5 burning questions ahead of Wyoming’s spring football season
LARAMIE -- The questions are more plentiful than answers. And there are a lot more than just five of them.
There's your understatement of the spring.
What will this Wyoming football team look like in 2022? Who will step under center for the Cowboys? Will Craig Bohl's offense open up even a smidgen entering year nine? How will they replace the numerous impact players who waltzed out the door after the Potato Bowl victory?
The list goes on.
At this time a season ago, this program was littered with veterans. Now, according to ESPN's Bill Connelly, UW has the fourth-lowest returning production in the country (37%) ahead of just Coastal Carolina, Hawaii and Nevada.
Two words: Transfer Portal.
Twelve former Cowboys -- eight on defense, four on offense -- decided to leave Laramie after the season, including both starting quarterbacks, the program's second all-time leading rusher and nearly its entire secondary.
Graduation also took its toll. Trey Smith, Garrett Crall and Esaias Gandy, among others, exhausted their eligibility. All-American linebacker Chad Muma also declared for the NFL Draft last December. Keegan Cryder is hoping to land in the league, too.
Wyoming will open spring football camp Tuesday inside War Memorial Stadium.
Here are just five of many pressing questions facing Bohl's bunch in 2022:
* Who will be the quarterback?
You always have to start there, right?
It's arguably the most important position in sports, one Bohl compares to flying an airplane. Lots of madness is happening all around, but composure and decision making are key.
Sean Chambers and Levi Williams are long gone.
Those two combined to take every snap last fall. The first guy is now reunited with former offensive coordinator Brent Vigen at Montana State. The latter stayed in the conference and now plays for rival Utah State.
The three signal callers remaining on the roster -- Hank Gibbs, Jayden Clemons and Gavin Beerup -- have combined to complete just 2-of-13 passes for 37 yards and a pair of interceptions. That resume belongs to Beerup. The other two have never taken a Division-I snap.
This is when we found out the portal works both ways.
Bohl and Co. snagged junior Andrew Peasley from the Aggies and inked Evan Svoboda from Snow College. The team also added Caden Becker in the 2022 recruiting class.
"As far as our optimism on the quarterbacks that we have coming in, we're very optimistic," Bohl said back in February during the NCAA's second signing day. "... We knew we're going to need to sign more than one to make sure that we could continue with the quarterback run, to a certain degree, in case we incurred an injury. When we lost both of them, (we said) 'OK, let's make some adjustments here.' I think we came up with a good plan."
Svoboda and Becker, Bohl said, will need some development.
Does that leave Peasley, a signal caller with 18 games under his belt, as the front runner?
"We gathered a lot of information," Bohl said about Peasley, who has thrown for 830 career yards and seven touchdowns and added 501 yards on the ground to go along with three scores. "So, it wasn't like we looked at Andrew saying, this guy's one of these prima-donna quarterbacks that doesn't feel like XYZ,. He got his degree. I think he's an excellent player. I think our system is going to speak to his skill sets and that he could do really well. So we're excited about him."
Sure sounds like it.
* Who are those guys?
Wyoming fans have grown accustomed to seeing Azizi Hearn and CJ Coldon man the cornerback spots over the last couple of seasons on the high plains. UW always seems to reload at the safety positions, but Esaias Gandy, Rome Weber and Braden Smith have been the Pokes last line of defense since 2020.
Those guys are all gone. So is Cam Murray and Keyon Blankenbaker.
The coaching staff is high on nickel corner Keonte Glinton and free safety Isaac White. Miles Williams will also return for his super senior season. Cam Stone flashed last season, especially in the kick return game, and Zaire Jackson and Jovon Marsh could be next in line.
The other guys on the backend?
You'll get to know them.
The Cowboys dipped back into the portal to snag a pair of Power-5 corners in Deron Harrell (Wisconsin) and Jakorey Hawkins (Ole Miss). They also sealed the deal with former Air Force safety, TJ Urban.
Coaches have raved about the athleticism across the board with this new group.
Keep an eye on strong safety Wyett Ekeler. A mainstay on special teams last season, racking up six tackles, the sophomore could make a run at a starting spot in this secondary.
Wyoming's finished 12th in the nation in passing yards allowed last season. Opponents averaged under 190 yards per game through the air.
You might not know many of these names yet, but you will.
* A new-look offense?
Don't count on it, though Bohl did say the plan was to air it out more in 2021.
"I tell you what, we wanted to throw the ball more but it's hard when you go out there and watch practice and see a hitch route get thrown in the dirt," Bohl said in February. "So, you know, all this clamoring -- 'coach Bohl is just going to do three yards and a cloud of dust ... '
"That's a misstep. We want to throw the ball, I'd just like to have some quarterbacks that can throw the ball."
Despite the bipolar ways of last year's offense, the Cowboys, as always, featured one of the top rushing attacks in the country, averaging 211.7 per game on the ground.
Leading rusher Xazavian Valladay is now wearing an Arizona State uniform. UW's front five will look different, too. Harris and Cryder are gone. So is Rudy Stofer and Alonzo Velazquez.
Not to fret -- those two positions actually have some depth.
Titus Swen should be the leading candidate to replace Valladay and he will be relieved by Dawaiian McNeely and a host of other young backs. Latrell Bible, Frank Crum and Eric Abojei are all back. There's a ton of beef on the two-deep roster, including 6-foot-2, 338-pound Nofoafia Tulafono.
The big boys up front will be playing for their fourth offensive line coach in the last two seasons. Joe Tripodi was hired to replace Derek Frazier, who spent just one season in Laramie.
The Cowboys think they have some guys under center who can sling it around the yard.
Will they though? This team ranked 117th in the nation out of 130 teams when it comes to throwing the pigskin. That's a measly average of just 162.7 yards per game.
"If you're reading through the lines, we're going to throw the ball better," Bohl said. "We're not going to be one-dimensional, but I'll be damned if we get around here and think we're going to win the Mountain West Conference championship by throwing it 80%.
"That ain't going to happen."
* Who will replace Muma in the middle?
There are plenty of question marks across the board for this version of the Wyoming defense, but a rather large one is who will step in and fill the cleats of its departed All-American middle linebacker?
This staff has been tasked with this very scenario before.
Muma slid in seamlessly for Logan Wilson, who just a couple of months ago was making tackles all over So-Fi Stadium in the Super Bowl.
This staff loves the versatility of Easton Gibbs. They showed that last August when they named the redshirt freshman the starting outside linebacker over a more experienced Charles Hicks. He responded with 89 total tackles and a pair of sacks.
Any chance Gibbs moves to the middle? That's something to keep an eye on in camp.
The Cowboys snagged linebacker/ safety hybrid Cole DeMarzo out of the transfer portal. The former Michigan State product has the speed and size to compete right away. Maybe he mans the outside spot?
Youngsters like Connor Shay, Shae Suiaunoa and Sam Scott are still very much in the mix, too. All three spent time last season on the two-deep depth chart.
Make no mistake, losing Muma has ramifications. He made up for plenty of deficiencies on the Cowboys' defense in '21. Can any of these guys listed above step in, but more importantly, step up?
Players like Muma don't come around every day. Wyoming just enjoyed nearly a decade with two of the best linebackers in the country.
* Will this team compete?
Let's be real, you've asked or been asked -- "How do you think the Cowboys will look this year?"
What's your answer?
I struggle with this one. I also think back to the summer before the 2019 season when I first met Bohl and asked him this very question. "We're waiting in the weeds," he told me at Mountain West Media Days in Las Vegas.
He was right.
With little to no expectations, Wyoming went 8-5 and upset Missouri inside War Memorial Stadium on opening day. The first four losses came via a combined 15 points. That young, inexperienced squad went on to trounce Georgia State 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl.
Of course, all of that above doesn't mean much at this point. The transfer portal was not kind to the Cowboys this offseason. Graduation didn't help matters.
There are reasons to believe this team will compete: An experienced quarterback, a powerful, speedy running back, blockers up front with some birthdays under their collective belt. Guys like Cole Godbout, Jordan Bertgnole and Gibbs provide hope, too.
There are also a number of reasons to be skeptical: UW lost a ton of talent to the portal. Replacing a wide receiver the caliber of Isaiah Neyor won't be easy, to say the least. You can also throw Muma, Cryder, Hearn and Coldon, among others, in that category. Who is rushing the quarterback? Solomon Byrd is gone. So is Jaylen Pate, Victor Jones and Crall?
Ravontae Holt is attempting a comeback, but is three season-ending knee injuries too much to overcome?
Spring is the time when those new household names begin to emerge. We all get one chance to see it on display, April 30 during the annual spring game in Laramie.
Let's sit back and watch it all unfold.
University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players
- University of Wyoming’s Top 50 Football Players