ANALYSIS: What will safeties look like in post-Halliburton era?
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?
Today, we start with the last line of defense -- the safeties.
(Sr.) Esaias Gandy, SS, 6-1, 198, Aurora, Colo.
(Soph.) Cameron Murray, FS, 6-1, 175, Aurora, Colo.
(R-Fr.) Dalton Schroeder, S, 5-10, 180, Fort Collins, Colo.
(Sr.) Braden Smith, FS, 5-10, 186, Thornton, Colo.
(Fr.) Keshaun Taylor, S, 6-0, 195, Denver, Colo.
(R-Fr.) Jack Thiele, S, 6-0, 183, Arvada, Colo.
(Soph.) Rome Weber, FS, 5-11, 188, San Bernardino, Calif.
(Fr.) Isaac White, S, 6-1, 195, Pottstown, Penn.
(Jr.) Miles Williams, SS, 6-1, 194, Oxnard, Calif.
Jay Sawvel (1st season)
105th in the nation in passing yards allowed
3,337 yards allowed
256.7 yards per game
4 interceptions (Alijah Halliburton, 2; Braden Smith and Rome Weber)
The opener against Missouri will tell you nearly everything you need to know about the Pokes' safeties in 2019.
Alijah Halliburton made 17 tackles and won national defensive player of the week honors. He also scooped up a fumble on the last play of the first half and returned it 85 yards, setting up Cooper Rothe with a field goal to extend the Cowboys' lead.
Junior Esaias Gandy ignited a second-quarter surge that saw Wyoming score 27 points and erase an early 14-0 deficit. Gandy shucked a blocker and hammered Mizzou quarterback Kelly Bryant, forcing a fumble that bounced in the direction of CJ Coldon, who scored from 30 yards out to give UW its first touchdown of the night:
Rome Weber, who beat out Braden Smith in fall camp, made his first career start at free safety against the Tigers. The redshirt freshman made seven tackles.
That was the good news.
The Bad? Bryant passed for 423 yards and two touchdowns. The Clemson transfer completed 31 of his 48 attempts on the day. Johnathon Johnson and Tyler Badie both finished with seven grabs. Nine Tigers caught a ball in the Cowboys' 37-31 upset inside War Memorial Stadium.
Wyoming's secondary gave up big chunk plays of 53, 35 and twice 32.
So, what does it all mean? The Cowboys' safeties were active -- to say the least. And it continued on way past the opener.
With youth and inexperience littering the corner back position, UW's safeties were tasked with plenty of responsibility in the passing game.
Sometimes it looked like this:
Too many times, especially early in the season, the visual wasn't pretty:
Is this all the safeties' fault? Of course not. But missed tackles, being out of position and bad angles plagued the back end, especially during the non-conference season.
Let's take that Tulsa game for instance. Wyoming's pass rush sacked Tulsa quarterback Zach Smith seven times that afternoon in northeast Oklahoma. Play after play, the Baylor transfer peeled himself off the turf.
However, when Smith had just enough time in the pocket, he exposed an early flaw in the Pokes' defense. He spread the defense out, forcing linebackers into coverage and got one-on-one matchups across the board. A corps of talented wide receivers took care of the rest.
Take this play for example. Weber was literally the last line of defense:
Eyes getting caught in the backfield was an issue, too:
The Cowboys' safeties made big plays and gave up their fair share in 2019. To reiterate, the woes of the pass defense were not squarely on the shoulders of this group.
And there is another element to the safety position -- the run game.
Wyoming ranked 11th in the nation in rush defense. Halliburton racked up a conference-leading 130 tackles from the strong safety spot. UW also ranked sixth in the country in red zone defense, allowing just 16 touchdowns on 45 trips inside the 25-yard line.
The Cowboys surrendered 17.8 points per game. That was the second best mark in the Mountain West.
Bend but don't break, right?
Think back to this time a year ago.
Who in the world was going to replace Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps? Surely Wyoming was in for some growing pains at the safety spot. That turned out to be true, but a star emerged in Halliburton. He waited his turn for three seasons behind those two future NFL players. He made the most of it.
Fast forward to today -- who will step in for Halliburton?
On paper, that man should be Gandy. The senior strong safety appeared in 12 games in 2019, tallying 25 tackles and a pair of pass breakups. He also recovered two fumbles and caused the big one against Mizzou.
Weber returns for his sophomore season after racking up 38 tackles a season ago. The California product got better as the season went on and picked off the first pass of his career in a rout of UNLV. After a rocky start, Weber solidified himself as the best pass-defending safety in the group.
He shared time early on with Smith, who earned one start last season against Idaho. Smith finished with 11 tackles.
Cameron Murray, who suffered a lower-body injury in the bowl win, saw some playing time at the free safety spot but was mostly an asset on special teams. Miles Williams was in the same boat, seeing limited time on defense. Both could play a role this season and give the Cowboys depth with experience.
Watch for true freshman Keshaun Taylor to push guys and possibly make a run at playing time during his first season in Laramie. Taylor is already 6-foot, 195 pounds. He has the body type and the swagger.
"I bring nothing but energy," Taylor said back in December. "I’m an energy guy, but I’m very humble and will do anything to make people love me. Whatever the team needs from me, I’ll do it."
Taylor's coach at Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver was former UW standout Derrick Martin.
"I think he is the real deal," Martin said Monday. "(He's a) True ball hawk that doesn’t mind laying the hat on someone. A mix of Halliburton and Tashaun Gipson."
Jay Sawvel, Wyoming's third defensive coordinator in as many seasons, will also mentor the safeties in Laramie. If his track record tells us anything it's that he is aggressive.
Not to mention the label "secondary coach" has been attached to Sawvel since his days at Ferris State in 1999. He has worked his way up the ladder, eventually leading Minnesota to Top-25 defenses multiple times from 2011-16.
The Cowboys have plenty of experience on the back end. Weber should only get better. The combo of Smith and Gandy have waited their turn. This group had depth, speed and can tackle.
We haven't even mentioned Keyon Blankenbaker, the junior nickle back, who finished fourth on the team in tackles with 57. He will only help the transition in the post-Halliburton era. Replacing 130 tackles will take a group effort.
These guys showed their strength is in run defense, but the passing side needs to make major strides if the Cowboys hope to compete for a conference title in 2020. When you have Louisiana-Lafayette, Utah State, Colorado State and Boise State on tap, that's a must.
A consistent pass rush and more depth at the corner spot will only help this group. The Cowboys have that.