ANALYSIS: Chad Muma has some big shoes to fill
LARAMIE -- Fall camp is on the horizon. We hope.
We will pretend here all is right in the world and in early August the Cowboys will hit the practice field in Laramie to kickoff the seventh season under head coach Craig Bohl.
Wyoming finished 8-5 overall in 2019, including a 4-4 mark in Mountain West play. It all culminated in a 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl.
So, let's breakdown the current roster by position group.
Who are the play makers? Who's returning? Is there depth?
Two Cowboys were selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. Both played linebacker. Let's have a quick chat about that vacant position in Laramie.
(Jr.) Keyon Blankenbaker, 5-10, 175, Oak Park, Ill.
(Fr.) Wyett Ekeler, 5-11, 189, Windsor, Colo.
(R-Fr.) Easton Gibbs, 6-2, 216, Temecula, Calif.
(Soph.) Blake Harrington, 5-11, 180, Prosper, Texas
(Soph.) Charles Hicks, 6-3, 228, San Diego, Calif.
(Fr.) Ben Kruzich, 5-11, 229, Laramie, Wyo.
(Jr.) Brennan Kutterer, 6-1, 211, Dayton, Wyo.
(Jr.) Chad Muma, 6-3, 227, Lone Tree, Colo.
(Soph.) Ray Rabou, 6-2, 212, Buffalo, Wyo.
(Fr.) Connor Shay, 6-2, 210, Danville, Calif.
(R-Fr.) Shae Suiaunoa, 6-3, 227, Houston, Texas
(Fr.) Read Sunn, 6-2, 226, Arden, N.C.
(Fr.) Brent VanderVeen, 6-2, 190, Sedro-Woolley, Wash.
Aaron Bohl (1st season, was an interim last season)
105th in the nation in passing yards allowed
3,337 yards allowed
256.7 yards per game
6 interceptions (Logan Wilson 4, Cassh Maluia 2)
11th in the nation in rushing defense
1,392 yards allowed
107.1 yards per game
6th in the nation in red zone defense
Allowed 16 touchdowns on 45 attempts
To say that Wyoming has been spoiled the past four seasons at the linebacker spot would be a gross understatement.
Let's enjoy some visual proof:
That was just one of Logan Wilson's 10 career interceptions. The Casper native picked off a team-leading four in 2019.
Look at the senior seek and destroy last fall in sunny San Diego. That was just one of his 409 career tackles.
How about a sack? That was Wilson's seventh in a career that included five forced fumbles and four recoveries.
Think this guy will be missed?
Wilson tallied 105 tackles a season ago. He also took down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage 8.5 times. He was the unquestioned leader of not only the defense, but the entire team. You don't earn nicknames like "The Governor" if you aren't the man.
The Cincinnati Bengals think Wilson is the man, too. That's why they selected him in the third round of the NFL Draft.
And who could forget about this guy?
That's Cassh Maulia, of course. He never lost to rival Colorado State. That is him racing to the Bronze Boot to let everyone know it, too.
This humble, long-haired play maker was often overlooked because of No. 30. The Patriots took notice. They selected him in the sixth round.
The former quarterback was straight out of Compton. And when he made the transition to linebacker in Laramie, all he did was rack up 197 career tackles, 16.5 for loss, and pick off four passes, including thwarting a drive versus Missouri by intercepting Kelly Bryant in the end zone.
And speaking of those Tigers from the SEC, another linebacker made arguably the play of the game in that one. Cheyenne's own Ben Wisdorf, a former walk-on, blew through Mizzou's big, strong, talented offensive line and put his helmet right on the ball, forcing a fumble at the goal line.
Check this out:
Wisdorf didn't put up big-time stats. He played most of his career at UW on special teams. But that doesn't mean he wasn't valuable. After tearing up his knee in a road game in Boise, Wisdorf didn't want a cart. Instead, he slowly made his way across the field with the aide of trainers. He knew his career was over, but he wasn't going out like that.
I believe they refer to that as "Cowboy Tough."
Against CSU, on senior night, Wilson escorted the wheelchair-bound senior out to midfield. Wilson had the nickname "Wiz" written on his wrist tape.
So, what does it all mean?
The Cowboys linebacking corps was tight. They all grew up together in Laramie. They redshirted through a 2-9 season and stuck it out. In a numbers sense, these three seniors combined for 171 tackles in 2019. They also accounted for six interceptions, two forced fumbles and 15.5 tackles for loss.
And we haven't even mentioned the other linebacker yet. Let's do that now.
You think Chad Muma has some pressure on his shoulders heading into 2020?
You might, but chances are, he doesn't.
The laid back legacy player from Colorado finally saw substantial playing time during his sophomore season after spending 2018 as primarily a special teams standout.
Muma's father played at Wyoming. So did his grandfather. He grew up playing catch in the pine trees in the south end zone of War Memorial Stadium.
You could say he was made for this:
Muma registered 51 tackles and a sack last season. He also picked up three tackles for loss. When Wilson was asked which current players have the best shot at one day hearing their names called by the NFL, he didn't hesitate.
It was No. 48.
Muma's coming-out party came in a Week 4 road tilt in Tulsa. It started with a bang -- quite literally. On the Golden Hurricanes' first drive, Muma came through the middle untouched and laid out quarterback Zach Smith. It was a tone setter and a visual of things to come.
Wyoming sacked Smith a season-high seven times that cloud-covered afternoon in northeast Oklahoma. Muma got him once, but put him on the turf a half-dozen times. He also picked up seven tackles, 1.5 of those for a loss.
Senior wide receiver Rocket Ismail Jr. raved about Muma's freaky athleticism. He joined Wilson in dubbing the junior bound for a possible career in the pros.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Muma probably wouldn't want that, either. The Cowboys got major production out of this group last season and will likely need a similar result in 2020 if they hope to compete for a conference title.
Muma will get plenty of help in the form of a defensive line that should be among the nation's elite. Ravontae Holt is back after missing 2019 with a knee injury. Wilson named him as a possible NFL-caliber player, too. Cole Godbout, Victor Jones and Mario Mora will help plug up the middle. Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd, among others, should make life very uncomfortable for opposing signal callers.
Another aide will come from nickle back, Keyon Blankenbaker.
This fellow junior had a breakout season in 2019. The Illinois product capped the season with 57 tackles. He also knocked down 10 pass attempts. Though undersized, Blakenbaker could serve as a bridge between an inexperienced linebackers' unit and an young secondary. He did a great job of doing just that a season ago.
So, who lines up at outside linebacker for the Cowboys and first-year coach Aaron Bohl?
Well, we asked Wilson that very question. Once again, he was quick on the trigger -- Charles Hicks.
That name might not ring a bell, but Hicks was a highly recruited player out of talent-rich San Diego. As a senior at Lincoln High, he tallied -- are you ready for this? -- 157 tackles. That is an average of 13.1 per game. He was also one of the team's leading receivers. Can't do that with out speed and skill.
After redshirting his first season in Laramie, Hicks got into 12 games last year, mainly suiting up on special teams. He posted a pedestrian four tackles. It's not hard to see though when you look at the intangibles why Boise State, Nevada and Utah State wanted a piece of the 6-foot, 3-inch, 228-pound hammer.
Another name to possibly keep an eye on is incoming freshman, Connor Shay.
Like Hicks, Shay was a tackling machine as a high school standout in California. He racked up 137 of those last season. Shay had a Power-5 offer from Utah. He also was sought after by Fresno State, Nevada, UNLV and plenty of others.
Shay also showed plenty of patience in the recruiting process. He didn't sign with the Pokes until the second recruiting period ended in December.
"I chose Wyoming because that’s where I felt most loved out of all the schools I visited," he said. "I also love the cold weather and being in the mountains. I felt like I could make an impact at the school."
That impact could come sooner rather than later.
The 2019 spring game may have given us a small glimpse of what to expect this season from this young crop of linebackers.
Muma finished that day with a team-leading 10 tackles. Hicks was second with eight. Buffalo's Ray Rabou landed seven.
When Aaron Bohl looks at the final stats after each game, more than likely, those numbers from Muma and Hicks will mirror that spring day in Laramie. These guys need to grow up in a hurry.
Muma showed plenty of growth in 2019, but after him major questions remain. Wyoming doesn't enjoy the depth of having a Wisdorf anymore.
If Muma goes down, the cupboard isn't bare, it's unproven.
Like the cornerbacks, a number of linebackers will likely get their shot to show that they are the next guy in line.
No one is expecting Muma or anyone else to be Logan Wilson. That probably won't happen. What is expected is maturation at that position. Playing fast, making plays and limiting the rushing attack the way the Cowboys did in 2019.
If you take a quick glance at Craig Bohl's resume, I wouldn't doubt that the next guy -- or three -- is already on campus. Don't expect Wilson-Maluia production, but also don't expect a major downgrade with this unit.