LARAMIE — Before Wyoming’s second spring scrimmage last weekend, Austin Conway sent a group text to the rest of the Cowboys’ receivers.
“Hey, we’ve got to show up today,” fellow wideout Rocket Ismail Jr. recalled as the gist of that message.
The scrimmage was closed to the media and the public, and no stats were provided afterward. But Conway’s message served as a reminder and provided some insight into the overriding thought the group has carried with it throughout the spring: We can’t have another season like the last one.
“No one was satisfied with what happened last year as a receiving corps,” Conway said. “We didn’t feel productive at all.”
A number of factors played into it, but Wyoming’s passing game was among the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision in the first season of the post-Josh Allen era. His replacement, then-freshman Tyler Vander Waal, struggled with touch and accuracy in his first year of college football, the offensive line struggled to protect at times, and the chances for the receivers dwindled when the Cowboys leaned heavily on the run game once true freshman Sean Chambers, a dual threat, took over at quarterback in the eighth game of the season.
But even when the wideouts had chances with passes that were in rhythm and on target, those plays weren’t made with much consistency.
Even with defenses honed in on trying to stop the Mountain West’s leading rusher in Nico Evans, Wyoming matched Air Force in producing the fewest passing yards in the league on a per-game basis. Only Georgia Tech, Army, Georgia Southern and Navy — all triple-option teams — averaged fewer yards per game through the air nationally than Wyoming’s 131.3.
Conway was the Cowboys’ leading receiver with just 32 receptions while James Price was tops in receiving yards with just 395. Nobody had more than two touchdown catches. One of the players that finished with multiple scoring grabs, Tyree Mayfield, was a tight end.
“Our focus this spring was just to show what we’re capable of,” Ismail said. “We were challenged by (offensive coordinator Brent) Vigen and our position coach, coach (Mike) Grant, to step up. Make catching the ball consistent. Make making big plays consistent. Something that’s not just, ‘Oh my gosh, he finally made a play.’”
Price exhausted his eligibility last season while Jared Scott, who’d been part of the receiver rotation the last two seasons, transferred, but there’s still plenty of experience for a group trying to redeem itself. That includes C.J. Johnson, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound target who has returned on the outside after missing all of last season following ACL surgery.
Johnson is one of four seniors set to be a part of next season’s rotation. Conway and Ismail, a junior college transfer who averaged 11.1 yards a catch in his first season with the Cowboys, have the skill sets to line up on the outside or in the slot, though Ismail has been working primarily on the inside this spring.
John Okwoli caught just three passes as a reserve last season, but the 6-2, 210-pounder could see his role increase in the fall with coaches and teammates pointing out marked improvement from the rising senior this spring. Ayden Eberhardt, Dontae Crow and Gunner Gentry also are in the mix, though Gentry has been slowed by injuries.
“I think their knowledge of the playbook has really improved,” Grant said. “Now they’re moving a lot faster and they understand it. There’s not a whole lot of teaching anymore. We haven’t had a lot of balls on the ground.”
Head coach Craig Bohl seconded Grant’s observation that there’s been far more consistency from the group this spring with catching the ball. But as far as a go-to receiver, that’s still a work in progress.
Allen had one of those in Gentry’s older brother, Tanner, who had 2,082 yards and 18 touchdown catches his final two seasons and was a second-team all-MW selection in 2016 before being signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent. Wyoming hasn’t had a receiver crack the 600-yard mark since.
“You could always count on the ball going up to Tanner and he’s going to come down with it,” Bohl said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re working hard that way.”
A healthy Johnson could turn into that after leading the Cowboys with seven touchdown receptions in 2017. So could Conway, who led Wyoming with 549 receiving yards as a sophomore that season. But with Chambers and Vander Waal still working to develop a rapport with the group, there’s also the possibility it may have to be more of a collective effort next season.
“I think they’ve all had their moments, and that’s what makes me say it’s a little more likely at this point that we’re going to have to do it by committee. And that’s OK,” Vigen said. “If everybody brings their best and we ask them to do things within their skill set, I think we can have a pretty successful group.”
Those moments include Ismail’s game-winning touchdown catch that helped Wyoming escape FCS member Wofford’s upset bid in a 17-14 win last season. There was also Conway’s go-ahead touchdown grab against Air Force that helped the Cowboys rally from 13 down in the fourth quarter for a 35-27 win.
They were flashes that remind the group of what it’s capable of even when the statistics don’t necessarily bear it out. The next step is to make those type of plays routinely in order to develop trust with whichever young signal caller is taking the snaps next season.
“We want to be a part of the game,” Conway said. “We want to be able to change the game, and I felt like we did that a lot in times when we were needed. When we had to drive down the field and win games a couple times, we were there. I felt like that was kind of something we looked back at and said, ‘We’re playmakers. Don’t let what happened last year define who we are. Let’s move on, and let’s be better from it.’”
Said Ismail, “In order for us to a part of this offense and a pivotal part of this offense, we have to be a lot more consistent making plays that other receivers are making in college football.”
The receivers’ next chance to do that competitively will be in Wyoming’s spring game Saturday at War Memorial Stadium. Bohl said he’d like to see the group step up its playmaking then.
There’s still plenty for the wideouts to show as they work to balance out Wyoming’s offense and leave last year in the past.
“I know Coach Vigen said this year he’d like to have an even split between the (run and pass),” Johnson said. “I really think with (running back) X(azavian Valladay) and all of them and only losing James that we can definitely bring that to the table this year.”