Cowboys Have Built a Foundation -- Next Step is Claiming a Championship
From the desk of Tim Harkins/Wyoming Athletic Department
The Cowboys are coming off a successful season in 2019, concluding on a high note with a decisive 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl.
The ’ bowl win capped off an 8-5 season -- the third eight-win campaign in the past four seasons. The 2019 season was highlighted by home wins over Missouri (37-31), Nevada (31-3) and Colorado State (17-7).
UW returns 12 starters and 48 lettermen from last year’s team, including its entire stable of running backs and seven of eight offensive linemen who started last season for a team that ranked No. 23 in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 214.8 yards per game.
Also returning are talented quarterbacks in Sean Chambers, and sophomore, and redshirt freshman Levi Williams. While the Cowboys enjoyed a very productive season in 2019, they know it could have been even better if it weren’t for four closeroad losses by five points or less. Wyoming lost a three-point game (21-24) at Tulsa in Week Four of the season.
UW’s only loss in the month of October was a four-point (22-26) loss at San Diego State, then in November the Cowboys lost a three-point (17-20) overtime game at No. 21 ranked Boise State and a five-point (21-26) road game the following week at Utah State.
Those four close losses have served to fuel the Cowboys desire to reach new heights in 2020.
Defensively, the Cowboys were one of the top defenses in the nation in 2019, ranking No. 11 in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing opponents only 17.8 points per game, and No. 11 in rushing defense, giving up only 107.1 yards rushing per contest.
Leading the way for Wyoming’s offense will be junior running back Xazavian Valladay and junior center Keegan Cryder, who are the leaders of very deep runnning back and offensive line groups.
Valladay was named a First Team All- Mountain West selection in 2019 as a sophomore after leading the league in rushing with 1,265 rushing yards. He also led the Mountain West in all-purpose yards, averaging 124.08 yards per game.
Cryder was named to the All-MW Second Team as a sophomore. His offensive line group helped pave the way for the Cowboy running backs and quarterbacks to record a total of 12, 100-yard rushing games during the ‘19 season. Joining Cryder up front is senior right guard Logan Harris, an Honorable Mention All-Conference pick as a junior.
Also returning is starting left guard Eric Abojei, a junior, and three tacklers who started for the Pokes last season in senior Alonzo Velazquez, junior Rudy Stofer and sophomore Frank Crum. Add to that group, sophomore Zach Watts, who started the final three games of 2019 at left guard, and redshirt junior Gavin Rush, who started 22 games his true freshman and sophomore seasons before missing the last two seasons due to injury. The only loss on the offensive line was junior to be Patrick Arnold, who graduated early to pursue his dream of going to medical school.
Valladay is not the only quality running back returning for Wyoming. Graduate transfer Trey Smith came to UW last fall from the University of Louisville. In Week Three, he exploded for 152 yards and two touchdowns against Idaho and looked as if he was poised for a big year, but the following week at Tulsa he suffered a season-ending leg injury. Smith was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and returns in top shape for the 2020 season. Sophomore Titus Swen also showed flashes of brillance in his true freshman season. Swen ran for 136 yards and one TD versus UNLV, but like Smith would play only one more game at San Diego State before his season came to an end with a knee injury.
Valladay, Smith and Swen will be joined by: sophomore Brett Brenton, who had 82 yards rushing vs. UNLV last season; redshirt freshmen Dawaiian McNeely, Alphonzo Andrews Jr. and Jeremy Hollingsworth; and true freshman Joseph Braasch.
The other position the Cowboys have the luxury of depth is at quarterback where sophomore Chambers returns along with redshirt freshman Williams. Chambers was having an outstanding redshirt freshman season before it was cut short after eight weeks due to injury. Chambers had led Wyoming to a 6-2 record when his season ended, and he had accounted for 1,482 yards of total offense (915 passing and 567 rushing) with 17 combined touchdowns (seven passing and 10 rushing). Williams played in Wyoming’s final three games of the season vs. Colorado State, at Air Force and in the bowl game. He got his first start in the bowl victory over Georgia State where he threw for 234 yards and three TDs and rushed for another 53 yards and one TD. Because he played in only three games, Williams was able to still redshirt under current NCAA redshirt rules.
“We have never in the 17 years that Coach (Brent) Vigen and I have been together played two quarterbacks, but we’re working on a plan to get both of our quarterbacks in the game this coming season,” said Bohl. “It won’t necessarily be an even number of plays, but I think both of them deserve to be in the gameplan. We’re comfortable with both of them and if you have two healthy quarterbacks who have shown the ability to compete and win that puts you in a pretty advantageous position.
“In 2016, we had a very explosive offense, and of course Josh Allen was a big part of that. We have several players from that team playing in the NFL, including our starting center, Chase Roullier, who starts for Washington now. Chase led a good offensive line group in 2016, but when you look at the offensive line we have now as a group, it is significantly better than what we had that year (2016). With our offensive line, the running backs and the quarterbacks coming back, plus we think we can get the ball to our tight ends a little more as well as our receivers, I think we can be much more prolific offensively this season.
“I would say going into this season, we’re optimistic that we are going to see pretty consistent productivity from our offense. We definitely have more weapons offensively this year than last. I think our offense can be pretty effective, and I think our scoring will increase. We’ve got a seasoned, experienced offensive line that will have an impact, depth at the quarterback position and depth at the running back position. We need to develop some receivers, so we’re not one dimensional. But the makings are there. It’s not like you look and say our cupboard is bare -- I think it’s pretty well stocked.”
The one area of the Cowboy offense that is looking to improve in 2020 is the passing game. Senior wide receivers Dontae Crow and Ayden Eberhardt along with junior Gunner Gentry are the top returning veterans. They will be joined by a group of young, talented players in sophomore Wyatt Wieland and redshirt freshmen Alex Brown, Devin Jennings and Isaiah Neyor. UW lost its top three receivers from last year in senior wideouts Raghib Ismail Jr. and Austin Conway and senior tight end Josh Harshman. Three of Wyoming’s top four tight ends do return in junior Nate Weinmen and sophomores Jackson Marcotte and Treyton Welch.
The Cowboys return several talented players from last year’s defense in defensive ends Garrett Crall (senior) and Solomon Byrd (sophomore), nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker (junior), linebacker Chad Muma (junior), cornerback Azizi Hearn (junior) and free safety Rome Weber (sophomore). But the defense also lost several key senior leaders in NFL Draft picks Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia at linebacker, leading tackler Alijah Halliburton at strong safety, cornerback and kick returner Tyler Hall and defensive end Josiah Hall.
A couple very talented Cowboys will be returning from injury in 2020 to help bolster the defense. Those two juniors are Ravontae Holt at defensive tackle and C.J. Coldon at cornerback. Both are former starters, who should provide a huge boost to the Cowboy defense. Holt missed the entire 2019 season because of injury. Coldon started the first three games in 2019 before being injured and lost for the remainder of the season.
Other key returners for the defense are senior safeties Esais Gandy at strong safety and Braden Smith at free safety.
Gandy finally gets his opportunity to start after backing up the likes of Andrew Wingard and Alijah Halliburton the first three years of his career. Smith started one game in 2019 vs. Idaho, and will team up with Weber again this year to form an experienced tandem at free safety. Up front, junior defensive tackle Victor Jones will team with his fellow Sacramento, Calif., native Holt. Sophomore nose tackles Mario Mora and Cole Godbout return after doing an outstanding job sharing the starting role last season.
“Defensively, losing our two linebackers, in Logan (Wilson) and Cassh (Maluia), along with Alijah Halliburton at safety and Tyler Hall at cornerback were big losses,” said Bohl. “Those guys were tackling machines, so we’ve got some work to do there. I’m also concerned about the kicking game, with the loss of Cooper Rothe. We’ve got some tools in our toolbox, but we’re going to have to have some guys step up and have a good year.”