Wyoming Football Coach Craig Bohl Says It's About "The Jimmys and the Joes"
Wyoming football coach Craig Bohl is a proud disciple of Tom Osborne.
A walk-on at Nebraska, he was a linebacker for the Osborne-coached Cornhuskers from 1977-79, and returned to Lincoln for an eight-year run as an assistant first under the leadership of Osborne (1996-97) and after Osborne became the Nebraska athletic director, six years on the staff of Frank Solich.
His education at Nebraska has served him well in head coaching opportunities at North Dakota State (2003-13) and now Wyoming, since 2014.
Nebraska may have been a Power 5 powerhouse under Osborne, opening doors for the 4- and 5-star talent, but he also found hidden gems with a strong commitment toward finding that diamond in the rough with the Nebraska Black Shirts, a redshirt program that served Osborne well.
And it has been a part of the foundation for Bohl's success as well, first at Division I-AA North Dakota State and currently with Football Subdivision Wyoming, neither of which have the NCAA legacy to make an impact with highly-rated prospects in recruiting.
"It's about the Jimmys and the Joes," he said.
While Power 5 schools are boasting about their multi-star commitments for the Class of 2021 already, the first members of which will not officially sign letters of intent until December, Bohl continues to have eyes wide open in search of those overlooked impact players.
He's looking to build off a growing legacy that has produced the likes of quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Josh Allen, linebacker Logan Wilson, defensive backs Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps, and defensive end Garrett Crall. They have played significant roles in Wyoming climbing out of that rebuild stage of Bohl's first two years to being bowl eligible each of the last four.
Wentz came out of North Dakota State and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles as the second selection in the first round in 2016. Allen went to Buffalo as the No. 7 pick overall in 2018. Wingard, signed as an undrafted player a year ago and was a key member of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019. Wilson was the third-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals this year. Epps went from a walk-on from Los Angeles to an NFL draft of Minnesota and currently a member of the Philadelphia Eagles. Crall, a walk-on out of northeast Ohio, will be a senior at Wyoming in the coming season.
Don't ask Bohl how many stars the players Wyoming signed in the Class of 2020 have. He honestly doesn't know -- and he doesn't care. His focus is on how they develop at Wyoming, not what they did in high school
It's that Osborne mentality he developed at Nebraska.
"I thought Tom Osborne was as good as there was in America to be able to sort out the guys that were paper lions and really didn't have the wherewithal to develop into a great player, and then be able to find the guys that could," said Bohl. "What he did was really good as far as being able to be very authentic and telling (recruits) what the culture was going to be like in the classroom, what the expectations were going to be like, what the opportunities would be. It was never a hard sell."
And as Bohl points out, it is hard to argue with success.
"You can be really skeptical, simply because it does take time," he said. "But for me, those eight years I was (a coach) at Nebraska had a profound effect on me. I saw how effective we were as a football program. There was a stretch we went 60-3, and then at North Dakota State there was a period where we were 43-2, and a lot of that had to do with building a program from within."
He stressed that to Wyoming Athletic Director Tom Burman before signing his initial contract.
"When Tom hire me he said, `I want to play Cowboy tough football,'" Bohl said. "I said, `Just understand that's not a slogan on a t-shirt. It's going to take some years. Those first couple of years we had we're pretty dam lean."
With eight seniors on the roster in his first year and seven in the second year, the Cowboys had their challenges. However, they have been bowl-eligible each of the last four seasons. They lost to BYU in the Poinsettia Bowl in 2016, but beat Central Michigan in the Potato Bowl in 2017, and after being left out in 2018, Wyoming dominated Georgia State in the 2019 Nova Home Loan Tucson Bowl with true freshman Levi Williams make his first collegiate start.
Williams is an outlier in Bohl's program. He was a top recruit out of high school, but a couple weeks after Williams signed his letter of intent in December of 2019, Houston coach Major Applewhite was fired, and Dan Holgorsen hired.
A month later, Holgorsen made it clear that his son, not Williams, would be the freshman quarterback who played, and opened the door for Williams to decommit, long after most schools had already locked up their quarterbacks for the coming freshman class.
Within days, Williams and his family had met with the Wyoming coaches at their home near San Antonio, visited the Wyoming campus, and Williams had signed a letter of intent and enrolled at Wyoming for the spring semester.
"You have to trust the process," said Bohl.
And the process means looking past the high school hype.
"What is important is to find the person that fits into the state (of Wyoming)," he said. "For us, whether a guy is from Los Angeles or Chicago, is he going to really be happy and grow and blossom in Laramie? That's a lot more art than science."
It also is important to see beyond the present in recruiting a player.
"What we have done through the years is find guys who are not in a certain box," said Bohl. "We look for multi-sport athletes, guys who just don't focus on one thing. The other thing, we cannot stand the guy who feels he is entitled and tries to collect a certain number of offers. We're looking for the competitor who may not be developed but we can develop."
And Bohl was quick to give a shout out to offensive coordinator/assistant head coach Brent Vigen.
"You can say we got lucky having one quarterback in the NFL," said Bohl."When you have two, who started as rookies, who were both in the playoffs, I don't think that's luck. That's finding those guys. ... A lot of that is the recruiting process that Vigen went through. That's the whole M.O. with the recruiting process here. "
-- Wentz, a North Dakota native and Philadelphia's selection with the second pick overall in the 2016 draft, was easily overlooked.
"He was probably 6-foot-1," said Bohl. "His junior year (in high school) he had a broken arm. He was playing linebacker and was a basketball player. We knew he was a really bright guy, and then he came in to North Dakota State and continued to grow. He was a very athletic guy. A couple of things did not change. He was a tremendous competitor and he was really smart.
"I remember the first scrimmage he had as a freshman. Most of the kids can't even remember the snap count and to call out the play. He was in the huddle, he did the play. He stepped back from the ball. We are on the five yard line and he changed the audible to a quick slant to the X-receiver. I said, `Carson what are you doing?' He says, `I'm down on the goal line and I knew they were in zero man with outside leverage so I I hit the slant to the X-receiver."
-- Josh Allen, who Fresno State refused to allow to walk on. His year at junior college he sent out letters to 100 Division 1 coaches, and heard back from only one school -- Wyoming.
"We watched him and it was similar to Carson," said Bohl. "We saw a really competitive guy. He was a pitcher. Every time Firebaugh (Ca., High School) played somebody in baseball they played Johnny Cash's `Ring of Fire.' His family is ultra-competitive. He might have been 6-foot-2, 185 pounds in high school and he had a strong arm.
"We watched film of him in junior college and you saw him jump over the pile, have an arm like a rocket, and he was competitive. We felt he was our guy and he ended up being our guy."
-- Garrett Crall came out of Hicksville, Ohio, looking to enter the military when he graduated from high school. Playing college football wasn't a serious consideration. Nobody from his high school had ever played college football. But now one has -- Crall.
"We had a connection," said Bohl. "Mike Bath, who was on our staff, was from the area and had gone to school and coached at Miami (Ohio). The other thing was having been a part of that walk-on program at Nebraska. A lot of those guys ended up having great careers.''
-- Marcus Epps was a walk-on from the Los Angeles area and now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles.
"He was a three-year captain for us and he was drafted (in the sixth round by Minnesota)," said Bohl. "A lot of it is we are authentic. We tell them we are going to give them an opportunity and when you are on the team you are on the team. Those guys come in and work their butt off, and all of a sudden a guy who has a scholarship sees (the walk-on) working harder than him. That tells the kid, `I better get my butt in gear.'"
-- Logan Wilson came out of Natrona County High School in Casper, Wyo. His only other scholarship offer was from Division I-AA Weber State. A linebacker at Wyoming, he was the third-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Bengals this year after being a four-year starter at Wyoming, where he had 409 tackles and was a three-year captain elected by his teammates.
"He played corner in high school," said Bohl. "We saw his athleticism and his burning desire. We took those skills he had and put them in a different position. He ended up being a linebacker."
-- And Andrew Wingard, the Colorado high school player of the year, who Colorado State would not even extend a recruiting visit. His father, who was a punter at Nebraska when Bohl was on the Cornhusker staff, contacted Bohl, who welcomed Wingard to Wyoming.
He became a four-year starter at Wyoming, a team captain, made 454 tackles, and was a three-time first team All-Mountain West Conference Selection. Then, undrafted out of college, Wingard signed as a free agent with Jacksonville, made the 2019 Opening Day roster, and became a key part of the defensive alignment.
"Some of it is luck," said Bohl, "but there were things we saw. He had good physical skills. He could run well. He wasn't great. He was a tailback in high school, and he really wasn't focused on defense.
"But the thing we saw in him was a burning desire to be a great football player, a competitive nature."
And whether it's a big-time recruit, or a walk-on from a corner of Ohio, once they arrive in Laramie all players are treated equal.
"We had a strength coach who said, `Coach, this is our strength schedule. The offense is going to lift at this time. The defense is going to lift at this time, and then we are going to have the walk-ons lift at this time.'
"I said, `What?' He said, `We'll have the walk-ons work at this time.' I said, `No, no, no, you don't understand. That guy is an offensive player. That guy is a defensive player. We don't give a damn who is paying tuition. They are not walk-ons. They are players.' You have to look at it that way. They know they are going to be given an opportunity."
It's what Bohl learned first as a player and later as an assistant coach at Nebraska, and it's a method he has used to build successful programs at both North Dakota State and Wyoming.
It's not about how many stars are next to a player's name.
It's about how committed that player is to being part of a program, where the only name on the jersey is the name of the school.
It's about being a part of a team, not about any individual.