This is only the third year for Dave Christensen at Wyoming but it feels like it has been much longer then that. With a topsy turvey off season it also has a similar feeling to 2009 when Christensen got his start in Laramie. Fall camp officially stars on August 4th and everyone is ready to finally get things started: players are ready to hit the field and fans want to see what the guys can do.
Outsiders don't see much hope this season for Cowboys but that doesn't necessarily mean they are right. First lets layout the schedule for camp and what plans Coach Christensen has in store for the team. Scrimmages will be early and often this year. There will be a total of four scrimmages that will be held at the War: August 9th, 12th, 16th and 20th. Fans are invited to watch all four scrimmages and check out the team. For practices only the first 30 minutes are available for the media to observe. Expect a lot more living tackling in practice this year to help cure the mistackle blues that hindered the Cowboys for the first four games of 2010.
The Cowboys certainly need to improve on their 3-9 performance from last year. To do so there are a number of concerns that need to resolved.
Here are the big five questions that need be answered for Wyoming to have a successful year 2011 season.
WHO WILL PLAY QUARTERBACK?
In case you've been living under rock then you're aware that Wyoming has no returning players at the quarterback position this year. True freshman Brett Smith and Adam Pittser will battle it out for the No. 1 position. There is a media blackout in effect when it comes to interviewing either candidate. The only real opportunities to see them perform will be the scrimmages. Wyoming started a freshman quarterback in 2009 and things worked out well then. The supporting cast and talent level surround the QB will be better now.
Currently Brett Smith holds the #1 spot by virtue of enrolling early and participating in spring drills. Pittser was ranked higher then Smith by the recruiting services and is the top rated offensive player to ever commit to Wyoming. Though the number of stars you have only takes you so far, you have to perform on the field. Honestly I'm excited about both athletes and whoever wins the starting job will make Wyoming fans proud.
HOW WILL THE OFFENSE LOOK THIS YEAR?
Gregg Brandon is the new OC in Laramie after Marcus Arroyo left for Cal. Cowboy fans should be ecstatic as Brandon is a guru of the spread and is light years ahead of Arroyo who never got things rolling in his two years at Wyoming. While the head coach at Bowling Green Brandon turned the Falcons into one of the top offensive teams in the country. He also mentored Christensen while he was still at Mizzou and helped the Tigers offense turned get turned around.
A few weeks ago an article came out where Christensen said that they will be running the spread this year under center, going with a run focused attack and utilizing a fullback. Later he said he was joking about the fullback and would still run the offense be using shotgun 90% of the time. Perhaps he is just trying to throw off opponents, fans or both. Either way it will be exciting to see what Brandon brings to table and how utilizes the depth and running back.
IS THE OFFENSIVE LINE ACTUALLY IMPROVED?
The Achilles heel of the Cowboy offense the last two years has been the offensive line. Poor pass blocking made Austyn Carta-Samuels run for his life more often then planned. The run blocking was sub par and kept Alvester Alexander from picking up many yards. Wyoming QB's were sacked 31 times in 2010 and 38 times in 2009. With a mobile quarterback those numbers will always be inflated buy better pass protection would have also helped.
The good news is that there is now depth on the line and Christensen just isn't throwing out exact same crew as last year. Kyle Magnuson had a great spring as was able to pass incumbent Josh Leonard at right tackle. Tyler Strong was moved defensive tackle and takes over at left guard. JUCO transfer Zach Rushing is expected to push Brandon Self at right guard. Three redshirt freshmen will provide added depth: Travis Bogard, Skyler Hinton and Daniel Fleischman. Nick Carlson was named to watch list for the Rimington Trophy which is award to the best center in the nation.
CAN THE NEW PLAYERS MAKE AN IMPACT?
First year players will be counted upon on both sides of the ball. You never want to talk about your kicker or long snapper. Two true freshmen will man those spots for the Cowboys and be counted upon to get the job done. Daniel Sullivan takes over Ian Watts and was one of the top 10 kickers in the nation last year and boasts a much more powerful leg. Hopefully he handles the elements and pressure of kicking in the Mountain West. Zach Ewan was the #2 rated HS long snapper last year. It is a key position on special teams that doesn't much glory but any mistake can cause serious consequences.
Besides the two quarterbacks there will be plenty of first year players contributing on both sides of the ball. At the LEO spot freshman Mark Nzeocha and JUCO transfer Korey Jones are currently co-starters. The staff was so high on Jones that they allowed Ghaali Muhammad to move over to RB. Nzeocha went from third string safety to sharing the starting spot with Jones during spring practice. He will play alongside fellow German linebacker Oliver Schober who starts at MIKE.
Luke Anderson is super speedy safety from the junior college ranks. He is currently the #2 strong safety behind Luke Ruff but will still see plenty of playing time. Miraldo Michel is a JUCO transfer and Eddie Yarbrough is the highest rated defensive recruit ever for Wyoming. Both will push for playing time at defensive end this year.
The Pokes have plenty of depth at running back but still the staff is very excited about freshman Kody Sutton. He is a compact and powerful runner and it will interesting to see where he lands on the depth chart when the season starts. At receiver there are a couple of freshmen to keep your eyes on right away: 6-4 Kevin Robertson will provide some nice size while speedy Josh Doctson should challenge for playing time right away.
WILL THE DEFENSE SUCCEED IN YEAR TWO OF THE 4-3?
Last year year there were plenty of growing pains when Wyoming switched from the 3-4 to 4-3 scheme and replaced their entire starting defensive line. They converted linebackers Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns from linebacker to defensive end where they were undersized. By the end of the season there was finally some coercion and Josh Biezuns became a sack monster. All four starters on the defensive line were going to ready to go this season but it looks like tackle Patrick Mertens will most likely miss the year due to an illness he has been dealing with. This opens up the door for juniors Kurt Taufa'asau and Ben Durbin to step up for the right tackle spot.
An improved defensive line would put more pressure on the quarterback and that would also provide a big lift to the secondary. The Pokes will also be replacing three of four starters in the secondary with senior cornerback Tashaun Gipson the lone returner. Sophomore Marqueston Huff will play opposite Gipson and has been highlighted in the teams poster and new uniform release this year. He played in a few games last year and also made some nice plays on special teams. We've already discussed the two Luke's who will taking care of the strong safety spot. Kenny Browder looks to be back his 2009 form after a rough sophomore year, he is the projected starter a free safety. He will be backed up by senior Eric Mitchell. Darren White and James Caraway are the top backup cornerbacks.