LARAMIE — As a team, the Air Force Falcons recorded 46 tackles for loss last season.
The Wyoming Cowboys return more than 68 percent of that production with one half of their defensive line.
Senior defensive end Carl Granderson and junior defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan led the Mountain West in tackles for loss last season with 16 and 15.5, respectively. With 9.5 and seven sacks, they ranked second and fourth in the conference. Both were named first-team all-conference after last season and preseason all-conference last month. They were both named to the watch list for the Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation’s top defensive player per the Football Writers Association of America. Granderson was named to the Bednarik Award (best defensive player, per Maxwell Football Club) watch list, and Ghaifan was named to the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman, per FWAA) watch list.
And they play mere inches from one another.
“Both of them are pretty boisterous out there,” head coach Craig Bohl said, “but what really helps is if they can be on the same side (and) you get a great push from a tackle, that shortens the edge for the end and vice versa. If that end’s coming on a pass rush, that’s not much room for the tackle. They’ve been a good complement to one another.”
On a defense backed with all-conference contenders, Bohl has hardly gone a day this fall without complimenting the play of Granderson and Ghaifan. Considering their successes in 2017, it’s not a shock that big things are expected from the duo in 2018. But they’re not content with a mere repeat.
“Well, you always get concerned about players who finish off on a high note, if they’re going to get complacent,” Bohl said. “We have not seen that. I think both those guys are working on doing little things to get themselves better.”
Granderson has spent the offseason recovering from a UCL tear in his left elbow. He missed spring camp with the injury, which he suffered Nov. 11 at Air Force.
“I talked to the doctors,” Granderson said. “They said I had a choice to get surgery right then or finish the season. And I chose to finish the season with my teammates. So I put a brace on. It was a little painful, but I just went out there still the last three or four games of the season and tried to get a W for my teammates.”
The surgery turned out to be a blessing in disguise, defensive ends coach AJ Cooper said.
“He was really able to attack and build more strength in his legs, which I think you’re seeing in fall camp,” he said. “As guys weigh down and get tired, he’s still playing at a very high level.”
After his freshman season, Granderson went through a startling physical transformation, adding more than 40 pounds to his once stick-like frame. (He’s now up to 265 pounds, at his heaviest.) This offseason, Ghaifan hasn’t matched that feat, per se, but he has lost 10 pounds of fat while building significant muscle, putting him around 270.
“We’ve got two different body types,” Granderson said of Ghaifan. “With him, I don’t know. He’s a monster, put it like that. He can go from 290 looking a certain way to 280 but look like he’s 300, all muscle. So that’s amazing how that works. He looks better than ever.”
Both players have worked to refine their technique as well as their physique.
“We really spent a lot of time in the offseason, both myself and him, just studying the little things,” Cooper said of Granderson. “When you’ve got essentially a four-year starter, there’s not a lot of big things to get better at, but just making himself great at some little details, and he’s really worked at that.”
Offensive tackle Alonzo Velazquez, who has gotten his fair share of practice reps against Granderson, has noticed a few new pass-rushing moves.
“He has this one move where he looks like he’s going to go outside like speed rush, but the next thing you know, he’s going inside,” Velazquez said. “He’s really quick. That’s one of his attributes that helps him a lot.”
Ghaifan occasionally got by on energy and athleticism during his early years at Wyoming, so adding technique to the mix could take his game to a new level.
“It’s almost there,” Ghaifan said before fall camp. “It’s almost there. It’s just the little things that I need to work on, just basic blocks that I need to work on. Besides that, everything is fine. I think technique will come into play way more this season. I think I will be a lot better, technician-wise. And I think I’ll do great.”
Thing is, he and Granderson already did great last season. So, if they’re not satisfied with staying the same, what’s next?
Granderson has said he’d like to out-pace Ghaifan in sacks this year, preferably with 17.
“Well, I’m a defensive tackle, so Carl should have more,” Ghaifan said. “Nah, I want to get more sacks than Carl, too. Me and him, we are really competitive with each other, but it’s like a friendly competitive.
“We always talk about each other. ‘How much did you get today?’ Or, ‘How many TFLs did you get today?’ Or, ‘You didn’t do so well today, Carl.’ Or something like that. It’s just, we’re very competitive that way.
“But it’s never about us. It’s about the team. As long as we’re winning, that’s all that matters.”