LARAMIE — Braden Smith has been biding his time. So have Cameron Murray, Esias Gandy and the rest of Wyoming’s safeties.
That time is now.
For the last four years, Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps roamed the Cowboys’ secondary as one of the top safety tandems in the Mountain West and the most prolific in program history. But the school’s second and 10th all-time leading tacklers ran out of eligibility after last season, putting the microscope squarely on the competition to replace them this spring.
“They’ve always been there and they’ve always been the guys,” Smith said. “It’s definitely different, especially leadership-wise because they were always the leaders and the captains of the football team. It’s definitely weird.”
It would be a surprise if anyone other than Alijah Halliburton took over for Wingard at strong safety. The rising senior is by far the most experienced safety left on the roster after starting six games last season once Epps slid down to nickel because of injuries. The 6-foot-2, 190-pounder was also productive with his playing time, finishing as the Cowboys’ fourth-leading tackler.
Gandy, a junior to be, and rising sophomore Miles Williams are also there and will provide depth if neither one is able to supplant Halliburton atop the depth chart. The more intriguing competition is at free safety, where Smith, Murray and converted cornerback Rome Weber are the primary contenders.
A fourth-year junior next season, Smith has the edge when it comes to seasoning on Murray and Weber, who both redshirted last season as freshmen. He’s contributed mainly on special teams the last two seasons but has also used that time to immerse himself in the playbook after moving from cornerback following a redshirt year in 2016.
“I’ve had a few years to watch it and stuff,” Smith said. “I think free safety is a little more easier than strong, so I definitely think I know my plays very well.”
But knowing where to be and executing once in the proper position are two different things. Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said he’s been generally pleased by what he’s seen from his safeties through two weeks of practice, but he’s waiting to assess how the group performs in the Cowboys’ first scrimmage Saturday to make a more thorough evaluation.
Bohl has harped on the need for consistent playmaking considering how much production Wyoming is losing at the position. It will go a long way in determining how the competition shakes out.
“It makes you think a lot more before practice that I’ve got to have a good day,” Murray said. “I can’t afford to have any bad days because I’m competing to start and there are two other guys competing to start, too. It’s like every single day you’ve got to bring your A-game and you’ve got to come with a purpose.”
Said Bohl, “It’ll be important for those guys to make some progress.”
Murray said he’s getting more and more comfortable mentally now that he’s entering his second season in the Cowboys’ 4-2-5 defense. Redshirting gave him the chance to mature physically by adding more weight to his 6-1 frame.
“I feel like I bring a lot of aggression and passion and then just trying to be a predator in the third (in coverage) and make quarterbacks fear me,” Murray said. “Try to make the most plays when the ball’s in the air, and whenever I’ve got to thump, I’ll do it.”
Both said they’re comfortable dropping into coverage, though Murray added his technique in man still needs some work. But the way Smith and Murray see it, being able to tackle in the open field is where each needs to be the most consistent if they want the starting job.
“As a free safety, you’ve got to come down and take the right specific angle on a running back or a wide receiver,” Smith said. “You’re the last resort.”
Picking up where Wingard and Epps left off? That might be a stretch. But their successors are working to keep the dropoff to a minimum as the competition heats up.
“They showed us the way and how to do things,” Murray said. “When it was my turn, it was like I had to make an impact just because of the impact they had. They passed the torch pretty much.”