A healthy CJ Coldon is bad news for rest of Mountain West
LARAMIE -- Admittedly, it's been a few years since CJ Coldon has felt this good.
Wyoming's redshirt sophomore cornerback has a new bounce in his step. His smile, ever present. His name, prominent on plenty of preseason honors lists. His play in fall camp, impressive.
It hasn't always been like this.
In 2018, the then-freshman suffered a stinger in his neck in the Cowboys' home opener against Washington State. Two weeks later he met Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam -- All 6-foot-5, 258 pounds of him -- in the open field. The collision left Coldon with an injured nerve in his neck. He would miss the remaining nine games of the season.
The Belleville, Ill., product would once again play in just three games in 2019. A torn ACL cost him 10 more games, including an Arizona Bowl victory.
Then, there was COVID-19.
The virus hit Coldon right before the team was called back to campus last September. He lost a bunch of weight. He was weak. After a 10-day quarantine back in Laramie, Coldon was on the field just days later lining up against a Nevada receiving corps that featured some of the country's best in Romeo Doubs, Tory Horton, Melquan Stovall and Justin Lockhart. Not to mention first team All-Mountain West tight end, Cole Turner.
There were also three new defensive coaches, including cornerbacks coach Benny Boyd, and a new scheme to learn. Remember, the Cowboys didn't have a spring camp in 2020.
Coldon made his goal a simple one -- play.
"I just wanted to go out there, make plays and be out there the whole season, you know? The whole time. Play every game," he said.
He did just that.
In Wyoming's abbreviated six-game slate, Coldon finished with 26 tackles. He also snagged an interception in each of the Cowboys' final two games of the season.
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After the secondary gave up 420 yards through the air in that initial outing in Reno, Coldon and Co. settled in and became one of the top pass defenses in the nation. Opponents averaged just under 203 yards passing per game. Nevada's Carson Strong tossed four touchdowns in the opener. Wyoming's defense gave up just four more of those the rest of the season.
In a Week 2 meeting with Hawaii, quarterback Chevan Cordeiro didn't have a single passing yard in the first half. He barely cracked the century mark that night.
UNLV managed just 158 passing yards against the Pokes. New Mexico finished with 92. Wyoming even held Boise State's high-powered aerial assault to just 181. Coldon picked off Hank Bachmeier on the opening drive.
"A lot," Coldon said when asked what 2020 did for his confidence. "I just wanted to come out during the season and just get my feet wet. I wanted to get back to my regular self and play ball."
Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl has praised Coldon since the spring. He's lauded the leadership. The work ethic. The results.
"They've been a really good group to work with," Bohl said of Coldon and running mate, Azizi Hearn. "... They take responsibility each day when they come out to practice. There's not a lot of depth behind them. We're going to need to ride them. But they've really been a joy to coach."
Boyd shared similar sentiments.
"This was his first offseason since 2018," he said, referring to Coldon's injury history and last fall's bout with COVID-19. "So, having an opportunity to work with him and to be able to communicate on some of the details (has been important). Their growth and maturity, it's light years from where it was last year. I think we're gonna see that on the field come game day."
When it comes to on-field improvement, Coldon had a simple yet honest answer -- "everything."
Whether it's working on defending the deep ball, dump passes and everything in between, Coldon said his focus this fall has been on fundamentals. Playing cat and mouse with Wyoming quarterbacks Sean Chambers and Levi Williams has brought its daily challenges, too.
So has staying in the hip pocket of 6-foot-5 wide out, Isaiah Neyor.
"CJ is quicker and more patient," Neyor said, adding that Hearn is physical and fast. "You just get the best of both worlds. Those guys are very, very good. I'm thankful to have CJ on our team and to go against him every day in practice."
Bohl said depth behind Coldon and Hearn is one of his biggest concerns entering the '21 campaign. Thinking these guys will stay healthy through a 12-game schedule, Bohl added, is looking at the glass more than half full.
Coldon said he isn't worried about that. He has confidence in the youth in the cornerback room, despite Cameron Stone being the only one behind the starters with any playing experience at this level.
After all, he's been one of the teachers this offseason.
"I feel like one of the younger guys can step up," he said. "... We just help each other grow learn -- mentally and physically. We just push each other in that room. I want them to be better. I want them to be great. I want them to see the field one day. They're going to have to be out here one day sooner rather than later."
Current Atlanta Falcon cornerback, Tyler Hall, was once that guy for Coldon.
"He meant a lot to me," he said. "He brought me under his wing and taught me a lot. I learned a lot from him like how to work on your craft on and off the field."
Coldon has high expectations this fall.
So does his coach.
"I'm very confident that they're going to be one of the best, if not the best, group (in the Mountain West)," Boyd said of his corners. "That's our goal. We want to be the best in America."