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UW FOOTBALL

Wyoming AD Burman addresses tumultuous offseason for Cowboys football

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LARAMIE — Craig Bohl walked off the blue turf feeling confident about the state of the Wyoming football program.

On Dec. 21, four days after signing a 2022 recruiting class Bohl said will have a “tremendous impact” on the program, the Cowboys steamrolled Kent State 52-38 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho.

The style of the game — UW’s offensive line dominated as the team piled up 404 rushing yards while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt — made the post-game French fry shower even sweeter for Bohl.

After the Pokes capped a frustrating 7-6 season with the program’s third consecutive bowl victory, Bohl was joined by Potato Bowl most valuable player Levi Williams and star linebacker Chad Muma at the press conference.

“That’s one of the reasons why I think this football team persevered through some ups and downs – they really believe in one another,” Bohl said. “We’ve got really great unity.”

Three days later, Williams announced he was putting his name in the NCAA transfer portal, even though he would have been UW’s clear-cut starting quarterback entering the 2022 season.

Dynamic wide receiver Isaiah Neyor, decorated running back Xazavian Valladay and four defensive starters also decided to take their talents somewhere else instead of returning to Laramie.

So far, 10 Cowboys have entered the NCAA transfer portal.

Muma and center Keegan Cryder will enter the NFL draft instead of using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the pandemic.

After Sean Chambers, who started the first seven games of the season before getting benched in favor of Williams, entered the portal, Bohl posted the following statement on social media in response to the mass exodus:

“The college football landscape is changing with the one-time transfer rule and NIL. Our staff anticipated this movement and have a clear vision to navigate these uncharted waters. After a successful early signing day, Cowboy Football will address the need to sign a quarterback via the transfer portal or junior college.

“We believe this is a great opportunity for a transfer quarterback to come in and make an impact on our program. We’ve seen that before when we brought in Josh Allen into the program, and we’re excited for the next chapter of Cowboy Football.”

Allen, who took his last snaps for the Pokes in the 2017 Potato Bowl, isn’t walking through that door again.

So how does Bohl’s boss feel about the direction the program is headed and the coaching staff’s ability to adapt to the changing landscape of the sport?

The Star-Tribune caught up with UW athletics director Tom Burman this week to get his thoughts on the issues facing the Cowboys.

‘Not good enough’

The season began with plans to kick the door down and win the program’s first Mountain West championship.

But after UW’s first 4-0 start since 1996, the veteran team struggled in conference play, finishing tied for fourth in the six-team Mountain Division.

“I would just be honest, anytime we are 2-6 in conference play, that’s not good enough,” Burman said. “But I was proud of how we played in the non-conference. We had some great wins that weren’t pretty but we found a way to win them. In particular, Montana State and UConn, and then I thought we played really good against Ball State and we played maybe our best half of football at Northern Illinois.

“There were ups and downs, but we can’t be OK with 2-6 in the conference, and we’ve got to find a way to improve that. I was proud of how they rebounded after the Hawaii game and came back and played well, especially the second half against Kent State. I thought they were extremely good. Every week was a little different. We were far too inconsistent. I thought at times we were a very good football team and at times we were not a very good football team.”

The Cowboys had some quality wins — beating Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois and MW champion Utah State on the road, getting the Bronze Boot back from Colorado State and mauling Kent State in the bowl game.

There was also a 10-quarter scoreless streak and unsightly losses to lowly New Mexico and Hawaii at War Memorial Stadium.

Despite having an elite target in Neyor, who had 44 receptions for 878 yards (20.0 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns, UW’s passing game continued to struggle.

Under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Tim Polasek, the Cowboys ranked 117th in the FBS in passing yards per game (162.7), with Chambers and Williams combing for 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

UW was 21st in rushing (211.7 ypg), 85th in total offense (374.4 ypg) and 84th in total points (25.4 ppg).

The old scapegoat for the team’s offensive woes in the post-Allen era — Brent Vigen – is leading Montana State into the FCS championship game against North Dakota State on Saturday.

The Muma-led defense finished 56th in total yards allowed (370.5 ypg) and 43rd in points allowed (23.7 ppg).

“I don’t want to simplify, because I believe that there’s no simple answer to complex questions,” Burman said on what is missing from getting UW to compete for MW championships. “But one thing we need is better quarterback play. I mean, we need to be more consistent at quarterback. We need to be more consistent offensively. ...

“I think that was an area of focus going into this year and will continue to be until we can get it addressed. In college football today, you can’t win with just good defense or great defense even.”

‘The sky is not falling’

Williams, who ran for 200 yards and four touchdowns in the Potato Bowl, has announced he is transferring to Mountain Division rival Utah State, where he will face a lot of competition to get on the field.

Neyor has offers from a list of blueblood programs, including LSU, Texas and USC.

Six of the UW players entered the portal as graduate transfers, including Valladay, nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker, cornerbacks C.J. Coldon and Azizi Hearn and defensive lineman Victor Jones.

Burman said the number of transfers isn’t the problem when looking at how many players are in the portal nationwide and from other MW programs.

However, losing nine players in such a short span of time creates holes in the roster and some instability that must be addressed this offseason.

“The sky is not falling, but the timing was disappointing for us,” Burman said. “We’re going to have to adjust. I mean, college football for the short term, and probably forever, but clearly right now it’s a modified free agency system. It’s a little bit like the NFL.”

Burman has had conversations with Bohl, who has had success at UW developing lightly recruited prospects into NFL players over four- or five-year periods, about using the portal to add talented players looking for a fresh start.

Since Aug. 1, over 1,400 FBS players — an average of about 11 for the 130 FBS programs — have entered the portal. According to Sports Illustrated, in the last two months over 3,000 NCAA Division I, II and III players have entered the portal.

There are more good football players looking for new homes than scholarships available.

Burman expects UW’s roster to be replenished with some transfers before spring practice or at least by fall camp.

“This was hard for him to embrace,” Burman said of Bohl. “I mean, he loves taking a young man and having him for five years and developing him both as a player and as a person in our program and watching them grow. Whether it be Josh Harshman, Logan Wilson, Dewy Wingard, it doesn’t matter. He loves that style. And our fans do, too. They become more engaged with the players and bigger fans. I really think that’s been one of the assets of that style.

“But he also understands times are changing and he’s going to have to engage in the portal. I couldn’t tell you exactly how he is evaluating it, but I can tell you, they are evaluating kids who have entered into the portal and they’re evaluating kids they hear might be entering the portal. I mean, that’s the nature of the beast right now is they’re looking at it from every angle, both for ’22 and going forward. Because I don’t think that we can have the kind of program we want if we just avoid junior-college transfers and four-year transfers.”

‘University of Nevada at Fort Collins’

UW isn’t the only MW program dealing with significant roster turnover.

Between the moment Hawaii posed for pictures with the Paniolo Trophy after blowing out the Pokes in the regular-season finale on Nov. 27 and New Year’s Eve, 14 Warriors entered the portal.

Colorado State fired Steve Addazio on Dec. 2 and has lost 16 players to the portal. The Rams have also added seven Nevada transfers to the roster since hiring head coach Jay Norvell away from the Wolf Pack.

Administrators attempted to prevent intra-conference transfers, but the NCAA’s legal team believed such a fight would not have stood a chance in court during this era of player empowerment.

“We knew this was going to be a problem,” Burman said. “Nonetheless, when you see what happened with Nevada and Colorado State, there’s a lot of frustration. Colorado State is the University of Nevada at Fort Collins.”

There will be a lot of intrigue at the quarterback position when Bohl’s Cowboys host Williams and the Aggies at War Memorial Stadium next fall.

The Aggies are expected to return incumbent starter Logan Bonner, who set single-season program records with 3,628 yards passing and 35 touchdowns, and Cooper Legas, who replaced an injured Bonner to rally the team to a bowl win over Oregon State.

Burman expects the position to be upgraded for the Cowboys after Williams’ decision to leave for Logan.

“Coach Bohl and Coach Polasek want to be more balanced in their style of offensive play. Clearly, they didn’t think they could do that this year,” Burman said. “Now, I don’t know that that’s a criticism of any one player, but they didn’t feel like they were they were in a position to do that this year. They felt their best chance to win was to run the ball more frequently than throwing the ball.

“You look at our best games, whether it be Utah State or Kent State or Colorado State, my guess is we didn’t throw the ball very many times in those three games.”

Burman said he was able to talk to most of the UW players who entered the portal and he does not believe the attrition was due to a cultural issue inside the program.

UW’s longtime athletic director added that he will not micromanage Bohl’s coaching, but does make sure players in the program are treated respectfully and supported.

“They were all individual decisions,” Burman said. “But we’d be putting our head in the sand if we didn’t think some of it has to do with the situation at UW, whether it be the style of play, the temperature in Laramie, the size of the community, how remote we are. Maybe some did not like how they were being used, maybe they didn’t like their position coach, maybe they didn’t like Coach Bohl. But that’s the culture of young people today. …

“Were they all in love with UW and the feel of Laramie and the coaching staff? No. But as a whole, I think they really had a good experience.”

Follow UW beat writer Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @By_RyanThorburn

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