A solid foundation: Arias, receivers connect in ISU’s final spring scrimmage and defense plays big in second half

If spring came into Pocatello like a lamb, it exited like a roaring lion.

Make that a Bengal.

The Idaho State football team held its Dave Kragthorpe Classic spring game Saturday afternoon inside Holt Arena — avoiding the wet conditions outdoors — and the results showed how far the team has come since the first practice session on April 1.

“Three scrimmages in, with this team, I am OK with where we are at,” said ISU head coach Mike Kramer. “Compared to years past I am ecstatic. Compared to this year, the quality, the caliber and what I think the ability is of this team, I am OK.”

Each side of the ball made its fair share of outstanding plays. Senior quarterback Justin Arias found sophomore speedster Broc Malcom deep for a pair of long touchdown passes. Arias completed nine of his 20 pass attempts for 233 yards and two touchdowns.

“I thought Justin took advantage of the fact that the receivers were more and more confident in what they were doing,” Kramer said. “We pushed past the secondary.”

Malcom recorded two catches for 102 yards and the two scores.

“Broc is fast. He can catch the ball and score touchdowns,” Arias said. “He’s a playmaker and if I get the chance to throw it to him deep, I’m going to.”

“It’s what we’ve been working for all spring and it was nice to connect and get on the same page as the QB,” Malcom said.

A number of other receivers in ISU’s young core were productive. Junior CJ Hatchett had four receptions for 89 yard and two touchdowns.

Thirteen players recorded catches for a total of 394 yards. Sophomore KW Williams added two catches for 23 yards.

“At the end of 15 practices we have begun the replacement of Luke Austin,” Kramer said. “Out of Rodrick Rumble’s numbers and Josh Hill’s numbers, Luke Austin was the most valuable player because he was running the routes in the middle. One thing I saw today that I really enjoyed was KW Williams. (He was) fearless running in the middle as a big, strong physical guy.”

Backup quarterback James Delacenserie, a freshman, was 12 for 23 for 161 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw a pair of interceptions.

“I think James will be OK, but I think (incoming freshman) Tanner Gueller will come in and compete,” Kramer said. “I have said that since the day I signed him.”

Running backs Xavier Finney, a junior, and Braeden Mitchell, a senior, each recorded rushing touchdowns. The Bengal offense rattled off 472 yards of offense, five touchdowns and a field goal. They also left points off the board as CJ Reyes missed two field goal attempts.

“We executed well and we eliminated big mistakes,” Arias said. “There were no bad snaps and very few dropped balls. We kept positive yardage and that’s what we wanted to end on.”

ISU’s offense held the upper hand for most of the first half, but its defense was up to the task in the second.

With constant pressure on whichever quarterback was in, the defense came hot and heavy. Freshman Jeremiah Hazard, junior Tyler Kuder, senior Sage Warner, junior Derek Berrey and senior Erik Nelson all recorded sacks. The pressure in the pocket also led to interceptions, with Nelson and CJ Langlow doing the honors.

All five sacks and both picks came in the second half.

“I am real proud of our defense …” Kramer said. “The one thing we are not defensively yet is a real good sack team. I wanted to see that in the second half, and I thought I saw that.”

The Bengals wanted to exit spring with a a good taste in their mouths and an eye toward fall camp — mission accomplished.

“It culminated in an excellent scrimmage where we had positive yardage on a majority of the plays,” Arias said. “All the practices have allowed us to progress. I liked where we ended.”

“As far as progressing through each scrimmage, we are (happy),” Malcom said. “But we want to be a well-oiled machine by the time fall comes. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but to end spring like that was (good).”

The Bengals are finished with organized practices until fall camp starts up in August. They open the 2014 season at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Aug. 28.

“It was a great spring (with) a great group of players,” Kramer said. “I am very happy where we are with the core of our team academically, socially and athletically. We have the cornerstones laid. Now it is time to get on the field and play that way.”

Idaho State football player Tyler Wright released from Portneuf Medical Center

Tight end Tyler Wright was transported to Portneuf Medical Center after taking a hard hit during Idaho State’s spring game Saturday afternoon in Holt Arena.

Wright, a junior from Mountain Home, collided with senior defensive back Christian Gines and laid motionless on the field for roughly 10 minutes. An ambulance was called and Wright was placed on an EMS backboard, his head immobilized, and transported to the emergency room where he underwent evaluation.

Wright was released from the hospital sometime Saturday evening. “He is not a patient here,” said a Portneuf Medical Center spokesperson.

After the scrimmage, ISU offensive line coach Matt Troxel said Wright was talking and alert and would “be OK.”

Quarterback Justin Arias echoed the statement.

“We all just wanted to make sure he (was) all right and make sure nothing serious happened to him,” Arias said. “It was kind of hard to play knowing that we don’t know. Coach told us, but it’s always better to just see for yourself.”

You don’t need reasons to watch ISU football, but here are a few

Your last chance to see the footballin’ Bengals in action before they pack up for the summer is today. You don’t want to miss it. Allow me to tell you why.

For the first time in head coach Mike Kramer’s tenure, Idaho State has had a normal spring. Four years ago, Kramer’s first with the squad, there were around 35 players available for spring practice. There weren’t enough bodies to man a No. 2 team.

That number is up to almost 70 players today, complete with a full No. 2 and partial No. 3 teams. You can see why the Bengals are excited about the future.

So, when you come to Holt Arena today at noon — yes, it will be held indoors because of the incoming Armageddon of weather — you’ll see 22 players on the field with a nice stockpile of backups on each sideline. You know, it will look like real teams playing real football.

Reason No. 2 why you should attend today’s spring game is to check out the offensive line. I know, normally that’s not a position group that puts butts in seats. This time, however, an exception should be made.

First of all, senior tackle Jim Bagley is sporting a beard that would make former BYU standout and current Pittsburgh Steeler star Brett Keisel jealous. It must be seen by Bengal fans.

Secondly, Kramer has done nothing but rave about the offensive line’s progress and performance since practice started in early April.

“Our offensive line, not just the starters but the backups as well, we have a nice little group there,” Kramer said. “They’ve gotten better over the spring.”

I have been to a majority of practices this month and observed thousands of plays and drills. The most obvious take away is that this team is having fun.

During Wednesday’s practice, linebacker Mitch Beckstead drilled a 20-yard field goal. The Bengals cheered and congratulated the senior.

“We try to have the seniors get one kick during their career to see how they do,” Kramer said. “(Jim) Bagley is 1 for 1, Mitch is 1 for 1 and Austin Graves is 1 for 1. So far this senior class is doing pretty well.”

Don’t expect Beckstead or any of the other non-kickers to line up for an attempt come this fall. But, you can see senior CJ Reyes and newcomer Zak Johnson boot the ball toward the uprights this afternoon. Johnson, from tiny Nampa Christian High School, has a very big leg and looks to be a great asset to the team for years to come.

I have been impressed with ISU’s safety play during the spring. Highland product Taison Manu and Cody Sorensen of Spokane, Wash., are flying all over the field and making plays.

It’s intramural practices and scrimmages, so the hard hits are minimal and accidental. But, like we saw during his career as a Ram, Manu is liable to lay someone out — in a clean, legal way, of course.

We all know what the Bengals have at the quarterback position — a solid redshirt senior in Justin Arias who will be as good as they come in the Big Sky Conference this season. As intriguing as the surety of that position is, the question marks surrounding the receiving core are just as interesting.

Redshirt sophomore Broc Malcom will be the star this fall and senior cornerback-turned-running-back-turned receiver Aaron Prier will be a key contributor as well. Who else steps up is the question. Highland grad Kai Campbell, also a redshirt sophomore, has made strides over the last four weeks. But a young group of receivers is fighting for playing time and today will set the tone for the pecking order in August.

“Clearly we have a nice core and clearly Aaron Prier is a playmaker,” Kramer said of his receivers. “There are a lot of guys who are going to be in the mix this fall.”

Finally, it’s live football. Why do anything else? The best sport at the most pure and exciting level is happening in town today.

Kickoff is at noon in Holt Arena. Be there or regret it for the next four months.

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 www.isufat.com 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.”