LARAMIE — Having options at cornerback isn’t exactly new for Wyoming.
In the midst of a run to the Mountain West Mountain Division title in 2016, Rico Gafford, who’s now in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders, and Antonio Hull, then a sophomore, were at the top of the depth chart. Robert Priester, who took over as a starter alongside Gafford the next year when Hull went down with an injury, was also in the rotation, and true freshman Tyler Hall was there if needed.
But the numbers the Cowboys have this fall? With this much experience? And this much variety? It may be a first since Craig Bohl took over the program nearly six years ago.
“I think this is the deepest that we’ve been,” said Hull, now a fifth-year senior.
Hull and Hall are still around as starters going into their final season of college football. Behind them is third-year sophomore C.J. Coldon, who’s making a case to be the Cowboys’ third corner now that he’s healthy again. So is Azizi Hearn, a transfer that’s only heightened the expectations for a position that should be more than a strength for Wyoming’s defense this fall.
“We need to be more dominant this year, particularly in the league we play in and with the skill players,” Bohl said. “We need to tax our corners more.”
When it comes to experience, one would be hard-pressed to find a group in the league with more than what the Cowboys have.
Hull has started 39 career games, and it would be more than that had he not missed all but one game his junior season with an unusual quad injury. Hall has started more than half of the 31 games he’s played in his career, including all but one a season ago.
They’re not the only ones who’ve started multiple games at the Football Bowl Subdivision level. Coldon began last season as a starter alongside Hull and started the first three games before an arm injury shut him down for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Hearn was part of the rotation in Arizona’s secondary as a redshirt freshman and worked his way into the starting lineup for the final three games last season before seeking out a scholarship at Wyoming this summer.
They all come in different sizes, which gives the Cowboys the ability to match up with any type of receiver they line up against on the outside. Hull and Hall are on the shorter side at 5-foot-11 and 5-10, respectively, but there’s plenty of strength, speed and technique to make up for it that helps them stick with receivers in coverage.
Coldon and Hearn provide the range. Coldon stands 6-1 while Hearn, who’s pushing 6-2, is the tallest corner on the roster. Their length lends itself to an aggressive style of play that makes it difficult for receivers to separate and easier to recover when they do get beat.
“We have Antonio Hull, who can lift a truck,” receiver Raghib Ismail Jr. said. “We’ve got C.J. Coldon, whose arms are as long as a bus. We’ve got T-Hall, who can chase down a cheetah. And Azizi, who brings a gritty, hard-nosed, I’m-in-your-face type of swagger to the corner room.”
Having that many viable options breeds competition. Hull and Hall may be at the top of the depth chart, but there’s no complacency among the group. There can’t be as Wyoming tries to keep its place among the stingiest secondaries in the Mountain West.
Only Fresno State allowed fewer yards through the air a season ago than Wyoming (196.7 per game), and nobody was better at preventing the big play. The Cowboys limited opponents to just 9.7 yards per completion.
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“If the two (backup) can be a one (starter), then you know it’s tough,” Hull said. “Anybody could be a one. Anybody could be a two just because we’re so deep and talented.”
But regardless of the order, they’re all going to play. Reps will be divvied up as they rotate in and out. The objective is to keep fatigue down and production up as games wear on.
“When you’ve got guys that can be fresh in the fourth quarter because you are rotating, that allows you to be better throughout the game,” cornerbacks coach John Richardson said.
There’s enough versatility that they could all occasionally end up on the field at the same time. Hall, who led the team with nine pass breakups last season, was the Cowboys’ nickel back at the start of last season before moving to the outside after Coldon’s injury. He and Hearn could both move inside when Wyoming puts extra defensive backs on the field in passing situations.
With all of that comes more responsibility this season, particularly with what the Cowboys lost up front.
Five defensive linemen off last year’s two-deep are gone, including all-league end Carl Granderson. And even with their best pass-rushing threat, the Cowboys struggled to get to the quarterback last year, notching just 19 sacks. Garrett Crall, back for his second season as a full-time starter at the other end spot, led the team with just 4.5.
Fifth-year senior Josiah Hall is stepping in for Granderson, but nobody on the Cowboys’ roster has more than seven career sacks. And defensive tackle Ravontae Holt, whom coaches were counting on to help collapse the pocket from the interior, won’t play this season after tearing his ACL during fall camp.
Should the Cowboys struggle getting pressure with their front four, defensive coordinator Jake Dickert won’t hesitate to send more from different spots on the field and leave his corners on an island.
“I think the bottom line is when you’ve got experienced corners, you’ve got to take the stress off the d-line,” said Dickert, who’s taking over coordinating duties for the departed Scottie Hazelton. “In the past, we could play soft coverages, zone and blitz packages because those (defensive linemen) would eat up so many things.
“We’re going to put more weight on their plate. We can’t be at any time during the season where we’re like, ‘Hey, we can’t match up.’ That’s not in our vocabulary.”
Considering what it has to work with, the group isn’t blinking an eye at those expectations.
“We like the challenge,” Hall said. “Leaning on us, that means a lot more man coverage. And that means we have to stay on our A-game at all times. That’s the matchup we want.”