LARAMIE – After what seems like the longest offseason in the history of organized sports, the University of Wyoming football team is scheduled to start fall camp Tuesday.
The Cowboys – coming off an 8-5 season that included an Arizona Bowl victory over Georgia State – have high expectations in 2020 and a legitimate chance to win the Mountain West.
Of course, the focus over the past five months has been the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which forced UW and the majority of college football programs to cancel spring practice and has greatly minimized organized team activities since. As teams across the country continue to experience positive tests, it still remains to be seen how feasible a season of practices and games is from a safety standpoint.
Sports media personality Dan Patrick reported Monday the Big Ten and Pac-12 are set to announce that they will not play college football this fall, leaving the future of the season for the rest of the country in doubt.
Would the MW follow their lead? Or would it try to play if the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference or Big 12 try to?
For the time being, though, the Cowboys are back in action in pads for the first time since New Year’s Eve in Tucson, Arizona. The following are some lingering questions surrounding the Pokes as the season (hopefully) gets off to its regularly scheduled start.
Will there be a season?
This one is pretty obvious, but it is a question that needs to be addressed. College football (and the world in general) has been turned upside down due to COVID-19 and the accompanying shutdowns and protocols. Schools around the country have had positive tests, leading to temporary shutdowns of team activities.
Wyoming football has not had any positive tests, though, and appears to be in good shape to at least get the season started. Voluntary workouts went off without a hitch, and mandatory walkthroughs leading into fall camp were successful, too.
Question remains, though.
If the season does get started as currently constructed, will it finish? How many games will be rescheduled or canceled? Will the season ultimately move to the spring?
Last week, the MW announced an updated 10-game season format that will start Sept. 26, with eight conference matchups for each team and up to two nonconference games apiece. Will the season make it that far? It’s impossible to say right now.
Will there be fans in the stands?
UW athletics director Tom Burman has frequently said that if the Cowboys are to have a season, the only way it makes sense financially is with some amount of fans in the stands. In an interview with WyoSports in the spring, Burman said War Memorial Stadium would need to be at least 30% full to work logistically.
That decision isn’t in UW’s hands, however, as it will be the Wyoming Department of Health that ultimately decides capacity limits for events. If there are games this fall, there will be fans in the stands. The question is how many.
Who starts at quarterback?
Now that we’re done with the depressing stuff, let’s talk football.
The last time UW took the field, Levi Williams was leading the Pokes to a 38-17 demolition of Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl. Williams, who was making his first-career start, threw for 234 yards (a season-high for UW quarterbacks) and accounted for four total touchdowns. The redshirt freshman will face off with redshirt sophomore Sean Chambers, who led the Cowboys to a 6-2 start before a season-ending left knee injury sidelined him for the remainder of 2019.
Chambers is back and healthy, while Williams has momentum on his side. Regardless of who ends up starting, the passing numbers have to improve substantially from last season, when UW quarterbacks completed a combined 47% of their passes for a total of just 11 touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Brent Vigen told WyoSports earlier in the offseason Chambers would likely begin camp as the starter, but Williams would have every chance to prove himself. It should be one heck of a battle among a pair of highly qualified candidates.
Who catches passes?
Let’s get this out of the way: UW’s receiving corps did not produce last season. The team’s top pass catchers, Rocket Ismail Jr., Austin Conway and Josh Harshman, caught a combined 66 passes a season ago for a total of 933 yards. All three have graduated, leaving an already less-than-stellar group from a production standpoint an even bigger question mark.
Vigen and company are confident in the current group, however, noting an abundance of length the Cowboys haven’t seen since 2016, when Josh Allen was throwing to Tanner Gentry. A few of the projected contributors are Gunner Gentry (6-foot-3), Ayden Eberhardt (6-2), Alex Brown (6-4) and Isaiah Neyor (6-3).
That’s a scary amount of length outside that should help whoever ends up under center.
Can Xazavian Valladay replicate his 2019 success?
The answer here is “yes,” but there is a caveat: Will he get the chance to? The redshirt junior led the MW with 1,265 yards last season, despite not becoming the team’s featured ballcarrier until midway through the season. Valladay averaged just under 27 carries per game over UW’s final seven contests.
Part of this was due to necessity, as Trey Smith and Titus Swen went down with injuries earlier in the season, leaving the running back room spread about as thin as possible. Vigen has openly stated Valladay carried the ball as much as he did late in the season out of need.
Valladay, Smith and Swen are all back and fully healthy, a scary proposition for the rest of the conference. Perhaps scarier is the fact the Cowboys return all of their starters from an offensive line that was among the MW’s top units in 2019. If Valladay is given 25 or more carries per game, he could absolutely replicate or surpass his numbers from a year ago. He won’t have to, though, if Swen and Smith stay healthy.
UW’s running attack will be better than it was a year ago (especially if Chambers stays healthy and wins the quarterback gig), but it won’t necessarily mean Valladay improves on his numbers. In a perfect world, the carries are spread out a bit more, and it’s a group effort.
What happens at linebacker?
Gone are All-American linebacker Logan Wilson, a mainstay in the Cowboys’ lineup for four seasons, and Cassh Maluia, who were selected by the Cincinnati Bengals (third round) and New England Patriots (sixth round), respectively, in the 2020 NFL draft. The pair combined for 166 tackles in 2019, including 15.5 for loss.
The next man up is junior Chad Muma, who starred in a complimentary role last season by notching 51 total tackles. Expectations are high for Muma. Linebackers coach Aaron Bohl has been on the record as saying the linebacker room needs Muma to play well if it’s going to have a good year as a whole.
It’s unreasonable to expect a Wilson-like impact from Muma, but if UW wants to be dominant on defense again, Muma is going to have to do his part.
Who is going to kick?
Four-year starting kicker and UW all-time leading scorer Cooper Rothe is gone. Also gone are punters Ryan Galovich and Tim Zaleski, returners Austin Conway and Tyler Hall and holder Nick Szpor.
In fact, the only returning special teamer is long snapper Jesse Hooper. That’s a wild departure from 2019, when special teams were among the team’s known strengths, despite Rothe’s inconsistent senior campaign.
The options at kicker and punter will likely come down to redshirt freshman Luke Glassock and Cornell graduate transfer Nick Null. Glassock did not attempt a punt or kick last season for the Cowboys, but Null brings a wealth of experience from his days in the Ivy League. Null averaged 39.5 yards a punt last season and was 6 of 8 on field goal tries with a long of 49 yards.
As far as returners are concerned, senior receiver Dontae Crow provides a bit of experience, having returned one punt in 2017 for a total of eight yards. Crow also has experience as a punter. He has punted 24 times in his career (all in 2018), with a 42.8-yard average.