The statistics don’t lie:
— 33.4 points per game.
— 232.3 rushing yards per game.
— 237.9 passing yards per game.
— 51 percent of third downs converted.
— 14 quarterback sacks in 12 games.
Out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams last season, the University of Wyoming’s defense finished 98th or worse in eight of nine defensive team categories.
While there were shortcomings in other areas, the defense’s struggles were a big factor in the Cowboys’ 4-8 record in 2012.
The first steps in the defense’s improvement start this morning — at 6:30 a.m., to be exact — with the first of 15 spring practices.
“I think the focus is more on effort and fundamentals, and understanding concepts,” second-year defensive coordinator Chris Tormey said of the defense’s goals this spring.
“As we went through the season last year, we didn’t understand formation theory and concepts, and where we needed to be based on what (offenses) were trying to do. We have a number of players coming back that understand those concepts. The key for us will be integrating the new players and getting them comfortable with what we are doing scheme-wise.”
UW returns seven defensive starters, four of whom played in the secondary. The biggest holes to fill are at defensive tackle and linebacker. UW hopes to have addressed those needs in recruiting with five junior-college transfers currently on campus and with some redshirt freshmen.
Three of the five junior-college transfers are linebackers: sophomores Jeff Lark (6-foot-2, 213 pounds) and Malkaam Muhammad (6-0, 225) and junior Jordan Stanton (6-0, 246). Lark, who first verbally committed to Texas A&M, is a candidate to play one of two outside spots vacated by seniors Korey Jones and Ghaali Muhammad (older brother of Malkaam). Those two were the team’s leading tacklers last season, and combined for 209 stops and 13 tackles for loss.
The other is senior Devyn Harris (6-3, 229), who was lost after the first game of 2012 with an injury.
Junior Troy Boyland (6-2, 310) is another JC transfer at defensive tackle, but UW is high on a handful of redshirt freshmen who will get the chance to compete for significant playing time. Those guys include Uso Olive (6-1, 300), Chase Appleby (6-0, 289) and Sam Hardy (6-3, 299).
Senior Patrick Mertens (6-5, 287) is the only returnee with playing experience at defensive tackle. He also played some at defensive end.
“(The new players) need to get acclimated to playing with each other, and that takes time,” Mertens said. “It is different for everybody.
“I am anxious to see what (Olive and Boyland) have. I think they are going to be huge-time players for us. Uso is our strongest player and is just naturally strong. Going through skill-improvement drills this winter, it looks like Troy has good hands and feet.”
For the fourth time in four years, UW will have a new defensive line coach in Jamar Cain, who held the same job last year at Cal Poly — a team that beat UW 24-22 in Laramie last season.
“For some of us older guys, we are acclimated to doing that,” Mertens said about getting used to a new coach. “I think coach Cain is going to be a great coach. He sure is intense and demands a lot out of us.”
Even though UW returns its two starting cornerbacks in senior Marqueston Huff (6-0, 195) and junior Blair Burns (5-10, 180), and three others who played either cornerback or safety, head coach Dave Christensen said the competition at all the secondary positions is open, with the addition of junior-college safety Jesse Sampson (6-0, 183) and a few redshirts.
Christensen added that competition at every position on the team is open this spring, but he thinks the added depth across the board defensively should make the team better in the fall.
“If you have enough guys and the competition is close, that’s better news yet, because you can play more guys,” he said. “We want to play as many guys as we can, but we are not going to play anybody that is not ready to compete.”
As has been the case the last couple of years, UW will be multiple in its defensive schemes. But it mostly will be in four-man or three-man fronts. Tormey said stopping the power run game, a significant weakness last season, will be important, as well as stopping spread offenses, which the Cowboys defense will see every day from its own offense.
Missed tackles also hurt the defense last season. Christensen and Tormey both said the team will tackle when it is allowed to.
“We are going to tackle on days we are allowed to tackle,” Christensen said. “We will go live, at least a few snaps, at the end of most practices. It is going to be physical, no question. We need to establish a physical presence out there.”
Christensen said UW will work on special teams this spring, but not as much on kickoff and kickoff return, especially when the team is practicing in its indoor facility.
The Cowboys return their kicker and punter in junior Stuart Williams and sophomore Tim Gleeson, respectively. They also return their top kickoff and punt returners.
UW signed Brandon Turelli, one of the nation’s best high school long snappers in the nation, but he won’t be there this spring.
All of UW’s spring practices, except for the spring game, are scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Today’s first practice is even earlier due to some players having class conflicts.
In Christensen’s first four years as coach, most of the practices were in the afternoon.
“When they wake up in the morning, they are wide awake, they are fresh, and we have all of their energy and attention,” Christensen said. “We are going to get them to us first.”
UW will practice three times before its first one in full pads next week. It also is scheduled to have a partial scrimmage on April 5, full scrimmages on April 10 and April 17, and the spring game is April 27.