LARAMIE – We have officially entered the dark-est days in football: the offseason.
The University of Wyoming (8-5 overall, 4-4 Mountain West) finished its season on a high note with a 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl. The 2019 season was a roller-coaster, to say the least: a 6-2 start, a 1-3 regular-season finish and numerous injuries along the way. If anything, though, the Arizona Bowl provided a glimpse into what could be a special 2020 season.
The following are my grades for each of the Cowboys’ positional groups from 2019 and projected grades for each unit in 2020:
2019 grade: C-
Let’s start with the bad: UW quarterbacks had a combined completion percentage of 46.9% in 2019. That was the third-lowest mark in college football, ahead of just Army (triple-option offense) and Georgia Tech (transitioning out of a triple-option offense). Redshirt freshman Sean Chambers, redshirt sophomore Tyler Vander Waal and true freshman Levi Williams threw 11 total touchdowns. For reference, LSU’s Joe Burrow threw seven touchdowns in the first half of the College Football Playoff semifinal against Oklahoma.
It’s an apples and oranges comparison, but the point still stands: Cowboys quarterbacks struggled for the most part in 2019. Chambers was able to make plays with his legs (he had 567 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns before he was lost to a knee injury in late October) but, overall, the production under center wasn’t great. The season ended on a high note, though, as Williams showed a glimpse of his potential on New Year’s Eve in the Arizona Bowl. The Texas native threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another 53 and a touchdown. More importantly, the offense had flow with Williams running the offense.
Projected 2020 grade: B+
Will UW have a quarterback controversy on its hands come spring? While Vander Waal transferred to Idaho State, both Chambers and Williams return, and each has a reasonable claim to the job. Chambers was on pace to run for 1,000 yards; his ability on the ground would have made him and redshirt sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay the best tandem in the MW and one of the best in the nation. Williams, meanwhile, showed a world of promise both through the air and on the ground in his lone start of the season. UW coach Craig Bohl has previously said he has contemplated running Chambers less next season in an effort to limit contact; could we see two quarterbacks play, regardless of who gets the starting gig? It likely wouldn’t be a 50/50 split, since those platoons don’t normally work well. That being said, whoever ends up getting the bulk of the snaps in 2020 will look a lot better than the quarterbacks under center did last season.
2019 grade: B+
What can you really say about Valladay? He saved the season. Following injuries to freshman Titus Swen and graduate transfer senior Trey Smith, Valladay was the lone option left in the backfield. He answered the bell, leading the MW with 1,265 rushing yards while carrying the ball an average of 26.9 times over the final seven games of the season. Prior to the matchup with New Mexico, Valladay’s high in carries was 16. Valladay himself earns an “A.” This grade takes all running backs into account, however, and because Valladay was the only standout, the overall grade suffers. You can say it’s unfair to ding the unit because of injuries, but the fact is that over the course of the year, Valladay was the only productive tailback.
Projected 2020 grade: A
Imagine UW’s backfield with the MW’s leading returning rusher, Smith (who will likely be given a medical redshirt) and Swen. Wow. Valladay’s production speaks for itself, but, in limited time, Smith and Swen ran for 564 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. It will be hard to take carries away from Valladay, but spreading the wealth to a pair of talented runners can only help the overall offensive production. Whoever ends up taking the majority of snaps at quarterback is also a running threat, which will also help open up the offense like we saw against Georgia State. UW could have the best collection of tailbacks in the MW next season. It would not be at all surprising to see the unit rush for 2,000 or more combined yards in 2020.
Wide receivers and tight ends
2019 grade: D
This might seem harsh due to the issues UW had under center throughout the season, but numbers don’t lie: the Cowboys’ leading receivers, Raghib Ismail Jr. and Austin Conway, each had 23 receptions. Tight end Josh Harshman had 20 catches. Simply put, the production was not there. There was no go-to receiver for the Cowboys in 2019. Redshirt junior wide receiver Ayden Eberhardt made the play of the year in the Arizona Bowl, leaping in the air to haul in a desperation heave from Williams before breaking numerous tackles en route to a 51-yard touchdown reception that made it into SportsCenter’s top plays. The offense could have used more of those highlights in the regular season.
Projected 2020 grade: C
Even if the production wasn’t there, Ismail Jr., Conway and Harshman provided veteran leadership as seniors. They are gone, however. I am many things, but a fortune teller is not among them. You would have to assume, however, that whoever takes over at receiver would put up better numbers than the corps did this past season. Eberhardt’s performance in the Arizona Bowl could be a precursor of things to come. In limited snaps, sophomore Gunner Gentry (21.7 yards per reception) showed potential. Freshman Alex Brown didn’t log any receptions in 2019, but his size (6-foot-4, 190 pounds) and the fact he was a three-star recruit coming out of high school likely bodes well. There is certainly potential in this group for a much higher grade; the results just remain to be seen.
2019 grade: B+
Under first-year offensive line coach Bart Miller, UW was able to overcome numerous injuries and help pave the way for the conference’s leading rusher. The offensive line was selected to the Joe Moore Award midseason honor roll, which honors the top offensive line in college football. As competition stiffened up later in the season, the offensive line was not as productive as it was earlier in the season. Still, the line allowed just 21 sacks (tied for 32nd nationally) and paved the way for the nation’s No. 23 rushing offense. Whether it was veterans like Alonzo Velazquez or freshmen like Frank Crum, Miller was able to plug and play seemingly anyone for great results.
Projected 2020 grade: A
Every offensive lineman that started in the Arizona Bowl is scheduled to return in 2020. UW will also likely get redshirt sophomore Eric Abojei back from injury, which would be a huge boost. In fact, UW doesn’t have any seniors on the season’s final depth chart. As good as this unit was in 2019, it should only be better next season, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the MW.
2019 grade: B
UW boasted the No. 11 rushing and scoring defense in college football, and much of that can be credited to the front seven. The linebackers got most of the hype during the season (and rightfully so), but the big men in the trenches did their jobs, too. Redshirt junior defensive end Garrett Crall and redshirt freshman Solomon Byrd had a combined 11 sacks in 2019. Senior Josiah Hall chipped in three sacks for a team that was tied for 49th nationally in sacks (31) despite not having a single player with more than 6½ sacks.
Projected 2020 grade: B+
UW loses Hall (graduation) and Javaree Jackson (dismissed from team), but the rest of the unit remains intact. Redshirt freshmen defensive tackles Mario Mora and Cole Godbout will only improve, and incoming freshmen like Gavin Meyers could see early action, as well. There won’t be a drop off on either side of the trenches.
2019 grade: A
The conversation here starts with senior Logan Wilson, who was named first team All-MW, was a Butkus Award finalist and was named to several All-American teams. Wilson ended his storied career with 409 career tackles, including 105 in 2019. He also had four interceptions this season, returning one of them for a touchdown against Utah State. While Wilson garnered the headlines (deservedly so), senior Cassh Maluia and sophomores Keyon Blakenbaker and Chad Muma played their respective roles admirably. Maluia was named All-Mountain West honorable mention (61 tackles, two interceptions), while Blakenbaker and Muma racked up 57 and 51 tackles, respectively. UW had as good a linebacking corps as there was in the MW in 2019. The strength of UW’s front seven was the linebackers, and that front seven was UW’s biggest strength.
Projected 2020 grade: B
The problem with having veterans like Wilson and Maluia play such pivotal roles during their senior seasons is that, at the end of the magical run, they graduate. And their presence will most certainly be missed. The leadership of both players cannot be understated, particularly Wilson, who was the heart and soul of the team. That being said, there is reason for optimism as Blakenbaker and Muma step into more prominent roles. It’s hard to see the group being better than it was in 2019 without the aforementioned star power, but I think the unit will be just fine. UW’s defense tends to figure itself out more often than not.
2019 grade: C
This is admittedly a tough one. The positives included senior Alijah Halliburton, who grew into one of the top safeties in the MW and finished tied for 11th nationally (first among all defensive backs) with a staggering 130 total tackles. Halliburton was a bright spot, to say the least. Senior Tyler Hall also had a solid year and earned All-MW honorable mention honors at cornerback. Now, the bad: UW finished 105th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (256.7). It didn’t end up biting them too badly generally, as the Cowboys kept opponents out of the end zone once they got into the red zone (No. 6 red zone defense nationally). Of 45 trips opponents took inside the UW 20-yard line, they scored just 31 times. That being said, there were far too many long pass completions allowed by UW.
Projected 2020 grade: B
The reason for this grade is that it’s hard to see the group giving up more yards than it did in 2019. Halliburton and Hall are gone, but true freshman Jordan Murry, redshirt freshman Esaias Gandy, sophomore Azizi Hearn, redshirt freshman Rome Weber and redshirt sophomore C.J. Coldon all have experience and should make the defense more stout against the pass.
2019 grade: B+
One of the big storylines in 2019 was the play of senior kicker Cooper Rothe, the 2018 Lou Groza Award finalist who struggled for parts of his final season. Rothe, quite literally, ended the year on the right foot, finishing 15 of 22 overall, with just one miss over the final three games of the season. He also hit a career-long 53-yard field goal in the Arizona Bowl. Senior punter Ryan Galovich quietly had a quality season, finishing with a 42.1 yard punt average. He was overshadowed by CSU’s Ryan Stonehouse, New Mexico’s Tyson Dyer and SDSU’s Brandon Heicklen, but Galovich performed more than admirably. Conway was named second team All-MW for his punt returning and finished 14th nationally with 10.8 yards per return. The Cowboys also ranked No. 4 in the nation in kickoff return average (27.73 yards per return). Hall only had eight kickoff returns, but he averaged 33.4 yards per return which, if he had enough returns to qualify, would be best in the nation. UW’s special teams were at times overshadowed because of Rothe’s early struggles, but the unit as a whole was quite strong.
Projected 2020 grade: B-
Losing Rothe, a four-year starter and the school’s all-time leading scorer, certainly does not help. Nor does losing dynamic returners in Conway and Hall. Junior Tim Zaleski punted three times in 2019, averaging 44.7 yards per punt. A small sample size to be sure, but odds are he can handle the job. True freshman Luke Glassock is next in-line to take over for Rothe, though he has yet to attempt a kick in his young career. As far as returners go, look for junior Dontae Crow to potentially step into the roles Conway and Hall had as the team’s lead returner.
Overall grade in 2019: B-
Projected 2020 grade: B+/A-
Looking at the schedule, I think this team will win at least nine games in 2020. If I’m wrong, well, you have my email address.