LARAMIE — Craig Bohl has raised the expectations.
Five years into his tenure at Wyoming, Bohl has led the Cowboys to three straight non-losing seasons. He inherited a program that had two straight losing seasons heading into the 2014 season and had two more before Wyoming broke through under Bohl with a Mountain West Mountain Division title in 2016.
This season didn’t end with a third straight bowl game for the Cowboys after winning just six games — their fewest the last three seasons — but Bohl also had the unenviable task of trying to replace the highest-drafted player in program history in Josh Allen at quarterback. That came with some expected growing pains at the position as Wyoming finished the regular season last in the Mountain West in points (20.7 points per game) and tied for last in passing yards (131.3).
Bohl benched redshirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal in favor of true freshman Sean Chambers after the offense went 10 straight quarters without a touchdown heading into the second half of Wyoming’s 24-16 loss to Utah State on Oct. 20.
Chambers’ run-first style ignited an offense that averaged 31 points during Wyoming’s season-ending four-game winning streak that at least put the Cowboys in contention for another bowl bid.
“We’re striving for consistency,” Bohl said last month. “I talked to (athletic director) Tom Burman about trying to get away from the major ups and downs, and that’s easier said than done. This year’s been a challenging year, but my sense is that with our program, our players expect to win.”
Bohl and his staff have more significant pieces to replace ahead of next season.
Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps leave gaping holes to fill on the back end of the defense with their eligibility expired. The MW’s most seasoned safety tandem started more than 40 consecutive games alongside each other and combined for 779 career tackles.
Alijah Halliburton is a favorite to take over at one of the safety spots after starting the last five games as a third safety once nickel Tyler Hall slid outside to corner. With C.J. Coldon working his way back from a season-ending arm injury after starting the first three games at corner opposite Antonio Hull, Hall could line up at either spot next season. Keyon Blankenbaker could add to the cornerback competition after finishing this season as the No. 3 corner.
Leading tackler and Casper native Logan Wilson is set to return at middle linebacker as the Cowboys will have four of their top six tacklers back next season. That includes outside linebacker Cassh Maluia, but the defensive line is a different story.
Wyoming is losing at least half of its starters up front, including its top draft prospect in Carl Granderson. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder, Wyoming's lone Senior Bowl invitee, racked up 12.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss the last two seasons off the edge. Also departing are defensive tackles Sidney Malauulu and Conner Cain, and there could be a third defection on the interior with Youhanna Ghaifan’s status with the team still in limbo as he awaits a court date related to his misdemeanor case Jan. 2.
The lone starter guaranteed to return to the defensive front next season is rising junior Garrett Crall, who led the Cowboys in sacks (4.5) this season. Ravontae Holt, a sophomore, filled in for Ghaifan for the final four games while Javaree Jackson is the favorite to take over for Malauulua at nose tackle. Rising senior Josiah Hall and Victor Jones are likely to get the first look at end opposite Crall in the spring.
Maybe the most secure job on Wyoming’s roster belongs to kicker Cooper Rothe. The MW Special Teams Player of the Year and Lou Groza Award finalist made 15 of his 16 field goals this season and enters his senior season having connected on 89 percent of his kicks the last two years. Bohl has a number of options at punter in Dontae Crow, Ryan Galovich and Tim Zaleski, who was the starter before tearing his ACL five games into the season.
The biggest question outside of the quarterbacks offensively is who replaces 1,000-yard rusher Nico Evans? The Cowboys may take a by-committee approach unless Jevon Bigelow or Xazavian Valladay can separate in the competition to be the featured back.
Bigelow was Evans’ primary backup all season, but Valladay ended up being Wyoming’s second-leading rusher (396 yards) after Bigelow dealt with a rib injury late in the season. Valladay ended it with a career-high 192 yards against New Mexico. Sheridan High product Parker Christensen, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, will enter the mix should he follow through on his commitment and ultimately sign with the Cowboys.
Wyoming will have to start over at tight end with Josh Harshman, Austin Fort and Tyree Mayfield out of eligibility. Mayfield was the Cowboys’ third-leading receiver this season, a testament to his development and an indictment on the wideouts’ inconsistency. Leading receiver Austin Conway will be back as will Rocket Ismail Jr., but James Price is gone while 6-6 Jared Scott is one of four wideouts that have announced their intent to transfer.
Ayden Eberhardt and John Okwoli are prime candidates for bigger roles out wide after being part of the rotation this season while Crow could move back there if he’s not needed to punt. Rising sophomores Mason Keeler, Jackson Marcotte and Nate Weinman — none of which are smaller than 6-6 and 240 pounds — are big-bodied options at tight end.
The offensive line is in line to return 60 percent of its starters, though the losses of left tackle Zach Wallace and right guard Kaden Jackson are significant. But there’s depth on the interior with sophomore Logan Harris and freshmen Keegan Cryder, Rudy Stofer, Zach Watts, Patrick Arnold and Eric Abojei all starting at least one game this season. Rising senior Pahl Schwab was the Cowboys’ third tackle this season and could start the spring atop the depth chart in Wallace’s spot.
Of course, there will be a new crop of recruits that compete for playing time. Christensen is one of 12 prospects currently committed to Wyoming with nine of them being on defense. The early signing period begins Wednesday.
As for any possible quarterback competition, that may not get started in earnest until the fall. Chambers is still less than a month removed from surgery on his broken leg he sustained against Air Force. Exactly when he’ll return to the field isn’t known, though there’s a chance he could be back for part of spring practice.
Wyoming’s pro-style offense was vastly different with the run-first Chambers — and much more productive. The 6-3, 215-pounder accounted for 595 total yards and five touchdowns in 10 quarters while rushing for at least 100 yards in all three games he played.
That may have Chambers ahead in the race at a position where Wyoming needs far more production if the Cowboys want to keep the program on an upward trajectory.
“We are very excited about the group of players we have coming back next season and the home schedule we have with big games against Missouri and Colorado State in War Memorial Stadium,” Burman said in a statement. “Coach Bohl and his staff have built a program that is consistently competitive in the Mountain West, and we look forward to great things in the future.”