UW football defensive line-Byrd

University of Wyoming redshirt freshman defensive end Solomon Byrd pressures Tulsa redshirt junior quarterback Zach Smith Saturday during a game in Tulsa, Okla. The Cowboys defensive line has been a strength on defense making plays in the opponent’s backfield.

LARAMIE – Five University of Wyoming football players, including three projected starters, have opted not to play this season due to concerns about COVID-19.

All five players are on the defensive side of the ball.

The players are safety Rome Weber, defensive ends Solomon Byrd and Davon Wells-Ross and defensive tackles Mario Mora and Claude Cole.

Weber started 12 games last season as a sophomore, racking up 38 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception. He was expected to be one of the leaders of a veteran secondary that returns cornerbacks C.J. Coldon and Azizi Hearn and nickelback Keyon Blakenbaker.

UW does return experience at safety, with seniors Esias Gandy and Braden Smith back in the fold. Each has played in 37 career games and has made one start. Smith has 21 career tackles and an interception while Gandy has 36 career tackles.

“I think I played really conservative (last season), not trying to mess up at times,” Weber told WyoSports over the summer. “This upcoming season I have to try to put myself out there.”

Byrd, a Football Writers Association of America freshman All-American in 2019, led the Cowboys with 6½ sacks last season. Redshirt senior Garrett Crall is now the returning sack leader for UW, having notched 4½ in 2019.

Mora, a redshirt sophomore, started eight games last season, finishing with 3½ tackles for loss and two sacks. Cole, a redshirt sophomore, played in 10 games last season and made six tackles. Wells-Ross, a redshirt junior, played in 12 games in 2019 and had 2½ tackles for loss and two sacks.

The Cowboys have a good amount of depth along the defensive line, returning Crall, defensive tackle Cole Godbout (five starts in 2019), defensive end Teagan Liufau (one start in 2019) and defensive tackle Ravontae Holt, who missed all of 2019 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament but made seven starts over his first two seasons.

“There’s some good positives up front. We have some effective defensive ends,” first-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said over the summer. “There’s people who have played and had experience.”

In early August, the NCAA announced that any players choosing to opt out of the college football season would be given their scholarships as previously determined. All college football players will retain their year of eligibility regardless of if they play in 2020 or not.

UW also announced that junior long snapper Jesse Hooper and redshirt junior offensive linemen Gavin Rush were retiring. Hooper, the only returning starting specialist from 2019, is finishing his degree while Rush has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries and will work as an intern within the football program. Rush started 22 games over his first two seasons with the Cowboys.

In an interview with WyoSports, Hooper said that he decided during the shutdown this would be his last season of football. When the season was initially postponed Aug. 10 due to the pandemic, Hooper and his fiancée decided to move back Utah, where he would finish his degree in American Studies online and move on to the next portion of his and his fiancée's lives. The couple is getting married in June.

When the restart to the season was announced, Hooper stayed true to his retirement. He said he has received a conditional offer to be a police officer in Utah.

Hooper's teammates and the UW coaching staff were nothing but supportive of the decision, he said.

"I had already decided it was time to hang up the cleats after this season. I know this is exactly where we are supposed to be right now," Hooper said. "Mentally, I've kind of moved on. I love my teammates, love my coaches, but it was time to take the next step.”

After initially postponing its season in August, the Mountain West Conference reversed course last Thursday, announcing its teams would play and eight-game schedule starting Oct. 24.

Michael Katz covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at mkatz@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellkatz.

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