It wasn’t long ago that Wyoming found itself in this exact same position.
In fact, it’s been less than a year. When Tyler Vander Waal officially beat out Nick Smith for Wyoming’s starting quarterback job in fall camp, that meant a redshirt freshman would get the first crack at replacing Josh Allen, who left unenviable shoes to fill when he exhausted his eligibility after the 2017 season and went on to become the highest-drafted player in program history.
Those that follow Wyoming football closely don’t need a reminder of how things went. For those that don’t, well, to say it was a struggle is putting it mildly.
There were protection issues at times, and the Cowboys’ receivers weren’t the most consistent group last fall. For a multitude of reasons, Vander Waal’s introduction to college football was largely a mess.
With a big arm attached to his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame, Vander Waal has physical tools many quarterbacks would kill for. Yet he struggled to find touch and accuracy. He completed just 48 percent of his passes with nearly as many interceptions (4) as touchdown passes (5), and Wyoming, despite having the Mountain West’s fourth-best rushing attack, became one of the worst passing offenses in the country. Wyoming’s 131.3 yards per game through the air matched Air Force for the fewest in the MW. Georgia Tech, Army, Georgia Southern and Navy — four more option teams — were the only teams that averaged less in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
After the Cowboys went 10 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown midway through the season, Wyoming coach Craig Bohl had seen enough. True freshman Sean Chambers hadn’t played all year, but Bohl yanked his redshirt. Or at least that was the plan.
Chambers went about it differently, but he breathed life into Wyoming’s offense with his legs (three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career) and helped jumpstart the Cowboys’ four-game winning streak to end the season before a broken leg knocked him out in his fourth game. But the NCAA’s new redshirt rule allows players to appear in up to four games and not burn their redshirt, so Chambers didn’t lose a year of eligibility.
So here Wyoming is again. The Cowboys introduced this movie last year and created the sequel when Chambers returned to secure the job in the spring. If the Cowboys want to get back to a bowl game this season, they’re going to need a better ending from Chambers’ redshirt freshman season.
The biggest difference in Vander Waal’s redshirt freshman year and Chambers’ is experience. Chambers already has two starts and 11 quarters under his belt heading into his second season whereas Vander Waal didn’t take a snap during his first year on campus. You would obviously rather have that kind of head start if you can get it heading into your first season as the full-time starter, but there are still questions that have to be answered.
First, is Chambers a good enough passer to keep defenses honest and bring balance back to Wyoming’s offense? Nobody (well, nobody outside of maybe Wyoming’s coaches and Chambers himself) really knows because he hasn’t been asked to do it much to this point. Chambers threw just 25 passes last season while he and Nico Evans pounded away at teams on the ground, so you can bet opposing defenses that watch Chambers’ film from last season are going to load the box and try to make him beat them through the air.
You have free articles remaining.
Chambers completed 60 percent of those passes last year, so he’s at least shown capable even if the sample size is minuscule. But he’ll now have to prove he’s capable over the course of a full season, which brings me to the next question: How will Chambers perform against the better teams on the schedule?
Accounting for 595 yards and five total touchdowns with just two turnovers is an impressive two-and-a-half game start to a career, but the only two games he started and finished were against Colorado State and San Jose State, which combined for four wins last season. And those teams were bad because they couldn’t stop anybody they lined up against. CSU and San Jose State finished 107th or worse nationally in rush defense and total defense.
It should be noted Chambers showed well in the first two quarters he played against reigning Mountain Division co-champion Utah State (162 total yards, one turnover), but he’s about to get splashed with a wave of top-notch defenses this season. Wyoming will face five of the MW’s top seven defenses from last season with four of those (San Diego State, Boise State, Utah State, Air Force) being on the road. And that doesn’t count SEC foe Missouri or Texas State, which also gets the Cowboys at its place in early September with its top 10 tacklers back from last season.
Yet Chambers has to be careful not to try to do too much. As rough as the quarterback play was at times last year, the Cowboys still got to six wins and were this close to a couple of more. The defense kept Wyoming around against Utah State and Hawaii, but both ended up being one-possession losses because the offense — specifically the passing game — didn’t come through.
Andrew Wingard, Marcus Epps, Carl Granderson, Youhanna Ghaifan and Sidney Malauulu are no longer around, but the defense is still plenty experienced with six starters back on a unit that finished in the top 30 nationally in yards and points allowed last season. Among those are leading tackler Logan Wilson and sack leader Garrett Crall, so it’s hard to see a huge dropoff coming on that side of the ball.
In other words, the defense should again be formidable enough to keep Wyoming in just about every game this season. The question is will Chambers and the rest of the Cowboys’ offense make the plays this time to where some of those close losses turn into wins?
Chambers doesn’t have to be extraordinary. He just has to be better than what Wyoming got from the position for much of last season, particularly if this team plans on upsetting the apple cart and being a legitimate contender in the Mountain Division like some of the Cowboys’ players think they can be.
If Chambers isn’t, that won’t be realistic. If he is, who knows?
Go get ‘em, kid.