LARAMIE — Talk to Raghib Ismail Jr. about his first season at Wyoming, and the Cowboys’ receiver will be perfectly blunt: It was disappointing.
The son of former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy contender Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, the younger Ismail came to Wyoming last season out of the junior college ranks with some of the same speed and quickness at receiver that defined his dad’s game in South Bend, Indiana, three decades ago.
“The name recognition is fine, but what we see is what he’s doing on the grass,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said after Ismail signed with the Cowboys in February of 2018. “He’s got great explosion and really good quickness.”
But the Cowboys’ passing game was inconsistent last season, and by the time dual-threat freshman Sean Chambers took over at quarterback with four games left, Wyoming hardly threw the ball at all. But Ismail admitted there were plenty of chances to produce before the switch from Tyler Vander Waal to Chambers was made, which is where most of that disappointment resides.
One play in particular — a perfectly placed ball by Vander Waal on a wheel route that almost certainly would’ve been a touchdown in the second half against Washington State had it not slipped through Ismail’s hands — is still hard for him to shake.
“I’ll never forget that play,” Ismail said. “Every time I train, every time I step on the field, and every time I get a ball that’s just like that one, I focus on that because I know I’m going to have other opportunities and I need to make those plays.”
Ismail played in all but one game with two starts but finished his junior season with just 24 catches for 267 yards with two scores for an offense that matched Air Force in producing the fewest passing yards in the Mountain West. The production in all of those categories was almost exactly half the numbers he put up the previous season at Cisco (Texas) Junior College — far below what Ismail expected of himself — and how he reacted to it didn’t exactly help.
Ismail is more of an introverted personality, and his new surroundings at Wyoming only intensified it. He kept the frustration of what he felt like was a non-productive season bottled up.
“When I first got here, I was a little antisocial,” Ismail said. “I didn’t really want to talk to a whole lot of people.”
Time has helped with that. With a fall camp, a full season and now a full spring under his belt, Ismail has developed more of a rapport with his quarterbacks, his coaches and his fellow receivers. Ismail, who’s also adopted the “Rocket” nickname, said the receivers started a group chat this offseason in an attempt to build camaraderie and offer words of encouragement to each other following an underwhelming season for the group as a whole.
It’s all gotten Ismail to a point where he’s opening up more.
“I feel like just mentally I’m in a better space — in a space to talk about things if I need to,” Ismail said. “Just reach out and not be all reserved and figure everything out by myself. The more I’ve let these coaches in my life and the more I’ve communicated with them, the better I’ve been off the field. I’m not fighting these battles by myself. Here at Wyoming, it’s a great group of guys as a receiving corps. Great coaching staff. Great support system.”
Ismail is getting more comfortable on the field, too. Both Ismail and receivers coach Mike Grant said he’s at a point now where he’s got a full understanding of the playbook, which has Ismail moving at a different speed than he was last season.
“He’s not always out there thinking,” Grant said. “He can use his ability more, so that’s been a plus.”
Austin Conway, C.J. Johnson and John Okwoli are also seniors that will be part of the rotation out wide next season, so it remains to be seen whether will Ismail will be a full-time starter in the slot. But there’s no denying the explosiveness the 6-foot, 170-pounder can give the Cowboys’ offense, something he flashed more consistently this spring.
“Rocket has really shown some big-play ability,” Bohl said.
From his route running to the footwork that helps him get in and out of his breaks with more fluidity, Ismail said there weren’t many details of his game that he didn’t emphasize this spring. He’d love to emerge as the go-to target for whoever ends up taking the snaps for the Cowboys this fall, though that’s every receiver’s wish.
More than anything, Ismail doesn’t want a repeat of last season. He said it hasn’t hit him that his final season of eligibility is quickly approaching mainly because he hasn’t thought of it that way.
He’s focused more on building on the strides he’s already made.
“I think that’s been one of my biggest issues is looking too far ahead,” Ismail said. “It’s OK to plan for it, but when you’re trying to take steps that’s going to affect what’s happening later on down the road, that’s when you start tripping over your feet. My goal this spring was to just take it one foot in front of the other and one step at a time. Just go day by day.”