Strengthening a run defense that gave up an average of 232 rushing yards per game last season has been called a “top priority” by Wyoming coaches heading into this year.
But will a revamped defense and an added emphasis on clamping down on rushing yards make a difference?
Wyoming’s trip to Texas will provide an early answer.
In its first game of the season, the Cowboys will try to slow down three young Longhorns who have the potential to be one of the nation’s most-potent backfields.
“It will be a great test for us on Saturday,” Wyoming coach Dave Christensen said Monday. “We know they’re going to run the football. I know Coach [Mack] Brown wants to get back to where they were at a few years back, when they had a dominant run game. That’s what we’re expecting to see.”
Leading the Texas rushing attack is sophomore Malcolm Brown. He carried the ball 172 times for 742 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman last season. Another freshman, Joe Bergeron, scored the same amount of touchdowns while carrying the ball 72 times for 463 yards. The two averaged 202 rushing yards per game last year and they are both back this season.
And that’s not all.
Joining the one-two punch of Brown and Bergeron is Johnathan Gray, a freshman who has been compared to NFL star Adrian Peterson. Gray was the nation’s top running back recruit last year, a five-star prospect from Aledo, Texas who carried his team to three state titles while shattering individual records along the way.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound back holds Texas state records in career yards (10,908) and number of 100-yard games (51). He scored 205 career touchdowns, the most in the history of high school football.
It appears his success has transferred over to college football. On the Big 12 coaches teleconference Monday, Longhorns coach Mack Brown said Gray will be in the running back rotation along with Malcolm Brown and Bergeron when Texas plays Wyoming.
“He’s a very good football player,” Mack Brown said. “He showed that in high school. Usually guys that are great high school football players make a pretty smooth transition into the college game. It’s a big jump from where they were to 101,000 [people in attendance] this weekend. We anticipate him playing, and we’ll just have to see how he does.”
Mack Brown said his team is still trying to determine how the carries will be divided between the three running backs. Also still up in the air is which ones will play in the Longhorns’ special “wild” offense that functions with direct snaps going to one of three running backs instead of a quarterback.
Whether trying to contain Brown, Bergeron and Gray all at once or one at a time, the Cowboys have a challenging task waiting for them in Austin.
“They’re a good team,” Wyoming senior linebacker Korey Jones said. “They’re big and they’re athletic and they’re fast. We need to match that. If they come out playing fast and we play slow, we’re going to have guys out of place and there will be creases. We need to play fast and play physical.”
If Wyoming can do that and keep the Texas trio from running wild, the Cowboys’ new-look defense would pass its first (and probably hardest) test of the season.