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2013 Wyoming Cowboys Football Preview

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Led by quarterback Brett Smith, the offense is potent through the air, but the defense was porous last season. Can the defense improve enough to get the Cowboys back to a bowl? Or will it be up to the offense to outscore their opponents?

Cooper Neill

When Husker fans last faced Wyoming in 2011, the Cowboys were in the middle of an 8-5 season behind true freshman quarterback Brett Smith, who led them to a New Mexico Bowl. In 2012, Smith was better, improving his passer efficency from 124.6 to 157.7, but Wyoming was worse, going 4-8. Smith missed two games due to injury (both losses, including a 24-22 loss to 1-AA Cal Poly), but perhaps more importantly, the defense was bad. The Cowboys ranked last in the Mountain West in total defense and rush defense, and eighth (out of ten teams) in passing defense and scoring defense.

Smith is a dual-threat quarterback, who has rushed for 16 touchdowns and thrown for 47 touchdowns in his career. Those 47 passing touchdowns places him in fourth place in Wyoming history; barring injury, Smith's name will be all over the record books in Laramie when his career is over. Last season, he completed over 62% of his passes for 2,837 yards and 27 touchdowns, with just six interceptions. Those injuries limited his production on the ground, as his rushing yards dropped from 710 yards as a freshman to just 248 last season. If Smith goes down again this year, the Cowboys will turn to sophomore Jason Thompson, who filled in for Smith against Air Force last season and played well.

A successful passing quarterback needs receivers to catch the ball, and the Cowboys are fairly loaded at the position. Last year's leading receiver, Chris McNeil, is gone, but just about everybody else is back. Dominic Rufran caught 39 passes for 529 yards last season after leading Wyoming in receiving as a freshman in 2011. The 6'0" receiver had great hands as a freshman, but became a bit more of a big play guy in 2012. Even more explosive is senior Robert Herron, who led the Cowboys with eight touchdown receptions in 2012 despite missing four games due to injury. He started and ended fast last season, with a 173 yard, two touchdown performance against Texas to open the season and a 187 yard, two touchdown effort in the season finale against San Diego State. If defenses worry too much about the deep pass, 6'6" 250 pound tight end J.D. Krill should be able to get free underneath. It may take time for the junior college transfer to acclimate himself to this level.

What would help Smith take his game to the next level is more production from the running backs. Sophomore D.J. May took over as the starter as a freshman, rushing for 374 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Shaun Wick rushed for 352 yards and four scores. In total, the top three running backs combined for as many rushing touchdowns (six) as quarterback Brett Smith... that's a problem. So look for 5'11" true freshman Omar Stover or 5'9" Timmy Hayes to get a chance in 2013. All of the Cowboy running backs are in that 5'9-5'11", 180-200 pound range, so it's likely the Cowboys will keep trying to find somebody - anybody - who can break through and be a big play back.

It won't help that only two starters return on the offensive line with senior left guard Tyler Strong and sophomore Jake Jones. The Cowboys will be hoping that two junior college transfers in 6'9" 280 pound Walker Madden and 6'7" 318 pound Connor Rains will be an upgrade at tackle. The most intriguing prospect is 6'7" 305 pound true freshman Connor Riese, who could play anywhere if he doesn't redshirt.

The defense was a mess last season, with the problems starting up front. After spring practice, Wyoming released a new depth chart which makes some wonder if the Cowboys won't be switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4. 6'3" 253 pound sophomore Eddie Yarbrough is now a starting defensive tackle instead of an end. He led the Cowboys with four sacks and six tackles for loss last season. 6'5" 287 pound senior Patrick Mertens should start at nose tackle, though keep an eye on 6'2" 310 pound junior college transfer Troy Boyland, who certainly could help with an undersized line.

Middle linebacker Siaosi Hala'api'api will move from middle linebacker to the "BUCK" spot; a hybrid linebacker/defensive end spot. The 6'2" 240 pound sophomore totaled 57 tackles last season, though none were behind the line of scrimmage. 6'3" 239 pound senior Devyn Harris will take over at middle linebacker. Injuries limited Harris to just two games last year, but he racked up 65 tackles in 2011. Mark Nzeocha moves up from strong safety to strongside linebacker, while 6'1" 201 pound redshirt freshman Lucas Wacha takes over the weakside spot. Iowa Western transfer Malkaam Muhammad probably makes a contribution as a key backup at some spot.

Darrenn White and Marqueston Huff should be the safeties after combining for ten pass breakups last season. The leader in the secondary should be 5'10" 180 pound junior cornerback Blair Burns, who lead the returning players with 60 tackles last season. His ten pass breakups also led the team, and his lone interception was a 99 yard pick-six that turned around the Colorado State game.

Sadly, the most newsworthy point of Wyoming's 2012 football season was head coach Dave Christensen's NSFW, multiple f-bomb ridden, post-game rant at Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun. Christensen felt that the Falcons faked an injury, and let the Air Force coach have it on Military Appreciation Night in Laramie. That outburst earned the former Missouri offensive coordinator a week off as well as a $50,000 fine.

Looking over the Cowboys, you have to expect that the Nebraska offense should be able to move the ball on Wyoming in the season opener. The real question is how the retooled Husker defense will handle the potent Wyoming aerial attack. Will that mean a shootout in Lincoln? That could be the first point to gauge the 2013 Huskers by.