ANALYSIS: Pokes’ key to success — ‘Dirt Dogs’
LARAMIE -- Fall camp is on the horizon -- we hope.
We will pretend here all is right in the world and Friday 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?
Today, we take a look at the "Dirt Dogs." If you don't know who that is by now, you better get yourself educated on the big guys up front that make the Cowboys' offense go. This unit should be the strength of this team. Not only in 2020, but for years to come.
(Jr.) Eric Abojei, 6-5, 350, New Hope, Minn.
(Soph.) Blayne Baker, 6-5, 305, Sheridan, Wyo.
(R-Fr.) Latrell Bible, 6-4, 290, Minneapolis, Minn.
(Soph.) Frank Crum, 6-7, 314, Laramie, Wyo.
(Jr.) Keegan Cryder, 6-4, 309, Littleton, Colo.
(Sr.) Logan Harris, 6-3, 310, Torrington, Wyo.
(R-Fr.) Carlos Harrison, 6-4, 278, Carlsbad, Calif.
(Fr.) Kohl Herbolsheimer, 6-3, 275, Omaha, Neb.
(R-Fr.) Jack Lookabaugh, 6-5, 302, Coppell, Texas
(Soph.) Marco Machado, 6-4, 312, Waco, Neb.
(Fr.) Emmanuel Pregnon, 6-6, 265, Denver, Colo.
(R-Jr.) Gavin Rush, 6-3, 312, Phillips, Neb.
(R-Fr.) Mason Schultz, 6-4, 265, Aurora, Colo.
(R-Fr.) Connor Shopp, 6-6, 263, Casper, Wyo.
(Jr.) Rudy Stofer, 6-6, 300, Kearney, Neb.
(Fr.) Mana Taimani, 6-5, 315, Antioch, Calif.
(Fr.) Nofoafia Tulafono, 6-2, 311, Victorville, Calif.
(Sr.) Alonzo Velazquez, 6-6, 302, Janesville, Wisc.
(Soph.) Zach Watts, 6-5, 302, Windsor, Colo.
(Fr.) Malik Williams, 6-4, 265, Hayward, Calif.
Bart Miller (2nd season)
214.8 rushing yards per game (23rd in the nation)
.433 third down conversion rate (32nd in the nation)
5.15 penalties per game (26th in the nation)
136.2 passing yards per game (123rd in the nation)
.822 red zone percentage (75th in the nation; 21 rush TD, 5 pass TD)
21 sacks allowed (32nd in the nation; 1.62 per game)
350.9 yards per game (106th in the nation)
Think back to this time exactly a year ago.
Wyoming just hired some guy named Bart Miller to coach the offensive line. That came after Craig Bohl parted ways with Scott Fuchs after the season only to hire Klayton Adams.
A month later, Adams left for the Indianapolis Colts.
If that wasn't enough adversity, Wyoming lost both Zach Watts and Gavin Rush in spring practice to what appeared to be season-ending injuries.
Talk about a gut punch.
The next question was could Torrington's Logan Harris have a bounce-back season? He started just one game as a sophomore after holding down the center spot in all 13 games as a true freshman.
So, who the heck will be on the line? Keegan Cryder was a freshman All-American the year prior, but he can't do it alone. Will they be any good? With Missouri coming to Laramie in Week 1, I guess we will find out soon enough.
Fast forward to that sun-spanked August afternoon.
The Tigers and all their SEC hype looked like the real deal through the first 15 minutes, taking a lighting-fast 14-0 lead.
Then, the "Dirt Dogs" were born.
Watch left guard Eric Abojei hammer his man -- and the Mizzou linebacker -- right out of the hole. Check out Cryder sealing off his man and allowing Xazavian Valladay to break into the open for the Pokes' first offensive touchdown of the day:
On the next possession, it was left tackle Rudy Stofer's turn to manhandle a lineman. Pulling guard, Harris, got a piece, too, springing Sean Chambers for the long touchdown run that will forever be remembered by that filthy stiff arm:
Wyoming rushed for 297 yards on 42 carries in the 37-31 upset victory. If you don't happen to be a math major, that's a whopping 7.1 yards per carry. Valladay and Chambers both eclipsed the century mark, and the Cowboys scored three times on the ground.
The line's dominance didn't stop there, either.
By midseason, the unit was honored with the Joe Moore Award, which is handed out to only the best offensive lines in the nation. Wyoming averaged 215.7 rushing yards per game. That was good enough for 23rd in the country and second in the Mountain West, behind only Air Force. The line also didn't allow its quarterback to get dirty often. They were 32nd in that category, allowing just 21 sacks.
And don't forget -- the adversity continued thoughout.
Alonzo Velazquez was hampered all season by leg injuries. Harris was forced to miss a game after suffering a concussion on a violent hit in Tulsa and Abojei was lost for the season during a road tilt at San Diego State. He was hurt on a point-after attempt.
The Cowboys rushed the ball 575 times in 2019. Injuries come with the territory.
Still, this group played with a certain swagger. Youngsters like Frank Crum earned valuable playing time. Latrell Bible and Blayne Baker saw action, too. Cryder, along with Stofer, were mainstays on a line that overcame odds and introduced itself to the nation as one of the best.
The Cowboys' offensive line is returning nine multiple-game starters this fall. Their combined 146 starts is the most in college football heading into 2020.
Cryder will once again lead the way for a Wyoming football team that doesn't try and fool you on offense -- they are running the ball. Again, again and again.
If the most recent class of freshmen is any indication of what's to come, that philosophy won't be changing anytime soon. Bohl and Co. picked up five rookies on the offensive line on signing day: Kohl Herbolsheimer, Malik Williams, Emmanuel Pregnon, Mana Taimani and Nofoafia Tulafono.
Let's focus on the now though.
Cryder will be flanked by two of the best guards in the nation in Abojei and Harris. Stofer mans the left side of the line and Velazquez the right. By no means is that your opening day lineup -- and that's a good thing.
This group is loaded with confidence and depth.
Take this game for example. Entering Week 6, San Diego State had the top rushing defense in the nation. Watch the Pokes' line bully these guys early on:
Wyoming racked up more than 100 yards in the first half against Rocky Long's stingy Aztec defense. Remember, Miller played his college ball at New Mexico -- for Long.
Watch Cryder and crew get off their blocks and on to the second level on this long run by Valladay on the last play of the first quarter:
Watts and Rush will also play a major role in 2020. So will Crum, Bible and Baker. This unit is truly two deep, if not three, at some spots. They are also versatile. Nearly everyone on the line has played multiple positions.
The Pokes did take a hit in the depth department with the departure of Patrick Arnold this offseason. He is focusing on school and becoming a doctor.
Cryder, who was selected a preseason first-team All-Conference player by the media, is also on the Outland Trophy Award Watch List. The junior from Colorado was last year's "War Daddy" for the Cowboys. You can read about that HERE, but it essentially means he is the best at planting his opponents in the dirt.
Miller got a well-deserved promotion this offseason. He will now not only be tasked with leading the line but is now the team's run-game coordinator. Makes sense, right?
Valladay is on the Doak Walker Award Watch List after rushing for a Mountain West best 1,265 yards last season. He was a first-team running back and the Offensive MVP of the Arizona Bowl.
That's no accident.
Valladay will be the first to admit it's those guys up front who are responsible for the gaping holes in defensive fronts.
Last year this line was a huge question mark. Now, it's the strength of this squad.
If these guys stay healthy, Wyoming could once against boast one of the nation's top rushing attacks.
Replace the word could with "should."
That's the expectation around here now.
The three players up the middle -- Abojei, Cryder and Harris -- will be a focal point of the offense once again. And they have a whole stable of running backs that should see plenty of creases to get into the secondary.
Let's use our imaginations for a second.
Let's pretend that Wyoming's passing game improves by just 100 yards per game. What if balance can be introduced into this offensive attack? Imagine this line not having to block for 575 running plays?
That's the plan. It has been all along.
If the Cowboys can accomplish that, this line -- and team -- is destined for big things in '20.
Depth, like always, will play a role, too. This group could see a healthy rotation of seasoned players at every position. That is a luxury not seen around these parts since the late 90's.
Expectations are sky high. They should be. This offensive line has all the makings of becoming one of the best in school history. That's not just lip service -- the proof is in the stats, depth chart and games started.
Let's not forget another important aspect of pass protection and run blocking -- the tight ends. Wyoming is loaded with them, too. And they are big, physical and not afraid to earn that "Dirt Dog" moniker themselves. The same can be said for the wide receivers and fullbacks.
If you don't block on this team, you won't play. Period.
This position should be one of strength in Laramie for many years to come.
NEED TO CATCH UP ON THIS SERIES?
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