LARAMIE — Thinking about it still bothers John Okwoli.
Wyoming’s receiver watched last season as Nico Evans knifed through opposing defenses. Evans sliced and diced his way to 132.5 yards per game — easily the most in the Mountain West and fourth-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision — for an offense that finished fourth in the league in rushing.
Yet Wyoming’s passing game rarely made defenses pay for focusing so much of their attention on trying to contain the Cowboys’ then-senior running back. Frankly, Wyoming didn’t have much of one.
“That let defenses just play on the run, and that’s what made Nico special,” Okwoli said. “He knew he was getting keyed, and he did everything he could. That just has to change this year.”
Wyoming mustered just 131.3 passing yards per game a season ago, by far the fewest in Craig Bohl’s tenure. The number matched Air Force for the fewest in the league, and the only teams in the FBS to produce less were also options teams (Georgia Tech, Army, Georgia Southern, Navy).
The year before — one in which Josh Allen dealt with a late-season shoulder injury — Wyoming produced just 177.2 passing yards per game to rank 103rd nationally. Tyler Vander Waal struggled in his first season trying to fill Allen’s shoes, and he didn’t get much help from an offensive line that allowed two sacks per game.
But Okwoli put as much of the blame on his position group as any other.
“We have to rise to the occasion and have to be better than we were in years past,” Okwoli said.
Even with their seasoning, it’s something the Cowboys’ wideouts still have to prove they can do consistently. Okwoli, Austin Conway and Raghib Ismail Jr. are all at the top of the depth chart as seniors. Yet the trio has combined for just 144 catches and seven touchdown receptions in their careers.
There’s also no C.J. Johnson, who gave the Wyoming a big-play threat when he was healthy. Johnson averaged 16.4 yards per reception in his career and led the Cowboys with seven touchdown catches in 2017, but he gave up football this summer after a prolonged attempt to recover from a serious knee injury he sustained that season.
The few explosive plays Wyoming had through the air last season were usually produced by James Price (15.2 yards a catch), but he’s gone, too, after exhausting his eligibility. Ismail (11.1) is the only receiver still on the roster that caught more than 10 passes last season and averaged double-digit yards on those receptions.
“We always tell each other if we want to be contributors to the game, if we want to be trusted, we have to make plays in practice,” Conway said. “We have to show we can be elite in practice. Therefore on Saturdays, we can be trusted, get the ball in our hands more and possibly have a lot more of a passing game incorporated for us.”
If a go-to receiver is going to emerge for quarterback Sean Chambers this season, Conway is a prime candidate. The 5-foot-10, 183-pounder, who has more receptions than every other receiver on the roster combined, led the Cowboys with 32 catches last season and had his best season in 2017 with 62 catches for 553 yards.
But there’s reason to believe more production is coming from Ismail and Okwoli.
Last season was Ismail’s first at Wyoming after transferring from Cisco Community College in Texas, and he never got fully caught up in the Cowboys’ playbook. He still tied for the team lead with two touchdown receptions, but Ismail said he’s at a point now where he’s reacting instead of doing so much thinking.
You have free articles remaining.
“Last year, my downfall was my lack of knowledge of the playbook, so this year with that being my focus, I can say I have a good grasp of what’s going on and I’m very comfortable,” Ismail said.
Okwoli said he had to work on his confidence as much as anything after a season in which he wasn’t much of a factor coming off injuries. He tore his ACL late in his sophomore season and then broke his hand about this time a year ago. He wasn’t the same aggressive player, and he finished with just three catches for 31 yards as his playing time dipped.
“I think I was just focused on getting back healthy and working on my game as a receiver,” said Okwoli, who goes 6-2 and 210 pounds. “As a result, I kind of struggled last year. I wasn’t playing as much as I was used to. I’m not going to blame anybody else. It’s just something that I did to myself.”
Wyoming will look to those three as catalysts for change, but the rotation out wide is deeper than that. Junior Ayden Eberhart and sophomore Gunner Gentry, one of the tallest receivers on the roster at 6-3, are also working on the outside. Sheridan native Dontae Crow is another option while even freshman walk-on Wyatt Wieland impressed enough in camp to earn a spot on the two-deep.
But that depth chart is fluid, and the Cowboys are mixing and matching to give everybody a chance. Ismail, who will primarily operate out of the slot, has gotten some reps on the outside. Gentry has moved inside at times. Consistency has been the focus for everybody, and the receivers that show it the most are the ones that are going to play.
“(Receivers) coach (Mike) Grant always tells us he doesn’t make the depth chart. We do,” Okwoli said. “It’s dependent on how we play, how we practice and how we perform in the moment.”
Grant, who’s entering his fourth year in that role, said the consistency among his group has been better than the previous fall camps he’s been a part of at Wyoming. The playmaking has been there, too.
Ismail scored a touchdown in Wyoming’s scrimmage last weekend where head coach Craig Bohl said the 6-0, 170-pounder caught a pass and outran defenders for a long score. Grant said creating that kind of separation has largely been the way the wideouts have produced explosive plays rather than always having to make a contested catch in traffic.
“I believe we’re going to do some damage this year just from the fact that we have a group of guys that are really close, compete with each other, know the system a lot better and are more comfortable in the offense,” Gentry said. “I believe us as a whole unit are going to perform pretty well this year.”
The receivers will get far more chances with the Cowboys set to diversify the offense more now that Chambers, who threw just 25 passes after taking over late last season, is comfortable with all of it heading into his first season as the full-time starter. And with a backfield that’s not nearly as proven with Evans now gone, those chances may come immediately.
That includes helping Chambers out when they may not necessarily be wide open.
“We need to have some of those guys make plays when the ball is up in the air and it’s contested,” Bohl said. “I always say there’s two hungry dogs and one piece of meat, and one dog is getting the meat. We need to get the meat.”
Grant said the group has been winning more times than not when given that kind of opportunity in practice, but practice is one thing. Games are another.
Those will start Aug. 31 when Missouri visits War Memorial Stadium, which will be the group’s first chance to put its work on display.
“You’ve just got to sit and watch,” Ismail said. “Go ahead and buy your (tickets for the) season opener to the Missouri game. Come watch. That’s the only way to find out.
“I can’t speak for how other people feel, but I can say personally that this group is a good group. We’re going to do what it takes.”