It all looked the same until it didn’t.
Wyoming began the post-Josh Allen era with the usual prototype. The void left at quarterback by the highest-drafted player in program history was filled last season by Tyler Vander Waal, who looked the part of every other signal caller that’s been groomed in Craig Bohl’s pro-style offense.
With 220 pounds packed on to his 6-foot-4 frame, Vander Waal was the next strong-armed pocket passer that would use the help of play-action to open throwing windows and deliver darts all over the field. And he would be athletic enough to either scramble for what he could get if things broke down or take off on a designed run here or there just to keep the defense honest.
At least that was the blueprint that’s been laid out over the years. Yet the plan didn’t come to fruition.
Vander Waal had his moments — the last-minute touchdown drive to beat Wofford in his fourth career start and the fourth-quarter comeback he ignited in relief against Air Force — but Wyoming’s offense never found a consistent rhythm with the youngster behind center. In nine starts, Vander Waal, then a redshirt freshman, completed just 48 percent of his passes, and the Cowboys, despite most of the defenses’ attention being on 1,000-yard rusher Nico Evans and the Mountain West’s fourth-best rushing attack, were producing the fewest passing yards in the league right alongside Air Force.
“We were at a point where we weren’t generating any yardage,” said Bohl, who’s entering his sixth season in charge of the Cowboys’ program.
Wyoming desperately needed a spark, so Bohl sat Vander Waal in favor of his true freshman quarterback, Sean Chambers. The Cowboys’ production through the air didn’t change much, but everything else did.
Wyoming scored what was a season-high 34 points at the time in Chambers’ first start at Colorado State. The Cowboys came back with 24 points in a win over San Jose State, which wasn’t an offensive explosion but was still more than the 20.7 points they averaged for the season (second-fewest in the MW).
Whereas Vander Waal tried to affect the game primarily with his arm, Chambers was the opposite. Wyoming went to the ground immediately with its fleet-footed quarterback and essentially stayed there in part because nobody could stop it. Chambers’ legs created such an effective 1-2 punch with those of Evans that the game plan each week essentially prepared itself.
“I told (offensive coordinator Brent) Vigen, I said, ‘Run him until the cows come home,’” Bohl said.
Chambers racked up 58 carries in his first 10 quarters. He ran for 100 yards in a half against Utah State and went on to start his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games. His first carry on Wyoming’s opening possession against Air Force turned out to be his last when he went down with a broken fibula, but by that point, the Cowboys’ 6-3, 218-pound secret was out.
“One of the (general managers) in the NFL went to the game at CSU and he goes, ‘I don’t know if that guy can throw, but that big horse can run,’” Bohl said. “That’s what he told me.”
That statement also highlighted the obvious.
“He’s got to be able to throw,” Bohl said. “So we’ve got to develop that.”
So Wyoming’s offense is in line for more variety this fall. Not just because the Cowboys have to but also because they want to.
The other part of the run-heavy equation with Chambers was that it was virtually all he knew at the time. With now-departed senior Nick Smith serving as Vander Waal’s primary backup, Chambers spent most of last season on the scout team and wasn’t immersed in the Cowboys’ offense. Calling plays that Chambers couldn’t execute would’ve been pointless, so Wyoming pared down the playbook and focused on the ones he could.
Whether they were designed runs, run-pass options or the occasional rollout, they usually involved Chambers being on the move to take advantage of his most developed skill.
“He didn’t understand how to protect himself let alone whether we could protect him or not,” Vigen said. “We avoided those situations and he executed fairly well what we asked him to execute.
“I think in those games, we did whatever we could to try to win those games. And at that time, pushing the envelope with his carries was part of that.”
Now, Chambers said, “I’d say I’m comfortable with everything. Anything coach wants to throw at us, I feel I’m comfortable with running it.”
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He is also confident in his ability to execute it, as are many of his coaches and teammates. Chambers attempted just 25 passes last season, but just because he wasn’t asked to display that part of his game much last season doesn’t mean he isn’t capable.
Just ask the defense he faces every day in practice how effective Chambers can be at both.
“His RPO (run-pass option) game is as good as anybody else. I think he’s growing,” defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said. “It puts strain on you, especially for us being a one-high (safety) and more of a soft-zone, cover-3 defense. It puts some challenges on that. It’s good for us to face Sean, and he can challenge us in different ways.”
But a season-ending injury just four games into one season begs the pressing question heading into the next: Will Wyoming pull back on the number of times it dials up a designed run for Chambers in order to minimize the chances of it happening again?
Chambers’ bruising style of play at his position is unlike any other around the MW outside of Las Vegas, where UNLV’s 6-5, 225-pound signal caller, Armani Rogers, is healthy again after rushing for 780 yards as a true freshman and 448 yards in four games last season before sustaining a season-ending toe injury. And Chambers is at least in the conversation when it comes to the most effective combination of strength and speed among the league’s quarterbacks, and the Cowboys aren’t about to waste it.
“I think we’ll be a little bit different going in, but to say he’s going to be a pocket passer, we’re still going to run it,” Bohl said.
Running him 19 times in a half like Chambers did against Utah State? Or a season-high 22 times like he did at Colorado State? The flow of each game may dictate some of that, but the Cowboys would rather not expose their most valuable asset that much this fall.
“I think we’d be a little bit more pick and choose, but at the same time, he’s a very effective runner,” Vigen said. “The bottom line is doing what we can to win the game. Each week might take on its own form, but I know getting him in that 20-carry range whether it’s called plays, scramble plays, reads, whatever, I don’t think we want to live in that world.”
But the responsibility of opening up the offense as much as possible this season doesn’t rest solely with Chambers. There are 10 other players in the huddle that have to do their part as well.
There are questions at running back and receiver given the mix of turnover and inconsistency at those positions last season. Evans exhausted his eligibility after leading the MW in rushing on a per-game basis, leaving sophomore Xazavian Valladay, who’s got just 71 career carries to his name, to try to take some of the pressure of Chambers as the Cowboys’ No. 1 running back in fall camp. Wyoming also added a graduate transfer this summer in former Louisville running back Trey Smith, who could form a rotation with Valladay.
But if either proves to be ineffective or goes down with an injury, there’s not much experience behind them. True freshmen Dawaiian McNeely, Titus Swen and Alphonzo Andrews Jr. are the only other scholarship running backs on the roster, and at least one of them will almost certainly get playing time this season to provide much-needed depth in the backfield.
The receiving corps is far more seasoned with three seniors at the top of the depth chart in Austin Conway, Rocket Ismail Jr. and John Okwoli. Juniors Ayden Eberhardt and Dontae Crow as well as sophomore Gunner Gentry, the younger brother of former Wyoming standout and Chicago Bears receiver Tanner Gentry, are also in the mix to be part of the rotation. But the group still has to develop trust with Chambers after having the kind of season last year they’d all just as soon forget.
Conway was the Cowboys’ leading receiver last season with just 32 catches — a number that didn’t even crack the top 20 among MW wideouts. Ismail finished with just 267 receiving yards. Yet it’s the most among the Cowboys’ returning receivers, who combined for just three touchdown receptions last season.
There’s some still experience at tight end despite the losses of Austin Fort and Tyree Mayfield. Fifth-year senior Josh Harshman, third-year sophomore Nate Weinman and redshirt freshman Jackson Marcotte fill out the depth chart there, but with only 23 career receptions among the group, the position is still largely unproven.
And the deep ball was virtually non-existent last season with Ismail (11.1) being the only returning wideout that averaged more than 10 yards per catch. Wyoming figured to get some help in that department with the return this spring of veteran C.J. Johnson, who averaged more than 16 yards per reception for his career and led the Cowboys with seven touchdown receptions in 2017. But the senior eventually gave up football after spending the last year and a half trying to recover from a torn ACL, only further complicating the question of whether Wyoming is going to be able to add enough variety to its passing game to loosen up defenses.
Of course, Chambers will need time to let routes develop and go through his progressions, which falls on an offensive line that was iffy at times with its protection last season. Despite attempting the second-fewest passes in the MW, Wyoming still allowed two sacks per game on average.
The Cowboys have already lost guards Gavin Rush and Zach Watts for the season to injuries, but right tackle Alonzo Velazquez (knee) is back healthy for a unit that still has six players that started at least one game last season.
“Are we going to be better up front so we can do X, Y and Z?” Vigen said. “Xazavian and Trey and whoever else, what do they give us? Tight ends and receivers, where can we highlight those positions? So I think it becomes more about that. I think that’s still a work in progress.”
In other words, exactly how diverse Wyoming’s offense ends up being this fall remains to be seen. But Chambers is far enough along in Year 2 that it won’t be for a lack of trying.
“We might be in spread in certain downs and distances, but I think we’ll do a lot of things this year,” Chambers said. “We might be in spread sometimes. We might be in pro style. I think we’ll be evenly spread across the board.”
Said Bohl, “He understands our offense more, and I think that’s going to open up our playbook more and spread the defense out.”