LARAMIE — With quarterback Josh Allen now a member of the Buffalo Bills, the NFL Draft talk surrounding Wyoming can shift to the other side of the ball. Tuesday, CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso listed senior Cowboys defensive end Carl Granderson as No. 65 on his list of top 100 prospects for the 2019 draft.
Senior safety Andrew Wingard has also generated some excitement as a potential NFL defender, and he submitted his name to the NFL’s College Advisory Committee after last season before deciding to return.
The Cowboys’ defensive unit has plenty to look forward to before the turn of the calendar, though. The group led the nation in takeaways last year under first-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton and allowed the ninth-fewest points per game in the country. This year’s group returns all but three starters, with one 2016 starter coming back (cornerback Antonio Hull, a medical redshirt last year) and a 2017 co-starter filling one of those starting holes (Tyler Hall, who moved from cornerback to nickel back).
And Granderson and the defensive line could be the most exciting part. The Cowboys succeeded in spite of a number of injuries on the D-line last year, especially on the interior line. When healthy, the team will have five tackles with starting experience: Youhanna Ghaifan, Sidney Malauulu, Conner Cain, Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson. And Wyoming’s starting line out of spring camp consists of three seniors (Granderson, Malauulu and end Kevin Prosser) and a junior in all-conference tackle Ghafain.
The linebacker group returns an all-conference contender in Logan Wilson (Natrona County), the safeties group is incredibly experienced between Wingard and Marcus Epps and there is young talent joining Hull at cornerback.
So, just how good can this defense be?
“First of all, we’re going to be the best defense in the Mountain West,” Ghaifan said. “And we’re going to try to get ranked top-5 in the nation defensively. Because we’ve got some really good players coming back. You’ve got Dewey, Logan, (linebacker) Cassh (Maluia), Sid, Conner, Kevin, Carl, all those guys are really good. I mean, I just think we’ve been blessed with a pretty good individual group of defensive players, and I feel like we are unstoppable when all of us are together.”
When a defense has as good of a season as Wyoming’s had in 2017, improvements are made by baby steps. A year ago, Wyoming spent its spring camp learning Hazelton’s defense. This spring, it worked on trying to perfect it.
“Really now we kind of know what the defense is,” Hazelton said. “We know how to play it. We know what to do. But now it’s really refining the skills that make you better, all the little fundamental things that you didn’t have a chance to work on or they didn’t understand, because they were still learning what to do.
“... It’s fun when you get into it a little bit, because then you can start to refine guys. You can say, ‘Hey listen, you, Player A, need to work on this one fundamental.’ And you can really slow it down and teach it, so they understand it. Then they say, ‘Oh, I see how it fits in now.’ Where before it was just, hey, try to get them in the right spot.”
Even if the Cowboys do have a dominant defense next season, what is the chance they have as much luck forcing turnovers? Until Wyoming forced 38 turnovers last season, no team in the country had forced more than 35 in a season since 2014 (Louisiana Tech, TCU).
“I don’t know if that’s the bench mark or not,” Hazelton said. “I think that that’s really hard to accomplish. But we do have guys who hawk the ball. We have a lot of those guys back who are responsible for takeaways, and it’s a knack that people find. So you hope we can get a bunch. I don’t know if 38’s ever going to happen again in my career, but they’re working hard at doing that, and they’re grinding to at least get there.”
Ghaifan isn’t worried about it.
“We could probably double that,” he said of the 38-takeaway mark. “The players that we’ve got coming back are really good. We’ll do pretty good.”