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Wyoming Cowboys search for QB options, return stout defense

Posted at 2:48 PM, Mar 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 16:01:21-04

(UW Athletics release)

LARAMIE, Wyo. – Spring football practice will begin for the Wyoming Cowboys this Tuesday with a dynamic defense returning to lead the way.  That defense will be led by senior All-America candidates Andrew Wingard at strong safety and Carl Granderson at defensive end.  They will be joined by juniors Youhanna Ghaifan at defensive tackle and Logan Wilson at middle linebacker.  Wingard, Granderson and Ghaifan were all First Team All-Mountain West selections a year ago.  Wilson was a Second Team All-MW honoree.  Senior free safety Marcus Epps also returns after being elected a team captain each of the past two seasons and starting for each of the past three years.  A total of eight starters and 22 lettermen return on defense for the Pokes.  Rounding out the eight returning starters are senior nose tackle Sidney Malauulu, junior defensive end Josiah Hall and junior outside linebacker Cassh Maluia.

On offense, the Cowboys return nine starters and 23 lettermen but will, of course, be looking for a new quarterback to replace former Cowboy standout and potential top NFL Draft pick Josh Allen.

Head coach Craig Bohl has engineered the return of Cowboy Football to prominence.  Bohl is entering his fifth season as head coach of the Pokes in 2018.  He feels good about the many veterans he has returning, but is focused on several areas that his team needs to improve on as the Cowboys start spring drills.

“We’re certainly excited about the start of spring ball,”said Bohl.  “We’re going to leverage our defense.  Anytime you can play great defense, you have a chance to create and maintain momentum.  We do feel like we have some dynamic players over on the defensive side, but we need to continue to improve.

“At quarterback, it’s great to have Nick (Smith) out there along with Tyler (Vander Waal).  I think it’s going to be important for us to evaluate the quarterbacks we have throughout spring drills.  That position is such an important position.

“Spring football is probably one of the more enjoyable times I have as a head football coach because you’re not involved in preparing for the schemes you are going to implement against the next opponent, rather you have an opportunity to work with all the players on your roster.  They’re all out there competing and learning, and its more of a teaching time of year.”

Wyoming is coming off back-to-back, eight-win seasons, consecutive bowl appearances and a victory in the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.  The Cowboy defense ranked among the nation’s best in numerous categories in 2017, including ranking: No. 1 in the nation in takeaways (38), No. 1 in fumbles recovered (18), No. 2 in interceptions (20), No. 8 in defensive touchdowns scored (4), No. 9 in scoring defense (allowing only 17.5 points per game), No. 13 in pass defense (174.9 yards per game), No. 14 in pass defense efficiency (112.67 rating) and No. 23 in total defense (335.2 yards per game).

The Cowboy offense ranked No. 2 in the nation in red-zone offense, converting 33 of 34 red-zone opportunities into scores (97.1 percent) and ranked No. 19 in the country in fewest turnovers committed (14).

The offense and defense combined to rank No. 1 in the nation in turnover margin, ending the season with a total +24 turnover margn (38 turnovers gained to 14 turnovers lost).  The next closest team in the country was Central Florida with a total of a +17.  Cowboy special teams also were among the nation’s best, ranking No. 1 in the NCAA in kickoff returns (28.3 yards per return).

One of the keys to a successful spring practice is to enter spring drills in top condition following winter conditioning workouts.  Bohl said he feels good about the progress his team made this winter under new director of sport performance Ben Iannacchione.                                                                  “We’re really pleased to have Ben (Iannacchione) and Eric (Donoval) leading our strength and conditioning efforts,” said Bohl.  “They’ve done a lot of good off-season conditioning things with our team.  I know Carl (Granderson) is getting his weight up into the 250s and some of the other guys have gotten significantly stronger.  I know Andrew Wingard is a lot stronger right now.  I think Ben and Eric are going to be great additions for us.”

With a number of veteran players returning on defense, how do you evaluate some of those more experienced positions?

“Our defensive line returns a talented and deep group,” said Bohl.  “With Carl, Youhanna, Sid (Malauulu), Josiah (Hall), K.P. (Kevin Prosser), Conner Cain, Ravontae Holt, Garrett Crall and Javaree Jackson all back, plus some talented young players in the program, the defensive line should be a strength for us this season.

“On the back end, we have the luxury of having two four-year starters at safety in Dewey (Andrew Wingard) and Marcus (Epps).  We have a couple vets at corner in Tyler Hall, who we may move to nickel, and Antonio Hull, who started for us a couple years ago before missing last season due to injury and received a medical redshirt.  Plus we have some young talented safeties and corners in the program.

“At linebacker, we were pleased with Cassh (Maluia), and obviously I thought Logan (Wilson) had a great year.  Ryan (Gatoloai-Faupula) is a young player who we look forward to showing some progress.  Adam Pilapil is kind of a yeoman guy, who we can plug in a number of different places at linebacker.

“We don’t have as much depth as we’d like at linebacker, but I think we have more depth than what we’ve had.  We have two starters returning in Logan and Cassh, and then potentially moving Tyler (Hall) to nickel will fill the loss of Jalen Ortiz, who graduated.  Along with Tyler, Chavez (Pownell) is there at nickel also.”

What are your hopes for filling the quarterback position vacated by Josh Allen and how do you see the number of veterans on offense assisting in a new quarterback’s transition to the starting role?

“Anytime you’re looking at college football and you have a quarterback competition that is going to be heavily scrutinized,” said Bohl.  “I think it is going to be important that we find our starter.  We’d like to have our starter by the end of spring.  Ideally, that is where we would like to be at, and so that is what we’re aiming for.

“We’re going to have intense competition there (at quarterback).  There is going to be other positions where there is going to be intense competition, but the quarterback position garners so much interest as it should.

“I think you’re going to see more live contact on our quarterbacks.  Nick (Smith) has played some.  Tyler (Vander Waal) hasn’t.  I think it would be a little bit of a disservice to our team if we don’t make them live at times to give them a game-like feel and to be able to evaluate them.  As a head coach you kind of hold your breathe when you put your quarterbacks in live situations, but I think there will be some more live work that we’ll do this spring versus past springs.

“We’ll have some more live competition across the board.  It won’t be significantly more, but it will be more.  We’ve got to become a more physical football team.

“We do have some good experience returning on offense.  Kaden Jackson and Zach Wallace are two experienced senior offensive linemen.  Gavin Rush, Logan Harris and Alonzo Velazquez all have good experience.  At tight end, we have three seniors who have all played in Josh (Harshman), Tyree (Mayfield) and Austin (Fort).  Running back is a position where we have several individuals back, and we need to make a positive step forward at that position.  We also have veteran experience at the receiver position in James Price, Austin Conway and C.J. Johnson.  C.J. and John Okwoli will both be out for spring after offseason surgeries.”

With a couple of your more experienced receivers in C.J. Johnson and John Okwoli out due to injury this spring, who are some of the other receivers you would like to see emerge?

“There are some younger guys who played some last year.  Jared Scott played a little bit last year.  Avante’ Cox played a little bit.  Those are two freshmen who played sparingly but who do have ability.  We have a couple other younger guys who have been on our squad in Ayden Eberhardt and Dontae Crow, who have done some good things, as well.”

What do you like about the quarterbacks you have who will be competing for the starting spot?

“Nick (Smith) is a guy who has a lot of great leadership skills, has played in our system and has won games at the quarterback position,” said Bohl.  “He is certainly an intelligent young man.  He’ll be a fifth-year player, and so as a result of all those things you have to like a lot of those characteristics as a coach.

“Tyler (Vander Waal) has really good mobility.  He has a really strong arm.  I think he’s athletic, but he has not had an opportunity to get many reps over the past year.  He ran the scout squad in practice last year.  We were able to do some things with him during our bowl preparations.  I think he has showed us some good things, but he also needs to improve on some things.  We’re certainly looking forward to mentoring him and growing him during the course of spring.”

What are some of the other position battles you expect during spring?

“I think you start out looking at cornerback, because we lose two senior corners (Rico Gafford and Robert Priester), who played well for us,” said the fifth-year Cowboy head coach.  “We’ll take a hard look at that position.  Right now, we’re looking at potentially moving Tyler Hall to an inside nickel position, which will be a pretty much permanent move, so we’re going to have some open competition at corner.  Antonio Hull will be back.  We have a couple young freshmen who are going to be out there challenging.  For C.J. (Coldon) and Keyon (Blankenbaker), both young corners, the spring will be very important.  One reason we decided to move Tyler (Hall) to nickel is we feel like there is great promise with those two guys.  Very rarely do you make it through a season with just two corners.  Those two young guys have great athleticsm.

“I think we’ll also have some pretty hard-nosed competition at the wide-receiver position.  We have a lot of guys, and I think it’s going to be important that we improve there.

“Then I think you have to look at the running-back position.  Our running game was way off last year.  We’re looking for an explosive guy, who can take an average play and turn it into a big play.  We were way down in explosive plays last year.  We’ll never have just one tailback.  I think there was a time here with Brian (Hill) where we probably relied too much on him.  We need to find which of our running backs is going to climb to the top of the ladder.  Some of it is going to be their pass protection, some of it is doing things right but a big part of it is who can go out there and make some plays.

“There will also be some battles on the offensive line.”

Are there any other positional moves that you are looking at exploring this spring?

“We may shuffle some guys around on the offensive line,” said Bohl.  “I think we’ve got some good freshmen who are going to be coming in that are going to give us some flexibility.  We’ll see how that sorts itself out during the course of the spring.  On the offensive line, we are going to try and find our best five.  Like the running game, our offensive line has to show significant improvement too.  All those positions are open.

“At fullback, Jaylon (Watson) certainly has experience playing there.  We did move a couple guys over to fullback — Jahmari Moore (from linebacker) and Austin Lopez (from defensive end).”

You also have a couple of key returners back on special teams.

“Yes, we have Cooper (Rothe) back as our kicker and Tim Zaleski to handle the punting duties.  Cooper had a much more consistent season as a sophomore last year.  Tim performed well as a true freshman and was particularly effective at placing the ball inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.  They both need to continue to improve, but we feel good about having them both back.  Nick Szpor is also back to handle the holding duties.  We do need to find a long snapper to replace Drew (Van Maanen).”

Are there any players who are not going to be returning for the Cowboys.

“Yes, Jace Webb (offensive guard) and Shiloh Windsor (defensive end) have both been medically disqualified.  They will continue to receive their scholarship, but because they have been medically disqualified they will not count against our football scholarships.

“Caleb Cantrell (long snapper) will also not be back.”

The Pokes will begin 2018 Spring Drills with an afternoon practice on Tuesday, March 20.  Practices are closed to the general public.  The Spring Game will be open to the public on Saturday, April 21, with a 2 p.m. kickoff.