Today is the day for the University of Wyoming football team.
The Cowboys open fall camp with their first of 20 practices. After that, there is game-week preparations for their season-opener against Missouri.
During Mountain West media day activities July 24 in Henderson, Nevada, sixth-year UW coach Craig Bohl used the “P” word about his 2019 Cowboys.
“We have the potential to be a really good football team,” he said. “Now we have to turn that potential into production.”
There also are some concerns and questions going into fall camp. The following are some things to watch.
It starts up front
Let’s begin with the offensive line.
During the spring, it was a revolving door of players in and out of practice due to injury. Sophomore Keegan Cryder took snaps at center, guard and tackle. As of now, he is the starting center.
UW lost redshirt junior Gavin Rush and redshirt freshman Zach Watts – both potential starting guards – to season-ending knee injuries during spring practice. Fortunately, UW has some depth at center and guard with sophomores Patrick Arnold and Eric Abojei, along with junior Logan Harris of Torrington. And, Cryder’s versatility is a plus.
Tackle is the biggest concern. Junior Alonzo Velazquez and sophomore Rudy Stofer are the starters. Velazquez missed all of spring with a knee injury, but is ready for fall camp. There is no proven depth behind them. Redshirt freshman Frank Crum of Laramie could be in the mix, and sophomore Gavin Dunayski was moved from defensive tackle during the spring.
If Velasquez or Stofer get hurt, UW is in big trouble unless Crum and Dunayski – or someone else – emerges as a viable option.
Defensively, senior Josiah Hall and junior Garrett Crall return at defensive end. Both were limited in the spring due to offseason knee and foot surgeries, respectively. That gave a lot of other guys a chance, but no one really took advantage of their opportunities.
UW needs more than two defensive ends. There are enough bodies in camp, but will any of them prove they are ready to play?
The interior defensive line is in a similar situation. Juniors Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson have played the past two seasons, but now they are starters. Fans will like redshirt freshman Mario Mora, who is a bit undersized at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds, but is quick and smart. More depth must be found during camp.
Who steps up at WR/TE?
UW’s 131.3 passing yards per game last season were abysmal, and a lot of factors went into those struggles. One area that needs to improve is the play of the wide receivers and tight ends.
UW needs a go-to receiver. The leading candidate is senior Austin Conway, who, in his first three seasons, has 105 catches, but his yards-per-catch average is only 8.6. If it is third-and-8, Conway is a good option to get a first down.
But what about a big-play threat? Senior Raghib Ismail Jr., led all of UW’s returning wide receivers in yards per catch last season at 11.1. UW must show – at the very least – the threat to stretch the field longer than 10 yards. Ismail may be the best player, but others are needed.
Another thing that would help is production from the tight ends. Last season, three tight ends combined for 25 catches, but two of them were seniors.
Bohl said he would like to utilize the tight end more in the passing game, but will that happen? A player who can stretch the middle of the field would be a big help. Redshirt freshman Jackson Marcotte (6-7, 250) is someone to watch.
If a big-play threat and an over-the-middle guy(s) aren’t established, defenses will simply stack the line of scrimmage and make life miserable for the entire offense.
More at linebacker
Seniors Logan Wilson of Casper and Cassh Maluia give the Cowboys production, experience and leadership. You will hear Chad Muma’s name a lot this season, whether it is replacing Wilson in the middle or Maluia outside. But when the Cowboys ended spring practice, no one else emerged as a viable candidate to play. Senior Ben Wisdorf, a Cheyenne East graduate, makes a lot of sense because he is entering his fifth year in the program. Most of his playing time has been on special teams, but if Wisdorf can be productive at linebacker, it would be one of the better storylines for the defense this season.
Even if Wisdorf does that, and this is sounding like a broken record, more depth is needed.
Then there is the nickel position.
In UW’s 4-3 scheme, the nickel is a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back. More often than not, it is a defensive back who is tasked with covering speedy inside receivers in this day and age of spread offenses. Tyler Hall manned this spot last season, but was moved back to his original position of cornerback during the spring.
Sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker was moved from cornerback to nickel in the spring, but missed a lot of time with a hamstring injury. Other than Blankenbaker, UW has no Plan B – at least not right now.
Sophomore cornerback Azizi Hearn transferred from Arizona and is eligible this season. UW needs a fourth cornerback, but perhaps he could be an option at nickel. Expect UW to give some incoming freshmen a look at nickel as well.
The Cowboys will be fine at strong safety even though Andrew Wingard is gone, along with his 454 career tackles. Senior Alijah Halliburton is just as good of a tackler as Wingard was. Junior Esaias Gandy hasn’t seen a lot of game reps at strong safety, but he has experience in the program.
Junior Braden Smith looks like he will replace Marcus Epps at free safety. Tackling was an issue for Smith in the spring.
But there are two young safeties to keep an eye on during camp – sophomore Miles Williams at strong safety and redshirt freshman Rome Weber at free. Miles is a former cornerback. Weber may be the most athletic among all of UW’s safeties.
UW expects junior Tim Zaleski to be recovered from a torn left ACL, and be the punter this season.
Zaleski tore the ACL during UW’s fifth game last season against Boise State, and is about 11 months out since the injury. If Zaleski has a setback in his recovery, what does UW do?
It could turn to junior wide receiver Dontae Crow of Sheridan, who, in place of Zaleski last season, averaged a respectable 42.8 yards per punt. Crow moved back to wide receiver full-time in the spring, due in large part to leg soreness from punting.
Senior walk-on Ryan Galovich averaged 45.6 yards per punt in the spring game. Used primarily to pin teams deep in their own territory, Galovich could be an option.
The bottom line is whether it is Zaleski, Galovich or whomever, UW needs to be better than its 39.4-yard average last season. Of course, making more first downs and scoring more points will keep the punter on the sideline, but the punter needs to be a weapon for the Cowboys, not just average to below average.
No QB or RB talk?
Yes, it is vital to UW’s success that redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers stays healthy and shows the progress and improvement expected of him. Chambers, who took over the offense more than halfway through last fall, suffered a broken leg in the second-to-last game of the season against Air Force. Chambers’ season was over before he played three full games.
The biggest progress Chambers needs to make is in the passing game. He attempted only 25 passes last season.
Who will run the ball after senior Nico Evans led the MW with 1,325 yards in 2018? Sophomore Xazavian Valladay and senior graduate transfer Trey Smith from Louisville are the guys, although finding a third and possibly fourth back among three true freshman is a must. One of those true freshmen to watch is Dawaiian McNeely, who comes in with good size at 6-2, 206.
Those are two key areas, no doubt, but the issues listed above are of far more importance.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.