LARAMIE — Solomon Byrd, Davon Wells-Ross, Leevi Lafaele, Teagan Liufau and Jack Boyer figured they’d get a lot of reps this spring.
Turns out Wyoming’s young defensive ends are getting all of them.
With projected starters Garrett Crall and Josiah Hall out this spring with injuries, defensive coordinator Jake Dickert and run-game coordinator A.J. Cooper are getting a chance to evaluate a group that doesn’t have much experience but is expected to take on a much larger role on the edge with Carl Granderson and Kevin Prosser gone from the rotation.
Granderson, an all-Mountain West performer and the Cowboys’ top draft prospect, took 172 career tackles and 17.5 career sacks with him when he ran out of eligibility after last season while Prosser was Wyoming’s No. 3 defensive end. Other than Crall and Hall, a rising senior who’s in line to take over for Granderson, Byrd has the most game experience of any of the defensive ends having played in three last season as a true freshman (third-year sophomore Victor Jones can play inside or outside but has primarily repped at defensive tackle this spring).
That doesn’t mean the youngsters are conceding anything.
“Whether we had those guys or not, I still feel like it’s my shot,” Byrd said. “I feel like I’m a true competitor. It doesn’t matter who’s there. I’m going to go for a spot every time.”
De’Vaughn Brown is also in the mix, though the redshirt freshman has missed part of spring with a concussion. Other nicks and bruises here and there have made it difficult at times to get an accurate read on the group’s development with the Cowboys trying to start forming some semblance of depth at the position.
“It’s not a frustration, but it’s a process,” Dickert said. “Right now, maybe it’s a little slower because they haven’t been in there a lot. But when you see the flashes, you go, ‘All right, these guys get it.’ Hopefully we can keep getting them healthy as we finish spring.”
While head coach Craig Bohl has pointed out the collective speed and explosiveness among the group, some are further along than others in terms of their skill sets.
Byrd is the biggest of the group and may also be the most versatile. At 6-foot-4 and 243 pounds, Byrd has the ability to play the 6-technique (lined head up on a tight end) in the run game, rush the quarterback and play in space against spread offenses, Cooper said, though it hardly means Byrd is content with where he’s at in his development.
“I was mediocre at everything (coming into the spring),” Byrd said. “I hate being OK. I hate being mediocre. Just improving on my all-around game and especially my 6-technique and my pass rush.”
Wells-Ross, Lafaele, Liufau and Boyer have all impressed with their quickness off the ball, particularly Lafaele, who, at 6-2 and 220 pounds, is “the twitchiest person I’ve ever seen in my life,” Byrd said. While the group has spent most of the spring rotating, Wells-Ross has often lined up with the first team opposite Byrd, who had a sack in Wyoming’s scrimmage Saturday.
It’s been a transition for Wells-Ross after he was moved from linebacker last spring. With a full year at his new position now, Wells-Ross said he’s far more comfortable mentally.
“I feel like it’s night and day,” said Wells-Ross, who, as a third-year sophomore, is the oldest of the group.
The next step for Wells-Ross is to fill out his wiry 6-5 frame. He’s currently carrying 215 pounds on it but said he plans to put on 15 more pounds this summer to be closer to a weight that can better complement his burst off the edge.
“I want to be a better run-stopping D-end for sure,” Wells-Ross said. “I feel like if I get the weight, I can play in the trenches with those guys. I’m 215 right now. I’m underweight. If I get to 230, I’m a pretty strong guy.”
The group is following not only Granderson and Prosser but defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, another all-league caliber player, and starting nose tackle Sidney Malauulu. That’s a lot of star power gone up front, but there’s plenty of confidence among the Cowboys’ young defensive ends that they can make a name for themselves, too, given the opportunity.
“I think just being consistent with us. Those guys were consistent,” Byrd said. “That’s why they have their big names. So as soon as we get consistent, our names are going to be big also.”