LARAMIE — He needs to improve his consistency. His vision at the second and third levels of the defense also needs to come along. And by his own admission, Xazavian Valladay’s pass protection could use some work, too.
But making a run at the top of the depth chart this spring started off the field for Valladay.
Valladay, Wyoming’s rising sophomore running back, said he played last season at just 185 pounds. The focus this offseason has been adding weight to his 6-foot frame.
The weight room has helped, but with a metabolism Valladay described as “super high,” he’s had to significantly increase his calorie intake. Now, Valladay said, “I just eat everything.”
His go-to entree is baked chicken. And he’ll indulge in a certain sugary snack from time to time.
“If I feel really generous to myself, I get some gummy bears,” Valladay said. “I like gummy bears. Just nice and chewy, I guess.”
However Valladay is going about trying to pack on the pounds, it’s working. Valladay is tipping the scales at 200 pounds this spring as he begins to make his case to be Wyoming’s No. 1 back following the departure of Nico Evans, who led the Mountain West in rushing in his only season as the Cowboys’ primary ballcarrier.
“He put on some really great lean muscle mass,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said of Valladay. “He’s always (had) a good change of direction and a good feel of where to plant, but those extra 10 pounds, they’ve been solid pounds.”
Valladay spent most of his redshirt freshman season No. 3 on the depth chart behind Evans and fellow freshman Jevon Bigelow, but he finished it as Wyoming’s second-leading rusher. Using a slashing running style that complemented Evans’ more downhill approach, Valladay had 396 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry.
Most of that production came with some unexpected opportunities. With Evans and Bigelow both sidelined with injuries, Valladay took every snap in the Cowboys’ win over Wofford. When a rib injury kept Bigelow from making the trip to New Mexico for the regular-season finale, Valladay stepped in and rushed for a career-high 192 yards and two touchdowns.
Valladay also caught four passes for 35 yards, including a pair of fourth-down receptions that kept drives alive late in comeback wins over Wofford and Air Force. It’s a part of Valladay’s game he believes helps separate him from rest of the competition.
“I can run and catch the ball,” he said. “Being versatile is something I really work on just every day in season and out of season.”
He’s got the speed and shiftiness to go along with it. The focus this spring has been working to refine parts of his game and improving others in order to become a more complete back.
“He’s got to make strides, I would say, on second- and third-level cuts,” running backs coach Gordie Haug said. “Getting up to the linebacker level and safety level and be able to really understand what leverage are they and understand what cut can you do? Do you have to cut across the face? Do you have to spin? You got to stiff arm? It’s more so about that more than anything else.”
Said Valladay, “Nobody’s perfect. Anything I can do to make myself better, I definitely do it.”
Bohl recently said Valladay has pulled ahead from the rest of the competition in the backfield, which has been thinned out even more. Bigelow recently left the team because of personal reasons while redshirt freshman Reow Jackson will be limited this spring as he continues to work his way back from an Achilles injury, leaving Valladay as the only full participant in the backfield with any game experience.
“He’s been catching the ball well. He’s pass protecting well,” Bohl said of Valladay. “But I think he’s gotten to become a more forceful runner.”
Wyoming will add signees Dawaiian McNeely, Titus Swen and Alphonzo Andrews Jr. to the running back room in the summer, but Valladay is doing everything he can in the meantime to seize a golden opportunity.
“The spot’s open. It’s wide open,” Valladay said. “Just make a big impact of what role do you want to have on this team and just go after it. Chase it.”