Aguirre, Miller spring 2018

Idaho State safeties Adkin Aguirre (left) and Jayson Miller get tangled up during a drill at a spring practice at the ICCU Practice Field.

POCATELLO — Only one of Idaho State’s position groups returns a player whose name appeared on an All-America list last season.

It’s safety Adkin Aguirre, ISU’s first defensive back to earn All-America honors since Ernie James in 2002.

Aguirre, a redshirt junior, earned an honorable mention sophomore FCS All-America nod from HERO Sports after last season. He returns to lead the 2018 Bengals’ safety corps, which Aguirre called “the quarterbacks of the defense.”

“We’re growing up a lot. We’re getting better with our eyes,” Aguirre said after Thursday’s practice. “That’s our main objective, just seeing what we have to see and do our jobs and make everyone right on the field.”

Aguirre was one of ISU’s biggest surprises last season. He went from a 20-tackle backup as a redshirt freshman to an 80-tackle, five-interception centerpiece of the Bengals’ secondary.

Aguirre was a standout running back in high school and is listed at 5-foot-10, 174 pounds on his freshman-year ISU roster. This season, he’s at 190 pounds. Last year, he tied for second among FCS underclassmen with five interceptions — also tied for tops in the Big Sky Conference.

“You love him as a coach, because there’s nothing he won’t do,” first-year Bengals safeties coach Jay Staggs said. “He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve been around at the college level, and he takes pride in that. He takes pride in being a go-getter. There’s nothing he’s afraid of, whether it’s filling a gap in runs or being on the back end chasing down a ball.

“You talk about being a Charlie Hustle kind of guy, that’s who he is.”

Aguirre’s 80 tackles were second-best on the team last season, as were his eight passes defended. He tied for the team lead with two fumble recoveries and returned his five interceptions a total of 43 yards.

The rest of ISU’s defense combined to nab three INTs.

“That’s all in the past now,” Aguirre said. “This is a new slate. The only thing I’m really worried about is winning some games, and if that’s me getting my eyes right, getting in my right position, doing my 1/11th on the field, that’s all I’m worried about, just getting those wins.”

Joining Aguirre at safety are fellow redshirt junior Jayson Miller and Sacramento City College transfer Christian McFarland. Miller is a 21-game veteran who’s been in the rotation since his freshman year, and McFarland was an all-conference honoree last season in the NorCal League of the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA).

Miller recorded four tackles in his lone appearance last season before redshirting. McFarland in 2017 tied for third in the CCCAA with 62 solo tackles, and tied for 15th with 85 total tackles.

Jay Staggs spring 2018

Idaho State safeties coach Jay Staggs (center) instructs his players during spring practice at the ICCU Practice Field.

While Aguirre and McFarland took most of the first-team reps during open practices in fall camp, Staggs said all three will contribute to ISU’s two-safety system.

“Christian, he’s a really good talent,” Staggs said of McFarland. “He’s an extremely athletic kid with really good ball skills, so you obviously like that for a safety. But the other thing I really like about him is: he’s fearless downhill. He brings an extra element of cover like a corner, but hit like a linebacker, and you like that as a safety and especially a safeties coach.”

Redshirt sophomore and Skyline High graduate Brock Davis joined Miller on the second-team defense during open practices. The former second-team 5A all-Idaho defensive back is awaiting his college debut.

“He’s always sound,” Aguirre said of Davis. “Physical player.”

ISU showed little evidence of ever deploying a five-defensive back nickel package on defense during fall camp, but Staggs said the unit’s scheme will vary week to week, depending on the opponent. Former defensive coordinator Spencer Toone frequently defaulted into nickel defenses.

“For us, it’ll just be depending on what the offense likes to do,” Staggs said. “The heavier the team, the more base you go. And then the lighter the team goes, or the heavier the throw becomes, then you just adjust our personnel to theirs.”

Frequently the last line of defense, ISU’s safeties have a unique task. They might blitz, creep up near the line of scrimmage to cover a receiver or fall back into coverage to prevent a deep pass. The defense’s road to improvement relies on the safeties as much as anyone.

“That’s our main priority,” Aguirre said. “We’re trying to win the Big Sky championship.”