Dave Christensen's recasting of the Wyoming Cowboys has not progressed according to schedule. Yes, they went bowling in their first year, but that success is looking a lot more attributable to the Cowboy defense, which deteriorated markedly in Christensen's second year. Offensively, the Cowboys relied more on the run in 2009. But short passing is what made Christensen valuable, and in his second year, he tried it more, and it didn't work well
enough to give the defense any room for error. In '09, Wyoming attempted 410 passes, completing about 55% of those. In '10, the Cowboys attempted only 289 passes, about 60% completed. In both seasons they got 3.6 yards per carry, but carried the ball about 260 less times in 2010.
Has the prognosis improved at all in Laramie? Perhaps. "First and foremost, we're going to have close to 90 kids out for spring ball this year, so we're starting to get our numbers back in line with a Division I program," said Christensen. "Second, athletically, this will be the most athletic team we've had... but we're still an extremely young football team. From a leadership standpoint, I think this is as strong a leadership group in our senior class that we've had since I've been here. The work ethic was definitely there, and that's the kind of effort we need to get better."
By the end of spring, Christensen said his team is "certainly going in the direction I envisioned us going. This offense is something that if you don’t have the proper personnel in line to do it, it’s difficult to do. I think we’re a lot further ahead than we’ve been since I’ve been here."
Christensen has brought in a spread guru to run the offense. (All moves are connected in the never-stopping merry-go-round that is NCAA coaching. Wyoming only went looking for a new OC because Cal hired away Wyoming's. Why did Cal need to hire one? Because San Diego State hired Cal's—Andy Ludwig, formerly famous as Utah's offensive coordinator after Urban Meyer and Mike Sanford left the Utes...) Gregg Brandon, Wyoming's new OC and quarterbacks' coach developed his spread while at Utah State, Northwestern and Colorado before connecting with Urban Meyer at Bowling Green. When Meyer left, Brandon took the reins there for six seasons. "He is a great innovator and play-caller," Meyer said. "A lot of our success at Bowling Green can be directly attributed to [Greg Brandon]."
Brandon is optimistic about Wyoming's offense: "We're not far off," said Brandon, who believes his offense is right on track midway through spring camp. "We're going to need a quarterback, but there are some very skilled players. We've got more speed, the offensive line is getting bigger and stronger. The kids understand the system, the coaches have been in it ... so I think that's all positive."
Wyoming did not expect to face inexperience at quarterback this season, but his would-be third year starter, Austyn Carta-Samuels left the team after the '10 season, and his backup, Dax Crum, graduated. So it's back to the drawing boards in Laramie. The coach says, "For our quarterbacks, they have to adjust to the speed of the game, especially when you're facing the experience that some of the individuals in our secondary have. You better be on target, and you better get the ball there quick."
Redshirt freshman Emory Miller is in a battle royale for the starting spot with early-enrolled true freshman Brett Smith. In the first team scrimmage, Miller led the second team against the first team defense, and was ineffective, passing 59% for for 83 yards, and rushing for negative 16 yards and a touchdown. Leading the first team against the second-team defense, Smith passed for 78% for over 200 yards and two touchdowns, rushing for 73 more on just six attempts. The effort wasn't enough to take the lead in Wyoming's quarterback race, because the coaches factored the quality of the defenses each QB faced, in Miller's favor. The second scrimmage and spring game featured more of the same. Smith passed for 73% for 108 yards, one interception, and one touchdown. Miller completed 59% of his passes for 155 yards, two interceptions, and rushed for one touchdown in the second scrimmage. The coach's curt summary: "They didn’t play well enough along with everyone else on the offense," Christensen said.
In the spring game, Smith completed 66.6% of his passes, threw one interception, and added nine carries for 22 yards and touchdown. Miller completed half of his passes, one for a score, threw two interceptions, and ran seven times for 16 yards. "Offensively, we executed the offense and I thought the quarterbacks, for the most part, made good decisions with the ball," UW coach Dave Christensen said. But the competition will continue, adding a new enrolled freshman in August. "We want the competition there. They’re both playing well and we have another young man coming in I think can compete also."
Competition is also high at receiver, where the coach has been unhappy much of the spring. In comments scarily similar to his first spring assessments at Wyoming, Christensen blasted his receivers for dropping passes. "We still drop way too many balls," Christensen said. "The great news is there’s five receivers coming this summer and the competition is going to heat up like someone threw kerosene on it... We can’t have guys dropping touchdown passes and think real, real highly of guys. You’ve got to catch the football to play in this offense." The attack was more consistent in the spring game. "We caught it much better [Saturday] than we have all of spring," Christensen said. "We had some rain out there and were still able to hang on to the football."
One player who is catching the ball is converted runningback Robert Herron, who caught eight passes for 40 yards in the first scrimmage, and seven for 60 yards in the second. Herron caught bricks in the transition from running back to wide receiver. Bricks? "That messed up my gloves," he reported. Herron was a walk-on before the '10 season, and now has a scholarship and the macho-man quote of the preseason to his credit. Also showing well, but not consistently, at receiver is converted quarterback Sam Stratton, who caught seven passes for 67 yards in the first scrimmage. "I was excited [about the change] because they're giving me an opportunity, a shot to play," Stratton said. "It wasn't so good the first couple practices -- I was getting screamed at a little bit -- but the last couple days ... I've been going over extra film."
Chris McNeill is the corps' lone returning starter. DeJay Lester and Mazi Ogbonna again are in the mix to start, after failing to live up to their billing last season. One of last year's JUCO transfers who did not do well in '10, but looks much improved in '11 is Jonathan Aiken. Christensen says he'll move Aiken up the depth chart once he gets his academics set and shows more consistency on the field. The second part of that deal looked good for Aiken in the spring game, in which he had 6 catches for 48 yards.
Wyoming has a wealth of runningbacks, although Ghaali Muhammad (who won honorable mention all-conference at linebacker in 2010) and starter Alvester Alexander have practiced only lightly this spring. Brandon Miller worked as one of the top backs in the first scrimmage. He's on scholarship for the first time this spring, and with Alexander and Muhammad both battling injuries, Miller has seen his workload increase. Also enjoying more snaps is true sophomore Nehemie Kankolongo. "You never know what could happen. As long as I’m on the field, that’s where I feel comfortable." In 2010, Kankolongo played in just five games, carrying the ball 13 times for 13 yards. "I’m tired of being on the bottom," Kankolongo said. "I’ve been working really hard this offseason, honestly. My focus has been a lot stronger."
Also with several returning starters is the o-line. Nick Carlson, an honorable mention all-conference center, guard John Hutchins, tackles Clayton Kirven and Josh Leonard all started last season. "It’s been learning and getting better, even for the guys that have been here," said returning starter Nick Carlson, and honorable mention all-conference center. The has faced considerable fluctuation this spring. Veteran guard Sam Sterner is out; redshirt freshman Justin DiRe saw his career end for an undisclosed medical reason and redshirt freshman Daniel Fleischman hasn’t been able to practice with an injury. Tackle Kyle Magnuson (Junior 6-foot-6 and 317) was one of Joe Glenn's top offensive line recruits, and since moving to tackle has been a pleasant surprise. Also encouraging is the competition between Travis Bogard and Tyler Strong. "There is good competition at left guard between [them]. Strong of course was moved over from defensive line at the start of spring," said Christensen. Of the move, Strong said, "It's a lot different. I haven't played O-line since seventh grade, so it's been a while, but I think it's a good change. I think it's easier since I've been up here for about a year now and I'm used to the whole system," Strong said.
Christensen and his assistants have been pleased with the defense. "I was pleased with how they played early," the coach said of his defense. UW’s first team stifled new QB Emory Miller, negating his rushing ability with sacks in the first scrimmage. It was more of the same in the second. "[The defense] is obviously more experienced, further ahead than the offense," UW coach Dave Christensen said. They "dominated the scrimmage." DC Marty English saw improvement. "The thing that looked different [Saturday] was that group two didn’t get their butt kicked so bad." Returning linebacker Brian Hendricks is upbeat about the defense compared to 2010. "Right now we just have a lot of depth and a lot more experience coming back. Last year we were young and a lot of people who were banged up. Fortunately this spring we've been able to stay healthy. We know the system now and how things are supposed to be run, so that helps a lot."
Hendricks says the improvements starts up front. The Cowboys starting defensive line returns in its entirety-- and maybe more than that. They're "bigger and stronger," says Hendricks. "Coach (Trent) Greener has... pack[ed] on so much weight on those guys. The strength is out the roof. Their strength and their size is the huge difference this spring." Two new coaches lead the line. Danilo Robinson is the full-time line coach, and Matt Rahl has moved into an assistant-coaching position and will team up with Robinson to coach the D-Line. Mike Purcell, Patrick Mertens return at tackle, and Josh Biezuns and Gabe Knapton (each an all-MWC pick in 2010) return at the ends. Robinson says of his line, "We have a lot of experience on the defensive line, but a couple guys who are competing for more playing time there include (Mat) Birkeness, (Kurt) Taufa'asau and Riley Lange." Tackle Kurt Taufa-asau is showing the promise he brought with him from junior college a year ago.
Wyoming returns two starters at 'backer, Brian Hendricks and Devyn Harris. Harris has moved from the outside to the middle. Senior Oliver Schober was limited in the spring, but a couple new players from Germany have kept the linebacking corps distinctly Teutonic in Laramie. Schober, in his second year in the U.S., alerted his coaches about fellow German Mark Nzeocha . "He came over here, told the coaches about me and showed them some tape." The coaches were thrilled with what they saw in both Nzeocha and linebacker Alex Borgs. Both players early enrolled. Nzeocha began at safety, but has since been moved to outside linebacker. "That was pretty surprising, actually," Nzeocha said. "I have played safety all my life. I’ve never played linebacker before." Christensen says that Nzeocha has already established himself as the front-runner to start. Borgs opened spring at No. 3 at the other outside spot, with senior Brian Hendricks holding the top spot.
Christensen reports the raft of newcomers are doing well, "We’ve improved [at linebacker] athletically. Alex Borgs has stepped up. Certainly Devyn Harris has done a nice job, he’s been moving inside. Mark Nzeocha continues to play well. ... Oliver will be back in the fall, so we should be solid there." Sophomore Todd Knight also has impressed this spring. JUCO transfer Korey Jones has drawn praise from his OC, as well. "Korey’s gotten better in the last two weeks," UW defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marty English said. "The first week, I think he was swimming. The last two weeks, I think he’s starting to really step forward. I’m real, real happy with the way he’s advancing."
The secondary returns only one starter, Tashaun Gipson, an honorable mention all-conference corner. Across from his at the other corner spot one of the fastest Cowboys, junior James Caraway, has played his way onto the first team.
Look for two new starting safeties in Laramie, after Chris Prosinski and Shamiel Gary left the team. Kenny Bowder opened camp as the No. 1 free safety on the depth chart. His backup is senior Eric Mitchell, who played in all 12 games last year, mainly on special teams. The other starter at safety is junior Luke Ruff, backed up by Luke Anderson. "In the secondary, we've been really pleased with how our defensive backs have been competing," added Christensen. " Our safety situation is good. We're cross-training the safeties so they can play both the strong or free positions. We also have experimented with some different personnel groupings in our nickel and dime packages in the secondary."