LARAMIE — The 2019 season was another sign of consistency for Wyoming.
The Cowboys put together their third eight-win season in head coach Craig Bohl’s six years at the helm. There was a tinge of disappointment that also came with it given Wyoming dropped three of its final four regular-season games to finish in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West’s Mountain Division, but the Cowboys ended the season on a high note with a 38-17 thumping of Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl.
It was the Cowboys’ second bowl victory in the last three seasons. It also marked the last time this particular group of Cowboys took the field together.
Whether it’s expired eligibility or transfers, the end of a season brings with it attrition for every college football team. Wyoming will have its share of defections, so what might the Cowboys look like next season?
A relatively young team, Wyoming could look similar at many different spots if there are no unexpected departures. The Cowboys will have some big shoes to fill with their All-American middle linebacker (Logan Wilson), the MW’s leading tackler (Alijah Halliburton), top cornerback and kick returner (Tyler Hall) and all-time leading scorer (Cooper Rothe) all on the way out, but Wyoming is set to return 73 percent of its two-deep.
That doesn’t count a handful of players who are in line to return from season-ending injuries, including running backs Trey Smith and Titus Swen, offensive linemen Gavin Rush and Eric Abojei and quarterback Sean Chambers.
Chambers’ backup, Tyler Vander Waal, is transferring to Idaho State after three years in the program. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Chambers still finished second on the team in rushing (567 yards) and second among Mountain West quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns (10) despite a knee injury limiting him to just eight games.
The biggest questions for Chambers entering his redshirt sophomore season will be health — his last two seasons have been cut short by injuries — and possibly competition from true freshman Levi Williams, who ended this season atop the depth chart and could push Chambers for the starting job after taking a majority of the snaps in the final two games.
The 6-5, 208-pound Williams had his best showing in the bowl game, throwing for 234 yards and accounting for four touchdowns in his first career start. He could get all the first-team reps in the spring as Chambers’ recovery is expected to keep him out of spring drills, but both quarterbacks will look to do their part in complementing one of the MW’s top rushing attacks by improving the efficiency of a passing game that’s completed less than half its passes two straight years.
With Smith and Swen set to rejoin the backfield this offseason, Wyoming will return its top three running backs, including the MW’s leading rusher, Xazavian Valladay. The sophomore is coming off his first career 1,000-yard season (1,265). Smith and Swen contributed a combined 576 yards to the nation’s 23rd-ranked rushing attack before going down in the first half of the season with ankle and knee injuries, respectively. Dawaiian McNeely and Alphonzo Andrews Jr. should join the mix after redshirting while junior fullback Skyler Miller has another year of eligibility.
They’ll all be running behind an offensive line that’s set to return all five starters, including multi-year starters Keegan Cryder at center, Rudy Stofer at left tackle and Alonzo Velazquez at right tackle. Torrington native Logan Harris and Zach Watts ended the season as the starting guards, though with Abojei, Rush, Patrick Arnold and Latrell Bible all returning as well, there figures to be plenty of competition and depth on the interior of the line.
The Cowboys are losing a handful of pass-catchers in Austin Conway, Rocket Ismail Jr, John Okwoli and tight end Josh Harshman, Wyoming’s third-leading receiver this season. But Ayden Eberhardt, Gunner Gentry and Dontae Crow will all be back after being a part of the rotation this season.
Wyoming still has experience at tight end with Nate Weinman, Jackson Marcotte and true freshman Treyton Welch all getting playing time this season. Marcotte tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions, though that accounts for half of the receiving touchdowns among returning receivers.
Defensively, there will be plenty of experience for second-year coordinator Jake Dickert to work with, too. Wyoming will return five starters and six of its top eight linemen from a defense that finished second in the MW in points allowed, third in rushing yards allowed and fourth in total yards allowed.
That includes sack leader Solomon Byrd (6.5), a redshirt freshman would could be in line to take over full-time at defensive end for Josiah Hall, the lone senior on the two-deep up front. Defensive tackle Javaree Jackson won’t be back after being dismissed from the team after starting 11 games, but Ravontae Holt, who was lost to a torn ACL during the preseason, should help alleviate that loss once he’s fully recovered. Veteran Garrett Crall will be back for his third and final season as a starter at the opposite defensive end spot.
The most glaring defensive holes start at the second level with Wilson and outside linebacker Cassh Maluia both out of eligibility after starting the last three seasons together. Wyoming is also losing reserve linebacker Ben Wisdorf, who was a senior. Sophomore Chad Muma was the Cowboys’ third linebacker all season and figures to take over in the middle for Wilson, who finished his career as the program’s fourth-leading tackler, but Wyoming will also turn to some younger players as the Cowboys start over at the position.
Hall and Halliburton were two of Wyoming’s better defensive backs. Junior Esaias Gandy and sophomore Miles Williams could open the spring in competition at Halliburton’s vacant strong safety spot with redshirt freshman Rome Weber set to return at free safety.
Arizona transfer Azizi Hearn, who has two years of eligibility left, will be back after ending the season as a starter at one cornerback spot, and there’s experience to help with Hall’s departure. C.J. Coldon hasn’t been able to finish the last two seasons because of injuries but has six starts to his name and could find himself back at the top of depth chart opposite Hearn once he’s healthy again.
True freshman Jordan Murry also played in nine games at corner this season, and Keyon Blankenbaker will be back after a breakout sophomore season. Blankenbaker, the nickel in the Cowboys’ 4-2-5 scheme, had a team-high 10 pass breakups and finished as Wyoming’s fourth-leading tackler.
Wyoming will also have at least 18 signees joining the fold this offseason. The Cowboys could add as many as seven players to its 2020 recruiting class during the traditional signing period next month. That number could include another transfer or two, a scenario Bohl hasn’t ruled out after adding Hearn and Smith, who came from Louisville, last year.
Yet despite losing a lot of production, the Cowboys still have a plethora of seasoned pieces to navigate a more favorable schedule looming next season. Wyoming will get Utah, its lone Power Five opponent, as well as division contenders Boise State, Utah State and Air Force all at War Memorial Stadium. Half of Wyoming’s league road games are at New Mexico and UNLV, both of whom have new coaches.
“We need to stay hungry,” Bohl said. “There’s times that you feel we have all these pieces in place, but sometimes those are the things that come back and bite you in the butt.
“That’s going to be a big chore for me, as their head football coach, make sure our culture stays hungry and focused, that we continue to take another step forward. We’ve got some unfinished business to do in our league, and we’re excited about next year already.”