Breaking Down the ‘Boys: Offensive line
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl and the Wyoming football team are starting spring football a tad late this season.
Last year, COVID-19 put a halt to it all together. So, better late than never, right?
There's a method to Bohl's madness. 1) He wants more time to pass so the virus will hopefully be well under control. 2) He wants to see quarterback Sean Chambers at full strength.
There's arguably never been a more important training camp than this one in Bohl's eight seasons in Laramie. He is "re-engineering" his offense and has a pair of new coaches on that side of the ball, including Tim Polasek, who replaces longtime offensive coordinator Brent Vigen.
April 6 is when it all starts, culminating with the annual spring game May 8. So, what better time to break down this roster position by position?
We've already touched on the Cowboys' defense. You can find those right here:
We've analyzed the wide receiver, full back and tight end spots, now let's move to the big guys up front -- the offensive line.
Who are they: Eric Abojei (Jr. 6-5, 328, New Hope, Minn.), Blayne Baker (Soph. 6-5, 305, Sheridan, Wyo.), Caden Barnett (Fr. 6-5, 305, Justin, Texas), Frank Crum (Soph. 6-7, 314, Laramie, Wyo.), Keegan Cryder (Jr. 6-4, 309, Littleton, Colo.), Logan Harris (Sr. 6-3, 310, Torrington, Wyo.), Carlos Harrison (R-Fr. 6-4, 281, Carlsbad, Calif.), Kohl Herbolsheimer (Fr. 6-3, 298, Omaha, Neb.), Jack Lookabaugh (R-Fr. 6-5, 289, Coppell, Texas), Marco Machado (Soph. 6-4, 312, Waco, Neb.), Emmanuel Pregnon (Fr. 6-6, 297, Denver, Colo.), Mason Schultz (R-Fr. 6-4, 287, Aurora, Colo.), Rudy Stofer (Jr. 6-6, 308, Kearney, Neb.), Mana Taimani (Fr. 6-5, 282, Antioch, Calif.), Nofoafia Tulafono (Fr. 6-2, 338, Victorville, Calif.), Alonzo Velazquez (Sr. 6-6, 313, Janesville, Wisc.), Jack Walsh (Fr. 6-3, 290, Palatine, Ill.), Zach Watts (Soph. 6-5, 302, Windsor, Colo.), Malik Williams (Fr. 6-4, 274, Hayward, Calif.), Latrell Bible (R-Fr. 6-4, 300, Minneapolis, Minn.)
How they fared in 2020: To the surprise of no one, the Cowboys' offensive line made its living running the ball last fall. In just six games, Wyoming rushers amassed 1,317 yards on the ground in 275 attempts. That's an average of nearly five yards per tote.
UW ranked No. 14 in the nation in averaging rushing yards per outing with 219.5. If COVID-19 wouldn't have scraped six additional games, running back Xazavian Valladay was on pace to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the second consecutive season. His backup, Trey Smith, could've come very close, too.
All that above, that was the good news.
Here's some areas that weren't exactly viewed as strengths in 2020:
* Sacks: 16 in six games
* Tackles for loss: 37
* Passing offense: 113th out of 127 teams, averaging 153.3 yards per game
Wyoming quarterbacks -- Levi Williams, Sean Chambers and Gavin Beerup -- combined to drop back for just 133 passes last fall. A sack was registered by the opponent every eight tries. The Cowboys were on pace to allow 32 sacks. They gave up just 24 in 2019.
All of those numbers can't be solely blamed on the line, but that's where it all starts, right?
Analysis: This unit has a combined 145 starts under its collective belt entering 2021.
Maybe that's why first-year offensive line coach Derek Frazier had this to say at his introductory press conference in early March.
"Tell you what, you don't get much better than that," he said when asked about the returning experience of this group. "With the depth of the of that unit, I got to do a good job, make sure they do the right thing and try not to screw them up."
Starting center Keegan Cryder leads the way with 31 starts and is the most-decorated lineman in Laramie, earning Freshman All-American honors in 2018, followed by Second and First Team All-Mountain West nods. The Colorado product was also named to the Outland Trophy Award Watch List last fall. That is given to the nation's top interior lineman. The Rimington Trophy, given to the best center in the country, also honored Cryder with a watch list nod.
Logan Harris now has 30 starts and Alonzo Velazquez enters 2021 with 23. Rudy Stofer has also been atop the depth chart 21 times in his UW career.
Yes, this group -- formerly known as the "Dirt Dogs" under Bart Miller, who left for the same position at Illinois in the offseason -- has plenty of snaps at this collegiate level, but they also have proven to be one of the best in the business when it comes to run blocking.
They had their troubles though, particularly in a passing game that most weeks was non-existent.
Losing the starting quarterback on the third play from scrimmage certainly didn't help things. Chambers has proven over his 12 career starts that he can elude a pass rush and break a tackle or two.
Wyoming was also without starting right tackle, Velazquez, who missed the entire season with an injury. Couple that with Pat Arnold and Gavin Rush deciding to retire. The Cowboys' depth took an early hit.
Tim Polasek is installing a new offense this spring and has said he plans to open things up a bit. However, the run game will still dictate everything the Cowboys do on that side of the ball. Polasek coached the line at Iowa. Bohl said that's about as prestigious as it gets, and he's right. This unit might have lost the popular Miller, but it's gaining a pair of coaches in Polasek and Frazier.
They have a lot of weapons at their disposal.
Did Wyoming's line underperform in 2020? They'd be the first to tell you they did. Far too often they hung the QB out to dry. Far too often a defender was there seemingly faster than the snap.
We'll get to that below.
This unit has been viewed as a one-trick pony at times because of the struggles in the Cowboys' passing game. You can't pin that all on these guys, but they are the first to shoulder the blame. These guys are as selfless as they are aggressive. That should bode well for the new coaches coming in.
Inconsistency and inefficiency on offense has to become a thing of the past if this team hopes to "kick the door down" and compete for a conference championship.
Questions: Who makes the starting five?
Pencil Cryder in at center. You can likely do the same for big Eric Abojei at left guard and Harris on the right. Frank Crum started all six games at right tackle in 2020. Latrell Bible and Rudy Stofer shared time on the quarterback's blind side.
Where does Velazquez fit in? How about Zach Watts, Blayne Baker, Emmanuel Pregnon, Marco Machado and Mason Schultz? All of those guys spent a majority of last fall on the Cowboys' two-deep.
Of course, these are good problems to have. This is one of Wyoming's deepest position groups on the roster.
The real question surrounding the line is can they keep their tenacity in the run-blocking game while also building a wall in front of UW's young signal callers?
These guys gave up way too many sacks a season ago. Opposing defenders were in the Cowboys' backfield far too often. Did that have plenty to do with loaded boxes? You bet. No one believed UW could throw the ball with any consistency -- and they were right. It's hard to block when there are five of you and nine of them.
Here's another crazy thought: maybe the lack of UW pass rushers in practice didn't help this line either.
Solomon Byrd, one of the conference's premiere defensive ends, opted out before the season. So did Devon Wells-Ross. Garrett Crall, Byrd's running mate and fellow leader in getting to the quarterback, also missed a major portion of the season with an injury.
Coaches like to use the cliché that "iron sharpens iron." UW didn't have a ton of proven iron on the defensive front last fall without those guys, including defensive tackles Ravontae Holt, Mario Mora and Claude Cole.
It all works in unison, right?
If Chambers or Williams can start making plays in the passing game, that will only help this unit. It should help the running backs and tight ends, too. If this veteran line can give those guys time, coupled with a potent rushing attack, that should set up plays down field. That's what you've been screaming about for four years, huh?
This group has all the pieces in place to be one of the best in the country. They have experience and depth across the board. As you've seen, they have the right mindset, too. The days of UW's line being a liability all but died the day the Cowboys' upset Mizzou in the 2019 opener. They did it by punching an SEC team in the mouth for 60 minutes.
If they can do that to the Tigers, they can do it to the Falcons, Rams, Aggies and Broncos, too, right?
That's the expectation now. Also, a good problem to have.