‘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.

Idaho State spring football position outlook: Defensive line

Roster:
Kurt Karstetter, Jr., 6-2, 217, Spokane, Wash.
David Forester, Sr., 6-2, 263, Idaho City High School
Derek Berrey, Jr., 6-5, 250, University Place, Wash.
Sage Warner, Sr., 6-1, 285, Declo High School
Jeremiah Hazard, Fr., 6-3, 274, Coeur d’Alene High School
Cody Anderson, Jr., 6-2, 195, Shelley
Tyler Kuder, Jr., 6-3, 308, Payette High School
Robby Mackesey, Sr., 6-1, 261, Cottage Grove, Wisc.
Chris Edwards, Jr., 6-0, 277, Meridian High School
Austin Graves, Sr., 6-2, 256, Kennewick, Wash.
Larry Tharpe, incoming freshman, 6-3, 270, Carrollton, Texas.

Outlook:
After the 2013 had come to a close, Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer said that for the first time in his career with the Bengals, the defensive line had as much mass as it needed to have in order to compete in the Big Sky Conference. The players were finally big enough to “man the position.”

As the offseason progressed, the Bengal D-line has done nothing but get bigger.

That size — plus another year of improving in skill — will help ISU take the next step as a defense. Senior David Forester is not participating in spring practice because of a shoulder injury sustained last year. He will be a big part of what the Bengals do during the 2014 season.

What they’re saying:
Head coach Mike Kramer:
“We’re the same guys essentially (from last year). We’re bigger and stronger and we look better. Austin Graves is literally one of the most productive guys in this conference. I think Tyler (Kuder), who is only going to be a junior, still has to unfold as a talent. Some other guys are pretty good, blue-collar players in Sage (Warner) and Robby Mackesey. Without David Forester we’re missing one of our six stars on the defensive front. It’s a shoulder surgery, which is like a common cold now.”

Junior Tyler Kuder on what his position coach, Steve Fifita, expects:
“He wants us to set the tone for the defense. Last year we weren’t quite there as the season went on. This spring we’re coming out strong and we can only get better.”

Idaho State spring football position outlook: Linebacker

Roster:
Nick Albano, Sr., 6-1, 248, Randolph, Minn.
CJ Langlow, Jr., 6-2, 214, Tacoma, Wash.
Mario Jenkins, Fr., 6-1, 225, Columbia High School
Hayden Stout, So., 6-2, 216, Meridian High School
Erik Nelson, Sr., 6-0, 225, Las Flores, Calif.
Thomas Ryan, Fr., 6-3, 254, Highland High School
PJ Gremaud, Sr., 6-1, 254, Ventura, Calif.
Keelan McCaffery, Sr., 6-0, 228, Minico High School
Mitch Beckstead, Sr., 6-0, 241, West Side High School
Alex Burgoyne, So., 6-0, 243, Chandler, Ariz.
Taylor Ragan, Jr., 6-2, 233, Bellevue, Wash.
Micah Breland, Fr., 6-1, 230, Tuwila, Wash.
Drew Sharkey, So., 6-1, 237, Spokane, Wash.
Coleton Collins, incoming freshman, 6-2, 207
Nine Mile, Wash.
Austin Ferguson, incoming freshman, 5-11, 205, Century High School
Spencer Harshman, incoming freshman, 6-1, 210, Borah High School

Outlook:

Perhaps the most versatile position group on the field, the Bengals need production from their linebackers in order to have success.

Idaho State gave up 25 less touchdowns during the 2013 season than it did the year before, and a lot of that was attributed to better linebacker play.

Led by seniors Mitch Beckstead and PJ Gremaud and pushed by a pair of redshirt freshman, the Bengals look to take the next step in 2014.

What they’re saying:
Head coach Mike Kramer on who he expects to have a big season:
“Inside, Mitch (Beckstead) is pretty solid, as is PJ (Gremaud). He needs to be more consistent. Erik Nelson and Keelan McCaffery give excellent depth. The two young lions, Mario Jenkins and Micah Breland, are going to be pretty good in their time. Outside, Hayden Stout is going to be a quality, smooth four-year starter and a guy that can do a lot of really nice things. At weak-side outside, Kurt Karstetter is the starter, but Nick Albano and Drew Sharkey are pressing hard for playing time.”

Senior Mitch Beckstead on how ISU’s linebackers have progressed:
“We’re a year into it and we’re in the same defense we were in last year. 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 week one and two of spring practice.”

Beckstead on where the linebackers need to improve before the 2014 season:
“I want to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage. We all need to. We are the emotional leaders of the defense. We have to be louder and make more noise for the defense.”

Idaho State spring football position outlook: Cornerback

Roster:
Brandon Golden, Sr., 5-11, 195, Covina, Calif.
Andre Madrigal, Fr., 6-0, 170, Skyline High School
Moses Mugenyi, Fr., 5-10, 180, Everett, Wash.
Michael Berger, Sr., 6-1, 194, Skyline High School
Jesus Valero, So., 6-0, 187, El Cajon, Calif.
Vai Peko, Sr., 5-6, 160, Los Angeles
Kamino Ward, Jr., incoming junior college transfer 5-10, 195, San Bernardino Valley JC
Tavante Jackson, Jr., incoming junior college transfer, 5-9, 185, Santa Barbara JC
Anthony Ricks, incoming freshman, 5-8, 160, Valley Center, Calif.

Outlook:
Idaho State has been led on defense by standout senior cornerbacks in each of the last two seasons. Donavan Henley in 2012 and Cameron Gupton in 2013 set the bar high for the Bengals’ current players in that position.

This year, ISU has a pair of senior cornerbacks, Brandon Golden and Vai Peko, who transferred into the program last season that are expected to lead. They are the projected starters.

The coaching staff also recruiting two junior college players in Tavante Jackson and Kamino Ward who won’t join the team until fall camp. They will push the expected starters and add needed depth.


What they’re saying:

Senior Vai Peko on his leadership role:
“(Brandon Golden) and I are the only veterans right now. We have that experience when we came in. I wouldn’t say we have big shoes to fill, but we have a lot to prove. We can do better than our starters last year. We just have to lock in and play as a team.”

Head coach Mike Kramer:
“We have two really good starters in Vai Peko and Brandon Golden. Vai is more of a nickel, so we look for Tavante Jackson and Kamino Ward to come in and really be battling in those spots. That does not mean that Michael and some of the other guys who are there won’t have an opportunity to play a little. We’ll just wait and see.”

Peko on the improvement the corners need to make during spring practice:
“I want us to mature. Right now we’re lacking in that category. We all need to step up.”

Golden’s fresh start: Washington State transfer Brandon Golden ready to make his mark at ISU

Brandon Golden was looking for a change.

After three seasons as a Washington State Cougar, the defensive back needed a fresh start to continue his career as a collegiate athlete.

The first person he heard from was Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer, whom Golden knew in 2010 when Kramer was on Washington State’s coaching staff.

It didn’t take much convincing to get Golden to transfer to Idaho State, and he immediately saw playing time during the 2013 season. Now a redshirt senior, the Covina, Calif., native hopes to thrive in his last year of college football.

“There is no better place to be than with coach Kramer at Idaho State,” Golden said. “I want to keep getting better each and every day. I want to make sure my mental game is on point so I can play fast and I want to be out here and compete.”

Golden’s skillset and leadership have never been in higher demand than now. Along with Vai Peko, a senior transfer from Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., Godlen is expected to lead a young group of cornerbacks during the 2014 season.

“I want him to play his rear end off,” Kramer said. “I want him to be a great player every down, every day — all the time, period.”

Kramer said Golden was a little rusty when he first arrived in Pocatello last fall. That rust, he says, is long gone.

“He’s done nothing in these four days but make believe he can be one of the premiere cornerbacks in this conference,” Kramer said. “He’s good in zone. He’s very good in man. He’s patient. He’s calm. He’s tough. He’s smart. He takes coaching and he’s a great player.

“I liked him at Washington State and I love him now that he’s at Idaho State.”

Golden remains quiet during practice as he puts his head down and works. By design, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Golden is thicker than any other cornerback on Idaho State’s roster. He can be physical with a wide receiver and is still athletic enough to make plays on the ball.

“He’s the size of cornerbacks in the Pac-12. That’s what they look like,” Kramer said. “We want our corners to look like that. Our older guys will look like this in the future. He’s not diminutive, but he’s not a big guy, either. He still has to have leaping ability.”

Golden is grateful for a fresh start.

“Just like coach Kramer said, I had to knock off some rust,” he said. “I was really fortunate to have coaches like coach (Spencer) Toone and coach (Stanley) Franks to help me through the process, to really be hard on me when I needed them to be and direct me in the right path.”

Golden has some big shoes to fill as he steps into a spot that has been occupied by stellar players the last two seniors. Donovan Henley in 2012 and Cameron Gupton set the mark for cornerbacks at Idaho State.

“(Gupton) was one of my good friends and he still is,” Golden said. “I learned a lot about mental toughness from him as well as physical toughness. He’s a great player and he came to work each and every day. I’m trying to take the things I learned from (Gupton) and use them every day.”

Kramer has an easy way of judging how good his cornerbacks are playing and says Golden will have a standout senior season.

“It’s the first position my mom notices,” Kramer said. “And when you get beat my mom says, ‘Don’t play him.’

“I like Brandon. He’s a very humble guy. He’ll be a stopper and a guy who will make plays.”

NOTES: Senior Aaron Prier, who has been exclusively a running back during his career, took reps at receiver during Tuesday’s practice. Junior receiver Madison Mangum did not participate as he continues to nurse an injury to his left knee. Three signees — players who have signed Letters of Intent but won’t be college student-athletes until the fall — were in attendance Tuesday to watch practice. They are quarterback Tanner Gueller (Chehalis, Wash.), linebacker Spencer Harshman (Borah High School) and receiver Hagen Graves (Skyview High School).

Idaho State spring football position outlook: Safety

Roster:
Domenic Toliver, Fr., 5-9, 160, Gardena, Calif.
Taison Manu, Jr., 5-9, 204, Highland High School
Daniel Guthmiller, So., 5-9, 170, Skyline High School
Cody Sorensen, Jr., 5-11, 198, Spokane, Wash.
Cole Lemer, Jr., 6-1, 191, Spokane, Wash.
Joe Martin, incoming freshman, 5-11, 197, Spanaway, Wash.
Cory Hollowell, incoming freshman, 6-2, 184, Corona, Calif.

Outlook:
Since the day head coach Mike Kramer took over Idaho State’s football program, he has demanded that his safeties be the leaders on defense. They’ve had their ups and downs, and Kramer is still waiting to see more consistency.

The group of safeties that will take the field in 2014 have enough experience and talent to help make Kramer’s demand a reality. Taison Manu and Cody Sorensen have both started in the past while Cole Lemer has played in numerous games.

ISU made a slight shift in its coaching staff this offseason as co-defensive coordinator Spencer Toone will coach the safeties exclusively. Last year he coached safeties and outside linebackers. Kramer says the change has made the safeties more responsive.

What they’re saying:
Head coach Mike Kramer:
“The safety play at Idaho State has never been at the level it needs to be. Our safety play has got to be substantial, consistent and the most awe-impressive thing you see about our defense.”

Junior Cody Sorensen:
“We need to be the most intelligent players on the field. We have to be in the right position, get everyone lined up and fly around. We’re the quarterbacks of the defense and we have to make plays.”

Kramer on the current state of ISU’s safety position:
“(Manu) and (Sorensen) have a lot of playing time behind them, so their knowledge base is pretty good. Now if we can get a performance base that will allow us to be the kind of team we can be, I think we’ll be good.”