LARAMIE — There was always going to be a generous helping of experience along Wyoming’s offensive line heading into the spring.
But with the return of all of their upperclassmen at the position, the Cowboys are going into it with one of the most seasoned units up front not only in the Mountain West but also the country. All five starting offensive linemen are back, which only begins to tell the story of UW’s experience and depth along the line of scrimmage.
Returning are familiar faces such as Keegan Cryder and Eric Abojei, and the group got a boost this offseason when seniors Logan Harris and Alonzo Velazquez decided to take advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility relief amid the coronavirus pandemic and return for another season of competition. With UW’s entire two-deep set to return intact up front, the Cowboys are bringing back more than 140 combined starts along the offensive line.
That should breed plenty of competition this spring, particularly with the unit starting fresh with a new offensive coordinator and a new position coach. Derek Frazier comes to UW after two seasons as an assistant offensive line coach with the NFL’s New York Jets while offensive coordinator Tim Polasek just finished a four-year stint as the offensive line coach at Iowa.
The spring will give both their first chance to evaluate the bevy of options UW has up front. Cryder, the Cowboys’ all-conference center who’s started 27 straight games there, may be the only one locked into a starting job heading into spring practice.
Cryder has formed a strong pairing on the interior with Abojei, the overwhelming favorite to stay atop the depth chart at left guard after starting every game there the last two seasons when healthy. Harris, who’s made 30 career starts, enters the spring as the leading candidate at right guard, where he’s started all 16 games he’s played the last two seasons.
If anyone is going to push Abojei or Harris for a starting job, it would likely be Zach Watts. The 6-foot-5, 302-pound sophomore is a versatile interior lineman who’s made seven career starts between both guard spots. Fellow sophomore Blayne Blaker has also played in a handful of games as a backup.
The fiercest competition may come on the edge, where injuries and performance have resulted in some recent shuffling at the tackle spots. Junior left tackle Rudy Stofer started 21 games over three seasons before redshirt freshman Latrell Bible supplanted him as the starter there after one game last fall. Sophomore Frank Crum started all six games of the Cowboys’ pandemic-shortened season at left tackle.
That’s largely because Velazquez, UW’s usual starter at that position, sustained the latest in a series of injuries that’s bounced him in and out of the lineup the last couple of seasons. Crum, who’s played in 18 of UW’s last 19 games, also started the final five games of the 2019 season when Velazquez was sidelined with a knee injury. Whether or not Velazquez will be healthy enough to go through spring drills isn’t known.
The unit has helped pave the way for a running game that’s finished in the top 4 in the Mountain West each of the last three seasons. After giving up nearly three sacks per game last season, the most pressing task for the group is to get the pass protection to catch up.
Beyond the two-deep, UW has plenty of youngsters that will add depth along the line. Carlos Harrison, Kohl Herbolsheimer, Jack Lookabaugh, Emmanuel Pregnon, Malik Williams, Mason Schultz, Mana Taimani and Nofoafia Tulafono are just some of the freshmen who will be vying to fill out the depth chart.
The Cowboys have two more linemen, incoming freshmen Caden Barnett and Jack Walsh, that will join the mix this summer, though both are likely headed for redshirts given what’s in front of them.
Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter