LARAMIE — Last season was a magical one for the Wyoming Cowboys in many ways, and the team’s health was one of them. While no college football fans are going to storm the field in celebration of a lack of injuries, the 2016 Cowboys’ ability to keep key players on the field allowed them to enjoy a Mountain Division championship season.
Other than a season-ending injury to defensive end Carl Granderson, last year’s Pokes were not plagued by many injuries to starters early in the season. This year’s team has not been so fortunate. At various points this fall, Wyoming has had to endure injuries to its starting left guard, starting right guard, starting nose tackle, a starting wide receiver and tight end, a pair of defensive end co-starters, a starting safety, its starting long snapper, its backup long snapper and fullback, a member of its cornerback rotation and numerous players further down the depth chart.
Perhaps some of that can be chalked up to luck, while some of it could be attributed to an early-season schedule that included two Power Five opponents in three weeks.
“I think it’s a combination of both,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “Certainly, the two Power Five teams that we played are really good programs.
“... Injuries do come into play and whichever way the ball bounces. So we’re sitting in decent shape with where we’re at with conference play, but this will be a big game for us, and injuries do come into play. That’s why depth is so important.”
Wyoming returns to the field Saturday at Utah State after having a bye last week. Bohl expects to get senior left guard Ryan Cummings back from a concussion, though right guard Kaden Jackson remains sidelined by a knee injury.
“He’s the lone senior (on the offensive line),” quarterback Josh Allen, who has been dinged but not sidelined by injuries this season, said of Cummings. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s a vocal leader on offense, and especially within that linemen group.
“Not having K.J. and Ryan, it’s a big jump, but having one of those guys and having the senior, it’s big for our confidence. It’s big for how we execute things and big for just how well they mesh together up front and he’s one of our best lineman, our best players, and it’s always good to have him back.”
Cummings, then a right tackle, was one of Wyoming’s starters who did suffer substantial injuries later in the 2016 season, as did senior nose tackle Chase Appleby and senior linebacker D.J. May — all of which were season ending. Overall, though, the Cowboys’ offense avoided the injuries that had nagged them the season before.
“Sometimes you need a stroke of luck, and last year, our key guys from a playmaking position really didn’t miss any time at all,” offensive coordinator Brent Vigen said. “And yeah, when Ryan went down, it was a little bit worrisome, but we were able to work through that. Now this year, we’ve had a couple preseason injuries. A guy like Austin Fort hasn’t even seen the field yet, and we were really counting on him, but now we get him back. We get Ryan back. Kaden will be back eventually.
“So I think the positive thing is we have better depth than we had last year on the O-line, for sure. The skill position, I think we have more guys to call upon, but we still need guys to emerge as the season goes on.”
Bohl said it was a “mixed bag” whether Fort, a tight end, will return Saturday. The Gillette graduate, who had been listed as a co-starter, suffered a PCL tear in fall camp but returned to practice last week in a limited capacity.
“He’s been able to run, but he hasn’t played in a long, long time,” Bohl said. “So how much he’s going to be able to play, we’ll see by how he practices this week”
Defensive end Kevin Prosser (shoulder) is expected to return for this week’s game, joining receiver James Price (collarbone), defensive end Josiah Hall (concussion), Marcus Epps (knee) and fullback/long snapper Drew Van Maanen (hand) as players who have returned from injuries this year. But nose tackle Sidney Malauuulu (knee), cornerback Antonio Hull (quad contusion), backup linebacker Adam Pilapil (groin) and backup defensive end Shiloh Windsor (concussion) remain off the depth chart.
Long snapper Kolton Donovan will miss the season with an ACL tear suffered in the opener, and defensive end Trevor Meader retired in fall camp after multiple knee injuries.
“I think sometimes guys just get hit and it’s unlucky,” said Pilapil, who also missed significant time last year with an ankle injury. “I think last year, the ball bounced our way a lot on the field, off the field, dealing with injuries in the game. And so far this season, certainly with injuries, it’s kind of been a back-and-forth thing. But I think one thing this year that guys have is we have so much depth now, that if one guy goes down, the next guy up, we’re barely missing out on anything. So it’s been better reacting to that this year.
“... I think there’s definitely more guys that are hurt, but I think there’s a lot more, it’s just a guy got nicked up and might miss a week or a guy got nicked up and we want to give him some time to rest during practice so he might have a chance to play. So, yeah, there’s a little more guys maybe hurt, but I think the long-term injuries that we’ve maybe had in the past — not even just last year but in the years previous — where we’ve had guys that are out for six, eight (weeks), the season, kind of injuries, now it’s guys that are out for a week, comes right back in.
“So I think that has to do with just the mentality of our team. Everybody wants to be back in and pain is no big deal.”