MOSCOW, Idaho — There was still a hog emblem on his shirt, but Paul Petrino knew his days at Arkansas were dwindling. It’s the unfortunate nature of the coaching carousel and Petrino knew he would be replanted soon — he hoped, at least.
But he was still in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when a dual-threat quarterback from San Jose, California, came across Petrino’s radar.
He came with some striking credentials, too.
This 6-foot-2, 177-pound junior-college stud from DeAnza College had thrown for nearly 3,000 yards as a sophomore and had been named the NorCal Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Idaho| WR | Sr.
“To be brutally honest, we knew we weren’t going to still be at Arkansas,” Petrino said. “We knew wherever we ended up, that was a kid that was athletic and a good player and you might want to recruit him.”
Josh McCain’s number was the first Petrino dialed after the coach accepted the Idaho job. He appeared to be a good fit for Petrino’s spread-option offense — a gunslinger who could dazzle with his feet, too.
Petrino inked another quarterback to bolster his recruiting class and bolster the future of his program behind center. The grand plan was to redshirt Matt Linehan and toss him into the quarterback battle a year later — one that would also include a senior McCain and a redshirt sophomore Chad Chalich.
Idaho’s offensive shortcomings in 2013 meant Petrino would return to the drawing board with some revisions. The new-and-improved offensive blueprint would look something like this: Linehan behind center with McCain split out at receiver.
Wishful thinking? Maybe not so much.
“We were already talking to him,” said Petrino, who, along with then-Arkansas receivers coach Kris Cinkovich, developed a relationship with McCain while the two were still in Fayetteville. “We thought he was a running quarterback but also thought there was a chance he was athletic enough to be a receiver even at that time.”
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“Then he walked into my office and said he wanted to do it. I was like ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ ”
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But McCain had been partial to quarterback his entire playing career up to that point and proposing that he make a transition was a subject Petrino needed to broach carefully — like a high school freshman asking a senior to the prom.
“It was right after the offseason, I wanted to ask him, trying to decide how I was going to ask him without him wanting to leave,” Petrino said. “Then he walked into my office and said he wanted to do it. I was like ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ “
McCain, who had seen limited time at quarterback the season prior and was primarily utilized in wildcat formations, remembers the conversation.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I can make a difference at receiver, just make big plays out there,’ ” he said.
Petrino might as well lace his refurbished blueprint with gold and frame it in his office.
|2013 QB Stats||13-27-3||222||40||5|
Statistically speaking, the Linehan-McCain tandem is the best among those in the Sun Belt Conference after three games. Those two have hooked up for five touchdowns and 371 yards. McCain ranks third nationally with his five TD receptions and leads the Sun Belt in receiving yards per game.
“Probably the midpoint of summer camp, he woke up one morning and made a decision that he wants to be a really good receiver and I think his work ethic picked up, his practice habits picked up,” Idaho receivers coach Charley Molnar said.
But the natural athleticism is what has separated McCain from the rest of the conference. He put on an acrobatic exhibition a week ago in Athens, Ohio, during the third quarter of the Vandals’ nonconference contest against the Bobcats.
On second-and-4 from the 34-yard line, McCain lined up at flanker and ran a go route. Linehan lobbed a pass up and over the outstretched arms of Ohio corner Devin Bass and McCain, dominant with his right hand, corralled the ball with his left. He managed to sneak a toe in before going out of bounds.
Officials signaled for an incompletion.
“I mean he was in all the way, I saw it right in front of my face and then I saw it on the screen,” Petrino said.
The Idaho contingent in the coaching booth saw the same thing.
“We were on the phones telling coach, ‘Just challenge it because we’re going to win,’ ” Molnar said. “I mean there was no doubt in our mind.”
Indeed, the call was reversed.
NFL scouts have sporadically filed in and out of Idaho practices the past few weeks. Last Monday, a few scattered around the receivers. Maybe they hadn’t heard Dezmon Epps, who caught for 900-plus yards in 2013, had been dismissed from the team weeks before fall camp began.
That, or the more likely scenario: They came to get a glimpse of McCain.
“I’m sure he is, anytime you start making plays like that, if he’s not he will be soon,” Petrino said, when asked if McCain is on the NFL’s radar.
Petrino spent the 2007 season working with the Atlanta Falcons’ receivers and has also coached the wideouts at Arkansas, Illinois and Louisville. Self-admittedly, he’s pretentious when it comes to his knowledge of the position and it could be partially why McCain’s breakout hasn’t been all that startling.
“You know, I’m kind of cocky when it comes to the ability to get receivers to play good. Pretty much always had them my whole life,” Petrino said.
The assistance of Molnar, who was the Cincinnati receivers coach before accepting an offensive coordinator role at Notre Dame, shouldn’t be overlooked either.
“It helps a lot,” McCain said. “They’ve coached people that are in the NFL, so just hearing their feedback and telling me what I need to work on is great advice.”
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“I think when you’re really athletic and you’ve got good hands … you can play receiver ”
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Petrino has a knack for molding receivers out of players who have little to no experience at the position.
He did it with Arnold Jackson, a high-school quarterback who left Louisville as the first player in college football history to total 300 career receptions. Then there was Joshua Tinch, who came to Louisville on a basketball scholarship but evolved into a two-sport star and led the Big East in receiving five years later.
“I think when you’re really athletic and you’ve got good hands … you can play receiver,” Petrino said.
If Idaho’s first three games are any indication, Petrino’s newest project may pan out to be just as successful as his first two.