From the desk of Tim Harkins
Wyoming Athletic Department
Laramie -- Redshirt freshman Sean Chambers, who suffered a broken ankle on the first possession of the Air Force game, came out of spring drills listed at No. 1 on the Cowboys depth chart that was released Thursday.
Tyler Vander Waal, who opened last season as the starter, is No. 2 on the depth shart.
The two QBs shared the starting duties last season. Vander Waal started the first eight games. Chambers played in his first game in Week 8 versus Utah State, when he entered the game in the second half. He started the next three games against Colorado State, San Jose State and Air Force.
Chambers led the Cowboys to wins over CSU and SJSU, but early in the Air Force game he suffered a season-ending leg injury and Vander Waal returned to lead the Pokes to a thrilling 35-27 comeback victory. Vander Waal also started the season-ending road game at New Mexico, that was won by the Cowboys, and he helped lead the Pokes to early-season wins over New Mexico State and Wofford.
The reason Chambers is a redshirt freshman, with four years of eligibility remaining, is due to the change in the NCAA redshirt rule last season. That change allowed players, who had never redshirted previously, the opportunity to play up to four games at any time during the season and still use the year as a redshirt season.
Secondary in Transition, But Talented Veterans Return
An area of the Cowboy defense that is in transition is the secondary. Gone to the NFL are four-year starters at safety Marcus Epps and Andrew Wingard, but despite their absence there are several talented, veteran players returning.
Senior cornerbacks Tyler Hall and Antonio Hullreturn as starters with a combined 48 career starts between them. Sophomore corner C.J. Coldonalso returns after starting the first three games of the 2018 season before suffering a season-ending injury. He is listed as a backup at corner on the final spring depth chart along with redshirt freshman Blake Harrington.
At strong safety, senior Alijah Halliburton started six of the final seven games last season, when former Cowboy safety Epps was being utilized as a nickel back. Halliburton has played in a career 39 games. Thursday’s depth chart did reveal a competition at free safety where junior Braden Smith and redshirt freshman Rome Weber are listed as co-starters coming out of spring.
Another young player who will play a key role on defense in 2019 will be sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker. Blankenbaker was moved to nickel/strong-side linebacker this spring after getting four starts at cornerback in the middle of last season. He and now senior Tyler Hall have switched positions to take advantage of Hall’s excellent coverage skills. Hall was moved back to corner late last season and former Poke Epps played the nickel position down the stretch.
Familiar Faces on Defense
In addition to veterans Hall, Halliburton and Hull in the secondary, there are a number of other familiar faces on the defensive depth chart. Senior middle linebacker and 2019 All-America candidate Logan Wilson returns to anchor the defense. Wilson has started every game of his college career for the Cowboys -- 39 consecutive games -- was elected a team captain as a sophomore and a junior and led Wyoming in tackles each of the past two seasons. Beside him is fellow senior Cassh Maluia at weak-side linebacker. Maluia has started 25 of the last 37 games he has played for the Pokes. Sophomore Chad Muma and senior Ben Wisdorf are listed as the backups at middle linebacker and weak-side linebacker, respectively.
Four veterans also return on the defensive line. At defensive end, senior Josiah Hall has 20 career starts, and junior Garrett Crall started 11 of 12 games in 2018. At defensive tackle, junior Ravontae Holt returns after an outstanding sophomore season where he started the final four games of the season. Joining Holt on the interior will be junior nose tackle Javaree Jackson, who has played in 19 games, starting two over the past two seasons. Sophomore Victor Jonesadds experience at defensive tackle, appearing in 11 games and starting one as a redshirt freshman. The other defensive line depth will come from a group of young players, including: sophomore defensive end Davon Wells-Ross, redshirt freshman nose tackle Mario Mora and redshirt freshmen defensive ends Solomon Byrd, Leevi Lafaele and Teagan Liufau.
“Senior” Receiving Corps
When looking at the Wyoming receiving corps it is a unit packed with upperclassmen. At the three wide receiver spots listed on the depth chart, four of the five players listed are seniors. Austin Conway, C.J. Johnson, John Okwoli and Raghib Ismail Jr. are all entering their senior seasons for the Cowboys. The fifth receiver listed on the two-deep is junior Ayden Eberhardt. Conway is the most experienced, having played in 39 games and started 24. Okwoli has played in 38 career games, starting six. Johnson, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury he suffered in the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, has played in 27 career games, starting 11. Ismail is in his second season with the Cowboys after transferring from Cisco Community College in Texas last season. He played in 11 games in 2018 and started two. Junior Eberhardt has 19 career games to his credit, with two starts.
Sitting atop the tight end position is redshirt senior Josh Harshman. Harshman was injured in the third game of the 2018 season at Missouri and missed the remainder of the season. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, and so will return for his fifth season in the program. His experience will be invaluable to an otherwise young tight end group. Harshman has started 12 of the 41 games he has played in his Wyoming career. Backing him up will be sophomore Nate Wienman and redshirt freshman Jackson Marcotte.
Fall Camp Will be Key for Running Back and Offensive Line Positions
During 2019 Spring Football, two areas of the Cowboy Football team that were limited by injuries were running back and offensive line. That means that fall camp will be a big evaluation time for those two position groups.
At running back, the Cowboy coaching staff knows they have a talented returner in sophomore Xazavian Valladay. Valladay played in all 12 games for the Cowboys his redshirt freshman season, rushing for 396 yards on 71 carries and averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He concluded his freshman season with his best game, rushing for 192 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-3 win at New Mexico. Valladay is also remembered for coming up big in clutch situations as a freshman in wins over Wofford and Air Force. Junior Jeff Burroughs ended spring practice No. 2 on the depth chart, showing a good physical running style.
Joining the running back group this summer will be graduate transfer Trey Smith, who comes to Wyoming from the University of Louisville. Smith will be eligible to play for the Cowboys in the 2019 season as he graduated in December of 2018 from Louisville. He has one year of eligibility remaining. The 6-0, 218-pound back averaged 5.1 yards per carry for his college career, carrying the ball 82 times for 415 yards. Smith also proved to be an effective receiver out of the backfield his junior season, catching 10 passes for 74 yards. He is the son of former Jacksonville Jaguars career receiving leader Jimmy Smith.
Redshirt freshman running back Reow Jackson will return to practice in the fall after rehabbing from a torn achilles that he suffered in fall camp a year ago. The running back group will also welcome three true freshmen recruits this summer in: Alphonzo Andrews Jr. from St. Louis, Mo.; Dawaiian McNeely of Ceres, Calif.; and Titus Swen of Fort Worth, Texas.
At fullback, junior Skyler Miller was moved from linebacker to fullback and is listed No. 1 at the fullback spot entering the summer. Senior Jaylon Watson was limited during 2019 spring drills due to injury. He is listed No. 2 at fullback, and has played in 39 career games as a key contributor at fullback and on special teams.
On the offensive line, sophomore Keegan Cryder will anchor the offensive line group. Cryder earned First Team Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) in 2018. He started all 12 games for the Pokes as a redshirt freshman -- the first four at offensive guard and the last eight at center.
At offensive tackle junior Alonzo Velazquez returns having started all 15 career games he has played for the Cowboys at right tackle. But Velazquez missed the first two and last five games of the 2018 season due to injury, and he missed 2019 spring practice, as well. Velazquez is the projected starter at right tackle. At left tackle, sophomore Rudy Stofer is listed as the starter. Stofer started seven games last season as a redshirt freshman at right tackle. He suffered an injury in spring practice that caused him to miss the last couple of weeks.
The offensive guard position returns a nice blend of experience, but lost some key contributors during 2019 spring practice. Sophomore Patrick Arnold, who started the first four games of 2018 at center, is listed as the projected co-starter at left guard with fellow sophomore Eric Abojei, who started five games last season. At right guard, junior Logan Harris is slated as the starter. He has 14 career starts under his belt. The offensive guard position lost some of its depth in 2019 spring practice when redshirt junior Gavin Rush (22 career starts) and redshirt freshmanZach Watts (who started three of the final four games last season) both suffered knee injuries that are expected to keep them out for the entire 2019 season.
Depth on the offensive line will be provided by: sophomore Gavin Dunayski (tackle) and redshirt freshman Frank Crum (tackle), Blayne Baker (guard) and Marco Machado (center).
“Special” Special Teams
One of the strengths returning for the Cowboys in 2019 is its special teams. That group is led by senior All-America candidate Cooper Rothe at place-kicker. Rothe was one of three national finalists for the 2018 Lou Groza Award, which is presented annually to the nation’s top collegiate place-kicker. Rothe led the nation in field-goal percentage in 2018, making 16 of 17 attempts (94.1 percent).
Other key returners on special teams are senior punt returner and wide receiver Austin Conway, senior kick returner and cornerback Tyler Hall and junior punter Tim Zaleski. Zaleski is returning from injury that limited him to only five games in 2018. He started all 13 games as a true freshman in 2017.
Senior holder Nick Szpor is one of the best as he enters his fourth season in that role. Sophomore long snapper Jesse Hooper also returns after an outstanding freshman season as the starter. Senior place-kicker/punter Ryan Galovich returns again to provide stability as a backup at both the kicking and punting positions.
Wyoming Football will enter the 2019 season looking to earn bowl eligibility for the fourth consecutive season. The Cowboys will begin summer conditioning on May 27 and are scheduled to open fall practice on Friday, Aug. 2.