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Previewing the 2016 Wyoming Cowboys

Chances are that you didn't stay up to watch Wyoming's season opener against Northern Illinois Saturday night Sunday morning.  Lightning pushed the kickoff back from 9:30 pm central time to 11:20 pm (10:20 pm in Laramie) and didn't end until 3:34 am central time, when Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen scrambled seven yards in the third overtime to end the game.  Allen completed 19 of 29 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns and rushed ten times for 70 yards. Running back Brian Hill rushed 33 times for 125 yards and two touchdowns.  Hill didn't break off any long runs in the game; his longest carry was a 13 yard gain. Tanner Gentry caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown while Jake Maulhardt caught five passes for 106 yards.

Defensively, Wyoming's rush defense made quite a bold statement by limiting Northern Illinois' Joel Bouagnon to just 16 yards on 10 carries after rushing for over 1,200 yards last season.  Wyoming did let NIU's Kenny Golloday accumulate 82 yards on six wide receiver sweeps; the longest going for 34 yards.  NIU's Drew Hare completed 24 of 39 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns.

Keep an eye on Wyoming's special teams; two touchdown returns were nullified by penalties, though a 48 yard kickoff return did count. (Bruce Read has his work cut out for him this week.)

After the break, check out the summer time preview of Wyoming football. I suspect this is a game that'll be closer than the Vegas oddsmakers think it will be.

In 2001, Craig Bohl was in his second year as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator and headed towards the BCS National Championship game...until 62-36 happened. Colorado’s massive blowout of the Huskers failed to keep the Huskers out of the Rose Bowl that season, but it did signal the beginning of the end of his days in Lincoln. In 2002, the Blackshirts were disorganized and confused in a 7-7 season that shocked Husker fans. Bohl was dismissed after the season, and Husker fans thought he was gone for good.

Bohl headed up I-29 to Fargo and the head coaching job at then-Division II North Dakota State. The Bison began transitioning to Division 1-AA a year later, and grew into the 1-AA School No Power Five School Wants To Play. (Just ask Minnesota, Kansas State and Iowa State.) Bohl’s Bison won three straight 1-AA National Championships before Bohl returned to 1-A in 2014 at Wyoming.

Wyoming hasn’t exactly been one of the easiest places to win in football...though some coaches have succeeded there, starting with one Robert Devaney. Fred Akers, Pat Dye and Dennis Erickson also spent time in Laramie. But ever since Joe Tiller left Wyoming for Purdue (another sad place for football), Wyoming football has struggled - mightily. And that includes the first two years under Craig Bohl, who’s went 4-8 in 2014 and 2-10 last season.

Things were looking up briefly at the start of the season when sophomore transfer quarterback Josh Allen (6’5" 216 lbs.) got his chance to start in the second game of the season against Eastern Michigan. Allen led the Cowboys on an 84 yard touchdown drive to open the game, and seemed poised to do it again on the next drive until he broke his right clavicle on a 24 yard run. His season was over after just 13 plays. He got a medical redshirt, and is the favorite to start this fall. A big, mobile quarterback with a strong arm, Allen has been compared to Carson Wentz, the second pick in the NFL draft from North Dakota State, by quarterbacks coach Brent Vigen. He’ll be backed up by Nick Smith, a 6’4" 233 lb. sophomore who started two games last season. Smith completed 27 of 60 passes for 245 yards and rushed 45 times for 197 yards last season.

No matter who plays quarterback, he’ll have the every receiver from last year that caught more than two passes. Granted, that receiver corps wasn’t terribly effective when Wyoming HAD to pass. SB Nation’s analytics guru Bill Connelly notes that on passing downs, Wyoming’s offense was third WORST in the nation on passing downs, though that may have more to do with departed quarterback Carson Coffman being sacked 11% of the time in passing situations. Senior Tanner Gentry (6’2" 201 lbs.) caught 37 passes for 678 yards and four touchdowns despite missing the last five games of the season with a shoulder injury. Gentry was the main deep threat for the Cowboys last season, and his injury was a leading reason for a late season collapse by Wyoming’s offense. Senior receiver Jake Maulhardt (6’6" 216 lbs.) and senior tight end Jacob Hollister (6’4" 230 lbs.) caught 57 and 26 passes respectively last season, which should give Allen (or Smith) a couple of decent possession receivers to look for.

But the best weapon an inexperienced quarterback can have is a good running back, and junior Brian Hill (6’1" 211 lbs.) emerged as the biggest bright spot in Wyoming’s offense last season. Or at least the healthiest weapon; he rushed 281 times for a school record 1,631 yards and six touchdowns last season. Averaging 136 yards a game and 5.8 yards per carry, Hill was the most consistent performer for an up-but-mostly-down team. Despite leading the Mountain West in rushing, Hill was only named to the all-conference second team. Barring injury (which he’s avoided thus far), Hill should be poised for a even more huge 2016 season. Senior Shaun Wick is back after receiving a medical hardship after his second concussion last season ended his season in September. He’s rushed for 2,179 yards and 20 touchdowns in his Wyoming career, and if the concussion problem is cleared, Wick could give the Cowboys a potent one-two punch at running back. Wick was the starting back in the 2015 season opener, and rushed for 126 yards and three touchdowns in the 2016 spring game.

Any successful running game needs good blocking, and Wyoming returns four starters up front in 2016. Senior left guard Chase Roullier (6’4" 293 lbs.) has 28 starts in his Wyoming career; he was a second-team all-Mountain West honoree last season. Sophomore center Charlie Renfree (6’3" 281 lbs.) started eleven games last season as a freshman, while sophomore right tackle Zach Wallace (6’7" 265 lbs.) started ten games. Junior left tackle Ryan Cummings (6’6" 314 lbs.) is the biggest offensive lineman on the roster and has started 19 of 24 games in his Wyoming career. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of push they can generate against a bigger, though much less experienced, Nebraska defensive front.

Wyoming’s defense under Craig Bohl reminds people more of his last defense at Nebraska than his championship defenses at North Dakota State. Last season, the Cowboys finished 101st in scoring defense, 91st in total defense, 113th in rushing defense and 123rd in pass efficiency defense. Did they hit bottom last season? Quite possibly, because it would be tougher to get much worse.

One reason to think that things will get better is the sheer number of freshmen that played last season. If you looked at last season’s two-deep on defense, you’d find 12 freshman listed. The Cowboys will desperately miss departed defensive end Eddie Yarbrough, but for the most part, the rest of the defense returns.

If you can attribute at least some of Wyoming’s defensive struggles to freshman inexperience, you’ve got a good case to call for improvement on that side of the ball. Replacing Yarbrough is going to be the biggest concern, as the two sophomores the Cowboys are counting on are, well, a little undersized. Sophomore Carl Granderson played defensive end last season at 6’6" and 200 pounds. (That’s not a misprint.) Granderson put on 27 pounds over the winter, and is hoping to get up to 235 by the start of the season. As a freshman, Granderson finished seventh on the team in tackles with 36 as a reserve; six of those were for a loss, which was third most for the Cowboys. There is a little size on the interior with sophomore nose tackle Sidney Malauulu (6’3" 300 lbs.) and sophomore defensive tackle Connor Cain (6’4" and up to 284 lbs. this spring).

Senior middle linebacker Lucas Wacha (6’1" and now up to 230 lbs.) was Wyoming’s second leading tackler last season with 96, with six for a loss. He’s started 26 games in his Wyoming career at all three linebacker positions, but has settled in the middle. Senior SAM linebacker D.J. May (5’11" 198 lbs.) has emerged as a playmaker despite converting to defense last season.

Nowhere else was the youth movement more prominent on Wyoming’s defense than in the secondary, where seven of the top nine last season were freshman. Sophomore free safety Andrew Wingard (6’0" 194 lbs.) recorded 122 tackles last season, earning him second-team all-Mountain West honors and first team freshman all-American honors. He’s added 20 pounds to his frame and hoping that he gets some help up front this season. Sophomore strong safety Marcus Epps (6’0" 190 lbs.) contribued 83 tackles (third on the team) and two interceptions (for the team lead) as a freshman walk-on.

More experience and some hopefully better quarterback play should lead to improvement on the field this season for Wyoming. That being said, those sophomores haven’t played a Power-Five school yet, especially one that could exploit the Cowboys lack of physical size on defense. But will Bohl’s return to his alma mater be a driving point for his team? It will be interesting to see.