Mark Nzeocha has always passed the eye test.
At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Nzeocha came to the University of Wyoming in 2011 out of Neusitz, Germany as an outside linebacker and began the season as a starter.
Nzeocha played in 10 games and finished with 15 tackles, but at times the speed and complexity of American college football seemed to overwhelm him.
Last season, Nzeocha moved to free safety, which looked to be a good move with his size and athleticism.
His production improved, with 32 tackles in 11 games. Yet Nzeocha still seemed out of sorts.
Now, Nzeocha is up to 230 pounds and back at linebacker, trying to compete for a starting job at one of the two outside spots for the Cowboys this spring.
“That’s exactly what I am striving to do,” he said. “We lost some good talent, but I am ready to fill those shoes.”
That talent included a pair of seniors in Ghaali Muhammad and Korey Jones, who were UW’s two leading tacklers last season. They both had more than 100 tackles last season, and combined for 209 stops and 13 tackles for loss.
UW signed three junior-college linebackers who are all enrolled in school and practicing; one more newcomer arrives during fall camp in true freshman Ryan Anaya out of Casper; and there are a handful of others who were on the roster last season, but have little to no experience.
If Nzeocha can fill one of those spots, that would be a big boost for a UW defense looking to improve from giving up 33.4 points, 232.3 rushing yards, 470.2 total yards per game last season, and allowing opponents to make 51 percent of their third-down conversions.
More than anything, that’s because Nzeocha has playing experience.
“I think this is the best position for him,” linebackers coach Robin Ross said. “He now is learning to play from that lower position, and I think he is doing some good things.
“Mark is good there because he is athletic. He is studying now and starting to understand it. He’s a smart guy, so he will get better.
Nzeocha had a team-best seven tackles in UW’s one-hour scrimmage last Friday. His four solo tackles tied for team-high honors, and he had the defense’s only tackle for loss. He also had one of the team’s five pass break-ups.
That was one of the few defensive highlights as the defense lost the scrimmage 73-23 in UW’s unique scoring system.
Nzeocha took all the snaps with the No. 1 offense, which went against the No. 1 defense.
“There were some things he needs to get cleaned up, but I thought he did some things very well,” Ross said. “He’s still learning how to play linebacker. We still see some false steps when he starts to back up instead of moving forward. I thought (Monday) he made some progress. Each day he is seeing some things and playing a little faster.”
Nzeocha said he has been used to playing safety since he began playing football, but the move back to linebacker will not be that hard for him.
“I don’t know if it is hard; it is just something you have to get used to,” he said. “It can be difficult at times, but I can handle it.”
Center of attention
UW has struggled to find a center this spring, but it may have found its guy in redshirt freshman Chase Roullier.
The former guard took most of the snaps with the No. 1 offense during Monday’s practice.
“He has been the most consistent so far this spring,” coach Dave Christensen said.
Roullier said he last played center as a sophomore in high school in Minnesota.
“Just getting a few snaps in, I got back into the swing of things,” he said. “I eventually wanted to move to center. I feel comfortable there. I feel like it can showcase my football smarts there.”
Roullier has plenty of smarts, since he is an engineering major.
As many as five different players have snapped the ball so far this spring. It looks like Roullier and sophomore Rafe Kiely have emerged as the most consistent right now. UW will add a center in junior-college transfer Albert Perez when fall camp starts in August.
Junior quarterback Brett Smith and junior receiver Dominic Rufran connected on several passes during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 team periods. Smith showed good arm strength on a couple of long passes, and Rufran showed good speed in turning a couple of short passes into a couple of long gains.
Senior cornerback Marqueston Huff intercepted Smith in a 11-on-11 period. Redshirt sophomore cornerback B.J. Hendrix Jr. picked off a pass by sophomore quarterback Jason Thompson.
Senior safety Andrew Meredith of Green River worked with the No. 1 defense, as junior Darrenn White was in a red no-contact jersey.
UW’s first major scrimmage of the spring is at 8 a.m. Wednesday. Christensen said it will be around 120 plays.