(Editor's note: UW Athletics release)
LARAMIE, Wyo. - Preparations for a new football season began on Tuesday for the Wyoming Cowboys when they kicked off spring sractice for the 2021 season.
It has been two years since the Cowboys have held a spring practice after 2020 Spring Football was canceled due to COVID-19. Wyoming is allowed 15 spring practices by the NCAA, with the final day being the Spring Game on Saturday, May 8 that will be open to the public.
Coming off one of the most unusual college football seasons ever, head coach Craig Bohl is looking forward to a full spring with a normal evaluation process and get his team prepared for the 2021 season.
“It was a challenging year,” said Bohl in regard to the 2020 season. “We were playing, then we weren’t playing, then we were playing, which made it very difficult on everyone.
“Last year certainly was not the performance I would have anticipated coming off the previous year, so I feel like we carry a feeling of underachieving into this spring.
“This will be a very physical spring. We were not able to have spring football last year, and so we’re going to do a significant amount of scrimmaging and see where our team lies. We really want to identify what things we can do well. We’ve always utilized our time well in the spring and I thought last year, without spring football, it really handcuffed us. It’s going to be good to get back to playing Cowboy Football.”
With this being the first spring football since the spring of 2019, Bohl, his coaching staff and his players are hungry to get back on the field. They will have 15 practices this spring to get a jump start on the 2021 season. For Bohl, now entering his eighth season at Wyoming, his 19th as a college head coach and his 41st overall season as an assistant or head coach this is a special time of year.
“Spring Football for me personally is one of my favorite times because you’re able to go out and coach fundamentals and evaluate the young men on your football team,” said Bohl. “Our goals in spring are number one to evaluate personnel. Number two is to install the fundamentals or our offense and defense, and then the third thing is to experiment and tweek things. To be able to get out for 15 days of good weather and work with our players is really rewarding. I know our coaching staff is looking forward to it, and I believe our players are looking forward to it too.”
A factor that will make this spring unique was the decision by the NCAA to grant student-athletes an added year of eligibility due to the interrupted season of 2020. That offers schools across the nation an opportunity to have many experienced players return who otherwise would have graduated and exhausted their eligibility. That is certainly the case for Wyoming, which will return 22 of 24 starters from last year’s team. But Bohl knows that will be the case for many of the Cowboys’ 2021 opponents, as well.
“I think every school in the country is probably deeper than they’ve ever been,” said Bohl. “Not only will we have a deep football team, but we’ve had a great winter. I think more guys than ever hit their personal bests in winter conditioning whether it be speed or strength. We’re deep and have a really healthy football team as we complete our winter conditioning and head into the spring.”
In terms of having so many players back, Bohl was asked if he felt that will that allow his team to be more productive in spring ball since most of the players already have a good understanding of Wyoming’s offensive and defensive systems?
“Not only the veterans, but we have some young emerging players who were able to gain experience last season,” said the head coach. “Our numbers are up. This is a more fortified spring roster than what I can ever remember, and so as a result of that the number of repetitions we’ll be able to get into practices to evaluate our players will be significantly up.”
Re-Engineering the Offense
Bohl has spoken in the offseason about re-engineering the Wyoming offense. Asked what he has planned for the spring to accomplish that, Bohl said, “We need to be able to identify what things we can do to penetrate and stress opposing defenses. With the limited number of players we had and the players we didn’t have last year, we were challenged to find our identity. To be able to be explosive, to be able to stress a defense and attack a defense it is really going to be important for us to find that identity this spring.”
As the Cowboys look to re-engineer the offense, they will have some new coaches in place to refine UW’s offensive schemes. Wyoming will have a new offensive coordinator this year as former Cowboy associate head coach Brent Vigen earned an opportunity this offseason to become the head coach at Montana State. Tim Polasek will take over the Wyoming offense as coordinator after serving as the offensive line coach at the University of Iowa the past four seasons. Polasek brings with him valuable experience from Iowa, and he also possesses a great understanding of Bohl’s offensive philosophy as he served as a member of Bohl’s staff at North Dakota State from 2006-12. Derek Frazier joins the Cowboy coaching staff this year as UW’s new offensive line coach. Frazier was most recently with the New York Jets of the NFL. A former native of Fort Collins, Colo., Frazier has a great understanding of Wyoming Football as his father, Tom Frazier, was captain of Wyoming’s 1966 team that posted a 10-1 season and defeated Florida State in the Sun Bowl. In addition to the two new members of the offensive coaching staff, current Cowboy wide receivers coach Mike Grant was promoted to Passing-Game Coordinator in the offseason.
“New ideas are always important and we have two new members on our offensive staff this year,” said Bohl. “One of the things that has been helpful is Coach (Derek) Frazier has brought in some new perspectives that he has with a wealth of collegiate experience and a couple years in the NFL. Coach Polasek and I worked together for many years, and what has been enjoyable for me is to see his personal growth. He coordinated a couple offenses at NDSU, but where he really grew was the last four years at Iowa.
“We’ll add some new things to our offense, but we have a recruiting model that we’ve already recruited our players to, so we can’t veer off drastically. Our fans are going to see a more effective, explosive offense, but it’s not going to be an entirely new system. It is exciting to take a new look at things.”
Prolific Defense Returns
On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys were one of the top performing defenses in the country. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel returns with his entire defensive coaching staff and all 11 starters. In addition to those returning starters, a number of talented players who opted out of last season are also returning.
Wyoming’s defense ranked among the Top 30 teams in the nation in 10 defensive categories in 2020, including ranking No. 16 in the country in total defense, No. 21 in rushing defense, No. 24 in scoring defense and No. 29 in pass defense.
The Cowboy defenders were also very disruptive, ranking No. 12 among FBS teams in tackles for loss and No. 24 in quarterback sacks. A total of 17 different Cowboys recorded tackles for loss in 2020 and 10 different Pokes recorded sacks.
Not only are there a great number of players returning for Wyoming in 2021, but there is a very strong core of leaders coming back. How Bohl sees that impacting his program, he says, depends on how that leadership is utilized.
“I think it can be really impactful to have that kind of leadership back, but what is apparent is most of our opponents are going to have the same situation on their teams,” said Bohl. “I think it is going to come down to who leverages that experience and that leadership the best.”
Outstanding Individual Team Leaders
Several Cowboys had outstanding seasons in the shortened season of 2020. For the second consecutive season, junior running back Xazavian Valladay led the Mountain West in rushing and ranked among the Top 20 running backs in then nation. Valladay earned First Team All-Mountain West honors for the second straight season and was named to both the 2020 Doak Walker Award Watch List (Nation’s Premier Running Back) and the 2020 Maxwell Award Watch List (Best Player in College Football).
Junior linebacker Chad Muma earned his first First Team All-Mountain West honor in 2020. Muma led the Mountain West in tackles and ranked No. 3 in the nation in 2020, averaging 11.8 tackles per game. He also ranked No. 16 in the nation in solo tackles (5.5 per game). Muma emerged as one of the best linebackers in the Mountain West and the nation his junior season after playing behind former Cowboys and 2020 NFL Draft picks Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia his freshman and sophomore seasons.
The third Poke to earn First Team All-Mountain West honors in 2020 was center Keegan Cryder. Cryder was the leader of an outstanding offensive line. He was named to both the 2020 Rimington Trophy Watch List (Most Outstanding Division I Center) and the Outland Trophy Watch List (Nation’s Best Interior Lineman).
When talking about those outstanding individuals he has returning, Bohl focused on not only their individual skills but also the positive, team-first attitude they bring to the program.
“Those guys have established themselves as some of the better players in the conference,” said Bohl. “What I think is special is that those guys are team guys. Many times when guys get to the tail end of their career they will begin to focus on individual goals. Those guys have demonstrated themselves to be ultimate team players. When you get your better players who are really team players first, that is when you are going to operate at a high level.”
Building a Positive Team Culture
The 2020 season required a focus on player safety and following protocols that would limit COVID exposure in order for teams to play as many games as possible. While Wyoming had two games canceled in 2020 versus Air Force and Utah State, neither of those cancellations were due to the Cowboys being unable to play it was due to COVID exposure on the Air Force and USU squads. The Cowboy players, coaches and staff did an outstanding job of maintaining the discipline necessary to follow proper protocols throughout the season. But some of those protocols limited normal team functions such as in-person team meetings, team meals on the road, etc. that help to build a positive team culture.
“One of the things that was challenging about COVID for everybody, but particularly us, is we have a really tight-knit culture within our football team and COVID did everything to separate that,” said Bohl. “I think the teams that maybe adjusted better were teams that could individualize things and that is just not in our DNA.
“We’re going to leverage the fact that it’s a new day. I want to send a shout out to our fans to get your tickets because War Memorial Stadium is going to be rocking and these senior leaders and captains are going to do a great job of representing Wyoming.”
Bohl on the Cowboy Offense Entering 2021 Spring Practice
“When you look at depth, we’re deep at a lot of positions but I’ll start with the offensive line,” said Bohl. “With some of the guys who would have graduated that are coming back like Logan Harris we’re definitely deeper there. The return of Alonzo Velazquez, who was an entrenched starter before he missed last season with an injury, will make us even deeper.
“It’s certainly great to have Sean (Chambers) back this spring. We have five quarterbacks going through spring practice, which is a positive situation. We’ll need to make sure we spread the reps around. I would say that Sean is probably moving at about 90 percent right now, which is on target. He’ll be able to function and do all the things that we need him to do.
“We’ll certainly have some competition with Levi (Williams) at the quarterback position, and then the third spot will be up for grabs. We’ll have a few candidates that will be vying for that spot. Hank Gibbs is one of those. Then we have a transfer, Jayden Clemons, from Utah, and Gavin Beerup is another returning quarterback.
“At running back, we’re deep, as well. Xazavian Valladay and Trey Smith are both back. We have several other players at running back who we’ll be getting reps to throughout spring.
“At the wide receiver position, we certainly need to throw the ball and catch the ball better than what we did last year. Our completion percentage last year was right at 46 percent and we’re shooting for 60 percent. We’ve re-engineered our passing game and Coach (Mike) Grant will be the coordinator of our passing game, so we anticipate that we’ll throw the ball better. We feel like we have a number of good wide receivers coming back, and a lot of our younger players at that position got good experience last year.”
Bohl on the Cowboy Defense Entering 2021 Spring Practice
“On the defensive side of the football, we’re deeper than we’ve been in a long time at defensive end,” said Bohl. “We’re probably still a little thin at the defensive tackle position. Ravontae Holt will not be going through spring football, and Jordan Bertagnole will not be going through spring.
“Our linebackers are solid, and our secondary is solid. Overall our defensive numbers were good last year. What I think we need to do a better job of is creating more takeaways. That comes from guys playing with confidence and being aggressive. Last year, I thought our coaching staff really did a good job of implementing some new schemes. We certainly utilized some different things with our linebackers. We need to make sure we continue to get pressure on the quarterback. When we’re able to do that, that is when we’re going to get some sack fumbles or some interceptions.
“We have typically been one of the better teams in the country with turnover margin and that has the biggest impact on winning than any other statistic, so we’ve got to do a good job of protecting the football on offense and a better job of taking it away on defense.”
Bohl on the Cowboy Special Teams Entering 2021 Spring Practice
Last season, Wyoming entered the offseason searching for a replacement for both its punter and place-kicker. Gone to graduation were senior punter Ryan Galovich and four-year starting place-kicker and Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year Cooper Rothe.
In one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises of the 2020 season, true freshman place-kicker John Hoyland stepped to the forefront. From his very first game against Nevada, when he was named Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week, to the end of the season, when he was named by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) as its Freshman All-America place-kicker, Hoyland was one of the best kickers in the nation. He ended the season ranked No. 1 in the country in field goals made per game (averaging 2.17 per game), was No. 6 in field-goal percentage (.929, 13 of 14) and ranked No. 19 in scoring (9.2 points per game).
“John did a great job for us and he has been placed on scholarship,” said Bohl. “We also feel like Ralph (Fawaz) is going to be an excellent punter. He’s done some things this offseason that are encouraging. He hit the ball well last fall in practice, but he was just inconsistent. It will be fun to see him perform this spring. I think our kicking game is solid.”