(Editor's note: UW Athletics release)
LARAMIE, Wyo. - It is often said that a successful offense in football begins up front with the offensive line. With that in mind, the ground work for a successful Wyoming offense in 2021 has been laid with one of the most talented, experienced and deep offensive line groups in many years.
Eight players return who have started during their college careers return, including the projected starters of senior guard Logan Harris, senior tackle Alonzo Velazquez, junior center Keegan Cryder, junior guard Eric Abojei and sophomore tackle Frank Crum. Other key contributors with past starting experience are junior tackle Rudy Stofer, sophomore guard Zach Watts and redshirt freshman center Latrell Bible. Four of the eight have started 20 or more games during their Wyoming careers. Cryder leads the group, having started the last 31 consecutive games for the Cowboys -- every game of his Wyoming career. Harris has 30 starts to his credit. Velazquez has started 23 games, and Stofer has started 21. Abojei (17 starts), Crum (11), Watts (7) and Bible (5) round out the group of experienced starters. All total, the group has started 145 games for the Pokes.
During their careers, the Cowboy offensive linemen have helped the Cowboys post three bowl-eligible seasons (2017, ‘18 and ‘19), two eight-win seasons (2017 and ‘19) and two bowl championship teams (the 2017 Idaho Potato Bowl and the 2019 Arizona Bowl).
When the NCAA ruled last season to allow student-athletes an additional year of eligibility, the Wyoming offense benefitted by having two seniors, Harris and Velazquez, both decide to return for an extra year. The decision by those two Cowboys solidified the Cowboy offensive line as one of the most talented in Wyoming history.
“This is such a great opportunity to come back and play one more year,” said Velazquez. “Even though I didn’t get to play last year due to an injury, it gave me an extra year to develop and stay here with my brothers one more year and try to win a championship.”
“It’s awesome,” said Harris. “Particularly with the way last year went. Our season was cut short and I would have felt terrible if that was my last season. As soon as they said last year wasn’t going to count against our eligibility, I knew I was coming back.”
When asked about the 145 starts the eight returning Cowboys have made together, Velazquez’s reaction was,“It is an impressive number and it shows how we’ve stuck together and helped each other learn and progress and continue to develop through our careers.
“I believe this year we’re really focused on continuing to develop our game and improve our understanding of the game. This offseason, we’ve been evaluating formations and schemes in a lot more detail and digging a lot deeper than just where to block and who to block. We’re being taught to understand what the reason is behind certain blocking schemes and our understanding of the game has improved and that has helped us play the game faster.”
A lot of the credit for that development and understanding goes to new offensive line coach Derek Frazier. In the offseason, Frazier was hired to lead the offensive line group. Harris had nothing but good things to say about his new position coach.
“The transition has been really good,” said Harris. “Coach Frazier is very, very smart. He knows a lot about football. We’ve learned so much this offseason, and what he teaches us really translates to the field. The things he talks with us about in our meetings really helps when we go out on the practice field. We have a really good understanding of what defenses are trying to do and why we are utilizing different formations. We even have a better understanding of why other positions on our team are aligned certain ways.
“It’s also a credit to Coach (Tim) Polasek (new offensive coordinator). He has done a lot of things in the offseason to boost our knowledge.”
The depth and experience on this year’s offensive line are characteristics head coach Craig Bohl has been striving to develop throughout his previous seven seasons at Wyoming.
“To play offensive line is a combination of being physical and also knowing how to play,” said Bohl. “Certainly game repetition and practice repetition come into play. That doesn’t mean a younger player can’t play at a high level, but it certainly helps when you have the experience gained from the number of games these guys have played together. We’re as deep as we’ve ever been at the offensive line position and we’re as old as we’ve ever been. We’ll leverage that come this fall.”
As one of the elder statesmen of the group, Harris was asked what it is like now to look around the O-Line group and see that depth finally be realized.
“Yeah, finally we have developed the kind of depth we’ve been working toward for years,” said Harris. “It’s encouraging to have so many capable guys. You don’t have to be as worried about losing one of us for a game or two because we know the next guy up is going to be able to step in and play well.
“Having this kind of depth also helps the competition between everybody. It provides that extra drive to know you have to come out every day in practice to earn your spot. I believe it also helps us learn from each other. Certain guys are going to be better at different aspects of the game, so you have an ability to learn from different guys, get tips from different guys. That makes us all better.”
Having played beside each other for so many games also enables the Cowboy offensive linemen to share a special connection with each other. They know how each other is going to react in different situations during a game.
“I wouldn’t say it’s like telepathic, but we’re real comfortable with each other and we can kind of anticipate what each other is going to do on certain plays,” said Harris. “The communication between us is excellent. It is a big confidence boost to know and trust the guys next to you.”
In terms of leadership, Harris is now trying to pass on the same winning ways to the younger members of the team that were passed on to him early in his career.
“We had some really good leaders when we first got here as freshmen,” said Harris. “That was when the program really started turning around to become a winning program and playing for a conference championship. Those guys knew how to win, and as freshmen it was good for us to see how to win and then to replicate that as we got older. Now our group has taken what the guys before us taught us and we’re teaching it to the young players on this team.”
The Cowboy offensive line has been essential to Wyoming being one of the top rushing teams in the nation each of the past two seasons, ranking No. 23 in 2019 (214.8 yards per game) and No. 14 in 2020 (219.5 yards per game). The 2019 O-Line also ranked No. 32 in the country in fewest sacks allowed (1.62 per game) and was one of only two Mountain West Conference teams and one of only 24 nationally to be named to the Joe Moore Award Mid-season Honor Roll. The Moore Award honors the nation’s top offensive line unit each season.
Another added element of this year’s group of offensive linemen is the versatility they’ve shown during their careers. Harris has made his last 16 starts at right guard, but he began his career starting 13 games at center his true freshman season of 2017. He also has started one game at left guard. Velazquez enters this season as the projected starter at left tackle, but has previously made all 23 of his starts at right tackle. Cryder has played all three interior O-Line positions during his Cowboy career. His redshirt freshman season of 2018 he started his first four college games at guard -- three at left guard and one at right guard -- before moving to center in the fifth game of 2018. He has been at center ever since. Stofer started seven games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2018. Then he moved to left tackle in 2019, starting all 13 games that season and one game at left tackle in 2020. Watts has six career starts at left guard and one at right guard. Bible’s five career starts all game in the 2020 season at left tackle, but this past offseason he was moved to center and is slated to back up Cryder. Two Cowboys have made all of their starts at the same position. Abojei has made all 17 of his career starts at left guard, and Crum has made all 11 of his starts at right tackle. They are both slated as projected starters at those same two positions in 2021.
With Wyoming’s 2021 season opener less than a month away on Sept. 4, the overall expectations for Wyoming Football are high. One of the reasons for those high expectations is knowing that the big men up front on the Cowboy offense are ready to pave the way for another successful season of Cowboy Football.