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Previewing the 2011 Wyoming Cowboys

If you ask a Husker fan about Wyoming, most will only recall that's where Bob Devaney started his head coaching career, prior to his arrival in Nebraska. But Nebraska and Wyoming have faced each other five times, all five in Lincoln and all five Husker victories. The last meeting was in 1994, when Joe Tiller's squad lost 42-32. Wyoming's 32 points were the most scored by an opponent in that national championship season, and after the game, quarterback Brook Berringer was diagnosed with a collapsed lung.

Wyoming is now coached by former Mizzou offensive coordinator Dave Christensen. In his first season in Laramie, the Cowboys finished 7-6 by defeating Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. 2010 was very disappointing for the Cowboys, finishing 3-9. A tumultuous offseason began with four defections including former freshman all-American Shamiel Gary and quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, a team captain in 2010.

Replacing Carta-Samuels will be one of two true freshmen. Freshman Brett Smith enrolled at the start of the spring semester to get an early jump. He completing 16 of 24 passes for 153 yards and one interception, and ran for 22 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. Last season in high school, he was first team All-State in Oregon's Class 6A, the largest classification in Oregon. Adam Pittser will arrive this summer; last season, Pittser was named honorable mention all-state by the Chicago Tribune for all classes in the state of Illinois. Both Rivals and Scout gave Pittser a three-star rating.

Junior running back Alvester Alexander rushed for 792 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, earning him honorable mention all-Mountain West honors. He missed the spring game due to injury, but is expected to be ready to go this season. Converted wide receiver Brandon Miller impressed the coaches this spring in Alexander's absence, likely earning some playing time. Former starting linebacker Ghaali Muhammad moved to running back in the spring, and he'll also like receive some playing time.

The Cowboys lose their top two receivers from last season, with junior Chris McNeill leading the returning receivers with 28 catches in 2010 for 257 yards and three touchdowns. Robert Herron made a big splash in the spring game and should be a likely starter. Senior Mazi Ogbonna should also start in three receiver sets after an 18 catch season in 2010.

The game of musical chairs is also occuring on the offensive line, where returning starter John Hutchins is battling with fellow returning starter Clayton Kirven at left tackle. Junior Kyle Magnuson had an impressive spring, passing up former starter Josh Leonard at right tackle. One constant will be junior Nick Carlson at center, an honorable mention all-conference pick in 2010. The Cowboys are still trying to figure out who will play guard; one candidate is former defensive lineman Tyler Strong, who switched sides in the spring.

The strength of the entire team is probably the Cowboys' defensive line, anchored by second-team all-Mountain West defensive end Josh Beizuns, a senior. Biezuns led the Cowboys with 6.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. At the other defensive end position, senior Gabe Knapton earned honorable mention all-conference honors last season; he's started all but one game in his career.

Senior linebacker Brian Hendricks was an honorable mention all-Mountain West selection in 2010, but was second team all-MWC in 2009. He'll move from middle linebacker to the WIL spot this season. Senior Oliver Schober will replace Hendricks at middle linebacker; he also is the team's kickoff specialist as well, with eight touchbacks on 47 kickoffs last season for the native of Munich, Germany. Replacing Ghaali Muhammad will be either juco transfer Korey Jones or another German, freshman Mark Nzeocha.

In the secondary, only senior cornerback Tashaun Gipson returns as a starter, and head coach Dave Christensen thinks he could become an NFL draft pick with a solid season. Starting strong safety Shamiel Gary would have been a candidate for a lot of honors this season, but he withdrew from the team after the 2010 season. Junior safety Luke Ruff did start the final two games of 2010, and has the most experience of anybody else in the secondary.

Looking over the Cowboys, the roster seems to be a patchwork attempt to recover from a season and offseason of turmoil. Success in 2011 seems to be dependent on newcomers, most specifically a true freshman quarterback, to turn the team's fortunes around. That might be something for the team to build on in future years, but that seems to portend another rough season in 2011. On paper, Wyoming looks like the weakest team on Nebraska's 2011 schedule. And in year three in Laramie, that could spell trouble for Dave Christensen. But with the game in Laramie's 29,181 stadium at an elevation of 7165 feet, the pressure is on to pull off the upset.