LARAMIE — The offseason is officially over for Wyoming as the Cowboys open preseason camp Friday morning in preparation for their season opener against Missouri on Aug. 31 at War Memorial Stadium.
That means competition will be in full swing as the Cowboys work to solidify their depth chart before then. Redshirt freshman Sean Chambers was named the starting quarterback coming out of the spring while the top of the depth chart is also set at linebacker, cornerback and parts of the offensive and defensive lines, but there’s still plenty for Wyoming to sort out before Aug. 31.
With that in mind, here are five positions to keep a close eye on over the next month.
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said recently that redshirt sophomore Xazavian Valladay will begin camp atop the depth chart here — not much of a surprise with Nico Evans (graduation) and last year’s backup, Jevon Bigelow (personal reasons), no longer around — but it feels like a fluid situation.
That’s primarily because the Cowboys brought in Louisville graduate transfer Trey Smith in May, and with only one year of eligibility remaining, Smith will compete for the starting job immediately. Smith, more of a bruiser than Valladay at 6-foot and 218 pounds, transferred to Wyoming primarily because he was never the featured back at Louisville, but Smith has the edge in experience (32 games played) and has flashed ability (5.1 career yards per carry) when given the chance.
Wyoming will need more than one running back to get through the season, though, so both figure to get plenty of carries regardless of who wins the competition for the No. 1 spot. Bohl ideally would like a rotation he can count on, and that could very well include at least one of the true freshmen — Dawaiian McNeely, Titus Swen or Alphonzo Andrews Jr. — given the lack of experienced depth in Wyoming’s backfield.
With fifth-year seniors Tyler Hall and Antonio Hull back at corner, fellow senior Alijah Halliburton at strong safety and junior Braden Smith emerging as the top option at free safety this spring, the only real intrigue in the secondary is what happens at the Cowboys’ fifth defensive back spot?
Marcus Epps eventually took over at nickel last season, but he’s with the Minnesota Vikings now. Sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker is the favorite to take over after making the move from corner this spring, but don’t be surprised if Arizona transfer Azizi Hearn gets a strong look.
Hearn spent two seasons at Arizona and started the last three games last season for the Wildcats at corner. But when asked earlier this month at Mountain West Media Days where Hearn would play for the Cowboys, Bohl said he could line up at either position. It’s possible Hearn could compete to be part of the rotation at corner (a healthy C.J. Coldon is also back in the fold), but the 6-1, 190-pounder could make an immediate impact at nickel given that Blankenbaker would be his only real competition there.
Yes, Wyoming is set with incumbent starters Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia here, but the two seniors can’t play every snap. And what it looks like behind them is still very much a foggy picture.
The only other linebacker that separated himself in the spring was sophomore Chad Muma, who will back up Wilson in the middle and could also slide outside to give Maluia a breather if needed. Beyond that, the linebacker rotation is a mystery heading into camp.
Senior Ben Wisdorf was listed as Maluia’s backup on the outside coming out of the spring. Redshirt freshmen Charles Hicks and Ray Rabou are among those competing to provide depth at the position, though Bohl wasn’t willing to single out anybody other than Muma this spring when asked if any of the young linebackers were emerging.
It could leave a handful of true freshmen with chances to crack the rotation with a strong camp. That includes Texas native Shae Suiaunoa (6-3, 220 pounds), who was the highest-ranked prospect in Wyoming’s 2019 signing class, according to 247Sports.
There’s enough talent here to form one of the MW’s best offensive lines, but that’s going to require long-term health for a unit that’s already behind the 8-ball in that regard.
There’s not a ton of depth at tackle behind incumbents Rudy Stofer and Alonzo Velazquez, who’s coming back from a knee injury that cost him most of last season. And the depth Wyoming had on the interior was depleted this spring when junior Gavin Rush and redshirt freshman Zach Watts both went down with knee injuries that will cost them the entire season.
That leaves junior Logan Harris to fill in at right guard while Eric Abojei and Patrick Arnold duke it out at left guard. Each of them started at least one game last season. Keegan Cryder, a freshman All-American last season, is back at center.
But another major injury in camp (or during the season) could make things dire along a line that paved the way for the league’s fourth-best rushing attack last season.
Arguably the biggest question mark for Wyoming got even bigger when receiver C.J. Johnson recently decided to call it quits.
There’s experience at receiver with seniors Austin Conway, Rocket Ismail Jr. and John Okwoli still around, but the questions will persist until that translates into production. The trio combined for just 59 catches and three touchdown receptions a season ago for what was one of the least productive passing offenses in the country.
Losing James Price and Johnson, who led the Cowboys with seven touchdown catches in 2017, doesn’t help for an offense that needs playmakers to emerge on the outside for Chambers. Conway led the team in receptions last season. Ayden Eberhardt will compete with Okwoli for a starting job on the outside.