LARAMIE — It’s one game, but it was quite the first impression for a position that began the season squarely under the microscope.
The question has been constant ever since Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps played their last game in a Wyoming uniform last season: How do the Cowboys replace all of that production on the back end of their defense?
An answer started forming immediately. In the season opener against Missouri, Alijah Halliburton, Wingard’s replacement at strong safety, recovered a fumble, had a tackle for loss and finished with 17 tackles, which doubled as a game- and career-high. That production earned him not only Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors but also the nod as the FWAA’s Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.
Truth is, Halliburton has been doing this going on a year now. The senior was inserted into the starting lineup midway through last season when Epps moved down to nickel and finished as the team’s fourth-leading tackler. But it wasn’t just Halliburton that impressed Saturday.
Redshirt freshman Rome Weber beat out junior Braden Smith for Epps’ spot at free safety during fall camp in large part because of his playmaking ability in the open field — a necessity given Wingard and Epps left Wyoming as two of the top 11 tacklers in program history. Weber finished with seven tackles (five solo) in his first career start.
“There’s going to be a lot of other things they’re going to confronted with, but Alijah is an experienced player,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “Rome is new, but those were a couple of pretty good backs (Missouri’s Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie) that popped in the open field and Rome brought them down.”
Halliburton’s backup, Esaias Gandy, also made his reps count. The junior laid the lick on quarterback Kelly Bryant that resulted in the fumble picked up and returned for a touchdown by cornerback C.J. Coldon late in the first quarter. It was one of five tackles for Gandy, who also had a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.
“I thought we were crisp (with our tackling), and sometimes you worry about that in the opening game because you do some limited work but you don’t do tons,” Bohl said. “We were pleased with that.”
The group is far from a finished product. There’s plenty to clean up in coverage in particular after the Cowboys yielded 423 yards passing in the opener. But Halliburton said he’s confident the group can keep the production coming.
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“We got to show everyone that even though we’re young and not that experienced, we still know what we’re doing and giving great effort and commitment,” Halliburton said. “I think we’re definitely going to surprise a lot of people.”
Byrd in line to join DE mix
Bohl said Wednesday that defensive end Solomon Byrd has made enough progress to get his first snaps of the season against Texas State on Saturday barring a setback.
The redshirt freshman is listed as Garrett Crall’s backup but didn’t play against Missouri while nursing a high ankle sprain. It cut into the Cowboys’ depth with Crall, Josiah Hall and redshirt freshman Leevi Lafaele logging a majority of the snaps in the opener, but Bohl said the plan is to rotate more defensive ends against Texas State.
“I think we’re in good shape,” Bohl said of Byrd. “He’s getting better all the time.”
Safety Braden Smith was held out of Wednesday’s practice with a shoulder injury as a precaution. Bohl said Smith is expected to play Saturday.
In the air
Bohl said Wednesday he didn’t know yet if senior cornerback Antonio Hull would make the trip with the team to Texas State.
Hull has been back home in California dealing with what Bohl on Monday called a personal matter. Bohl said at the time the Cowboys were preparing as if they wouldn’t have Hull, who didn’t play against Missouri.