blue!”

Carter will walk on at Boise State and must sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot, 188-pound defensive back will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Carter recorded 19 tackles, five pass breakups and one quarterback hurry in 2013 with the Bengals.

The good with the bad: Second ISU football spring scrimmage brings mixed results

Intramural scrimmages mean every good play that takes place has a counterpart. A good play by the defense signifies the offense did not execute as it had hoped.

During Saturday’s scrimmage on the ICCU practice field, Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer rode the rollercoaster of emotions and its evil mirror image for a full 90 minutes. Half of him was pulling out his proverbial hair and the other jumping for joy.

“My gum is chewed out,” Kramer said.

While last week’s scrimmage was an exercise in frustration for the offense, Saturday saw the Bengals getting in the end zone on numerous occasions. Still, Kramer was not satisfied by the No. 2 players.

“I want to see great improvement by guys who have not played,” he said. “I know how good our starters are and they’ve made significant progress. But I want to see guys who are planning on playing play like a varsity level player. We did not transfer Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday’s work into Saturday. We have to bring it during a scrimmage.”

Kramer says the Bengals get nervous during scrimmages as people are in attendance to watch.

“We come across the street like it’s practice. And at practice I’m not barking,” he said. “But in a scrimmage I’m barking because I’m simulating 11,000 people screaming and yelling. I’m on our guys when they make mistakes they shouldn’t make, just like a fan would.

“We get 25 people sitting on the grass and all the sudden it’s different. And it is different because the head coach has a different tempo on scrimmage day, and we’re not quite used to it.”

Quarterback Justin Arias, who will be the starter for the second consecutive season this fall, continued his stellar play.

“We executed well on some things, some long third downs, but we had a bad snap and a few drops,” Arias said. “We had some good and bad. For the most part we scored when we were in the red zone and that’s what it’s all about, being more efficient in the red zone. Whether that’s field goals or touchdowns, you have to get points.”

On the other side of the ball, the defensive line had a monster day. The pressure it put on the quarterbacks led to numerous interceptions and a fumble recovery.

“I’m happy our defense played well, especially our nose tackles,” Kramer said. “Tyler (Kramer) was really unstoppable. Mitch Beckstead played really well and Taison Manu showed that he can really start coming now as a safety and make us a lot better as a defense.”

“We still made some minor mistakes. But we’re still maturing as a team,” said senior cornerback Vai Peko. “We just have to get back at it and keep capitalizing on when we get turnovers. We’re doing pretty good.”

The Bengals have three spring practices remaining and will hold their spring game next Saturday. There is plenty of improvement the team must make before packing things up for the summer.

“We’re not where we’re supposed to be in practice (No.) 11 or 12,” Kramer said. “Part of it (is) I’m frustrated by the 2s on offense. I’m OK with our starters on defense and I’m OK with our starters on defense. We’ve got to find a way to start generating drives. I’ll alter practice quite a bit this week so we can do drive generation. I’ll put us in some situations that will make us better next Saturday.”

ISU football: Bengals seek improvement and progression in second spring scrimmage

Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer was concerned after last Saturday’s scrimmage.

The Bengal offense failed to get in the end zone until the very last play, and even that took an outstanding individual effort from receiver Kai Campbell cutting through the defense.

But it was more than the inability to score that had Kramer on edge.

“I’m … concerned with the fact that every single possession took third down to get a first down,” he said. “Good for the defense, bad for the offense. We’ve got to get a little more rhythm going and a little more of our attack going offensively.”

When ISU takes the field this morning for its second-to-last scrimmage of spring practice, Kramer wants to see a better effort from those of the offensive side of the ball.

“We’ll start the ball in various parts of the field and we’ll see if our offense can finish and if our defense can hold them out,” he said. “Our emphasis is on touchdowns. We’ve got to score more and prevent more. The touchdown tally will be important to me because I know what it should be given where the ball is going to be spotted.”

Specifically, quarterback Justin Arias has to be sharper, according to Kramer. With a very young and inexperienced core of receivers, throws must be accurate and on time.

On defense, the Bengals want to see their safeties continue to rise up. As the leaders of the defense, their play calls and checks are critical.

“I want to see us keep getting three-and-outs,” said junior safety Taison Manu. “We have to make our checks a lot faster because we’re still a bit slow on that.”

“(We have) dramatically improved the play of our safeties,” Kramer said. “All five kids are getting lined up better. They know how to make adjustments and checks and their play recognition is much better.”

Today’s scrimmage on the ICCU practice field kicks off at 10 a.m. and is open to the public.

‘Steady rise’ — Entire coaching staff back, ISU football looks to take next step

Head coach Mike Kramer walked off Babe Caccia field Thursday afternoon with a smile on his face, one he’s never shown before since arriving in Pocatello.

He couldn’t wipe it away.

“(This was) probably our most productive practice of the year, maybe the best since I’ve been here,” he said. “We were progressive. We were introspective and thoughtful, but also solid, quiet and earnest. Those are attributes I have not seen this team have, and I liked it. We were quiet and we were fast.”

Almost three weeks into spring practice, Kramer is seeing take place exactly what he expected. With the exact same coaching staff from the 2013 season back, the Bengals have done nothing but get better.

“It’s a steady rise,” Kramer said. “Instead of being a bell-shaped curve, our players have a steady rise in their performance. Everything that goes into that performance, whether it’s mental, physical or spiritual, has to increase. From Mitch (Beckstead) to Austin Graves it’s been a steady rise. I want to see us continue to do that.”

One year ago the team spent the entirety of spring practice installing a new defensive system and working in fresh coaches on the offensive side of the ball. While 2013 was spent grapsing enough to get by, 2014 is for polishing and mastering.

“Last spring we were learning everything and it was a lot slower,” said junior safety Taison Manu. “Now it’s second nature to us.”

“We’re in the same defense we were in last year,” said senior linebacker Mitch Beckstead. “Just to know that much more and to have a year under our belt in the same defense makes such a big difference. The mistakes that I was making in week eight or nine of last year, I’m not making now in … spring practice.”

The Bengals made just two small tweaks during the offseason. Co-defensive coordinator Spencer Toone is coaching the safeties (was coaching safeties and outside linebackers) and offensive coordinator Don Bailey is coaching quarterbacks and running backs (was just quarterbacks).

“I like it a lot better,” Manu said. “In our meetings it’s a lot more focus on us and we have more time for (Toone) to coach us up. It’s a lot better with just the safeties in there.”

“They sit in the meetings with the quarterbacks and they hear it from the associated head coach, offensive coordinator, play-caller and their position coach all in the same words,” Kramer said. “That’s made us more mature and more appreciative of what we have to do.”

Kramer says his team has taken on a calmer, more focused approach this spring. He attributes that to his two most even-keeled coaches; defensive line coach Steve Fifita and cornerbacks coach Stanley Franks.

“They’re with those guys every day in the weight room,” Kramer said. “Those two are quiet, taciturn, determined men. Their personalities are really rubbing off on the guys.

“This team is quietly determined, and it shows up in the weight room. We lift quietly. Most weight rooms are loud and noisy. We have good music, but our guys hardly talk. I like our personality.”

With just over a handful spring practice sessions remaining, Kramer hopes to see Thursday’s focus and calm energy remain. And with the coaching consistency his Bengals are receiving, he’s confident it will happen.

“We’re still coaching the dog water out of them, but they are hearing the same words from the same man two years in a row,” Kramer said. “That has a big impact.”

Jack of many trades: Senior Aaron Prier transitioning to third position — Wide receiver

Aaron Prier quickly ran off the field during Saturday morning’s scrimmage, holding his stomach with his left arm.

As soon as the ISU senior from San Pablo, Calif., was on the sideline, the floodgates opened and he lost his breakfast on the grass just beyond the new turf field.

Seconds earlier Prier had taken a shot to the stomach from senior cornerback Vai Peko while running a route as a receiver.

That’s right. Prier, who was recruited to Idaho State as a defensive back but switched to running back when the team ran into depth issues at that position his freshman year, is now a receiver for the Bengals.

“They told me about two hours before practice on Tuesday that I was switching,” Prier said. “(Head coach Mike) Kramer came up to me and asked me what I (thought) about it. I’m always up for a challenge. It’s more playing time. We had an OK rotation at running back, but we throw a lot. I really want the ball in my hands. Whatever the team needs me to do, I’m willing to do it.”

When his stomach was greeted by Peko’s helmet at full speed Saturday, it was Prier’s fourth practice as a wide out. How to avoid or deal with that contact — and keeping his meals where they belong — is one of the many aspects of playing wide receiver he’s hoping to learn during spring practice.

“It’s definitely different,” Prier said. “At running back you don’t have as many routes. At receiver, there are a lot of different plays and routes. It’s a lot different running, too. I’ll have to get used to that as far as conditioning goes.

“I’m going to get it done. On day two I was picking it up pretty fast. We’ll see how it goes.”

Kramer and the Idaho State coaching staff proposed the idea to Prier last Tuesday, one week into spring practice. The reasoning is a compliment to him as an athlete.

With an offensive backfield that includes standout starter Xavier Finney plus steady backups Dan McSurdy and Braeden Mitchell, who both emerged late last season, Kramer wanted Prier to help in an area of greater need. More than that, he’s too talented to keep on the shelf.

“He’s one of our top five athletes in terms of height, weight, size, speed, ability, strength, endurance and savviness,” Kramer said. “We have a pretty good core of running backs and he moves to a position where we can get him on the field every snap and not have to share.”

And while it will take some time for Prier to adjust to his new position, Kramer already has him penciled in as a starter when the season kicks off in the fall.

“He makes big plays,” Kramer said. “He adjusts to the ball well in flight. He’s got excellent athletic skills. He’s got excellent temperament. I think he has a tremendous opportunity and he should have a great year for us.”

ISU is also looking for help at the cornerback position. Since Prier was recruited to play there in the 2011 recruiting class, there was some thought among the coaches to move him back there.

“I told them I wanted to stay on the offensive side,” Prier said. “It’s my senior year and I want to score some touchdowns. It feels good to know that they really want me on the field. I want to show up for my team.”

Prier wants to make an impact at receiver. He’s open to the move for that reason. He’s willing to do whatever the team needs him to do if it means more success.

“Growing up my dad always told me, ‘Don’t be good at just one thing,’” Prier said. “I look at myself as a competitor and an athlete. I’ll go play O-line if they need me to. If I don’t know how to play a position, I’ll learn it.”

With junior Madison Mangum temporarily sidelined with a tweaked left knee, Prier is getting hands-on instruction before and after every rep.

“Madison is my coach right now. He’s following me around and telling me which routes to run,” Prier said. “Coach (Sheldon) Cross is helping me on the sidelines as well. But Madison is helping me a lot.”

Prier continues to work hard during spring practice to learn to play receiver. Time is of the essence with just eight sessions remaining.

“It’s important to learn the position during spring practice,” Prier said. “They told me they wanted me to try it out and I could switch back if I needed to. I’m going to give it my all. This spring is really going to determine whether I want to stay at receiver or not. Right now I’m liking it. Hopefully I get it down so I can play in the fall.”

Defense gets upper hand in spring football scrimmage

Kai Campbell collected a pass from James Delacenserie on the right flank, cut inside, juked outside and found a gap through a converging defense.

The Highland High School graduate raced forty yards into the end zone and immediately celebrated his touchdown. Just as quickly as the festivities began, Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer blew his whistle to signify the end of the scrimmage.

Campbell’s score was the lone touchdown Saturday morning in ISU’s spring football scrimmage and Kramer walked off the ICCU underwhelmed by what he saw from the offense.

“Our receiving core showed a little nervousness there for a long period of time,” he said. “(Quarterback) Justin (Arias) wasn’t especially sharp.”

But a lackluster performance from the offense meant the defense played well. Such is the dilemma a coaching staff confronts during spring scrimmages.

“You don’t want to see two sons fighting and declare one a winner and one a loser,” Kramer said. “It’s the hard part of being a head coach. It’s good and it’s bad all at the same time.

“It’s like drinking tea and Coke at the same time. It doesn’t taste good.”

Idaho State’s defense, beleaguered at times but coming off a 2013 season that saw it take big steps forward, impressed the head coach.

“There were a lot of really good things,” Kramer said. “PJ Gremaud made some really nice plays on the outside. I thought our pass protection was pretty good throughout the day. Derek Berrey was good around the edge. Both starting safeties really played outstanding. Then, of course, Mitch Beckstead is really having an excellent camp, showing speed up and down the line of scrimmage and getting us lined up.”

With two weeks of spring practice still remaining, the Bengals will continue to iron out wrinkles and nail down details. Some areas of the team need extra more attention than others.

“I’m more concerned with the fact that every single possession took third down to get a first down,” Kramer said. “Good for the defense, bad for the offense. We’ve got to get a little more rhythm going and a little more of our attack going offensively.”

Idaho State returns to the field Tuesday at 4 p.m. Practices are open to the public.