ANALYSIS: WR’s must produce for UW to take next step
LARAMIE -- Fall camp is on the horizon.
We will pretend here all is right in the world and tomorrow, as they are scheduled to do, 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?
Let's take a look at the wide receiver group today. These guys have heard it all -- we'll get to that -- but should get a nice boost from the youth coming in, mainly from the Lone Star State. A nice mix of veterans and rookies could give this team some much-needed balance in 2020.
(R-Fr.) Alex Brown, 6-4, 205, Spring, Texas
(Fr.) Joshua Cobbs, 6-4, 205, San Antonio, Texas
(Sr.) Dontae Crow, 5-9, 178, Sheridan, Wyo.
(Sr.) Ayden Eberhardt, 6-2, 195, Loveland, Colo.
(Soph.) Mason Gallegos, 6-2, 168, Casper, Wyo.
(Jr.) Gunner Gentry, 6-3, 208, Aurora, Colo.
(Fr.) Tyrese Grant, 6-0, 160, Daingerfield, Texas
(Soph.) Chance Hofer, 6-0, 196, Green River, Wyo.
(R-Fr.) Devin Jennings, 6-2, 189, Channelview, Texas
(Fr.) Max Mazurie, 5-10, 177, Lander, Wyo.
(R-Fr.) Chris Ndushabandi, 6-0, 173, Colorado Springs, Colo.
(R-Fr.) Isaiah Neyor, 6-3, 210, Fort Worth, Texas
(Soph.) Wyatt Wieland, 6-1, 186, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Mike Grant (5th season)
.433 third down conversion rate (32nd 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)
5 touchdown receptions (Raghib Ismail Jr. 2; Ayden Eberhardt 2; Austin Conway 1)
"These guys can't catch."
"They can't get open."
"If Wyoming only had a passing game."
Raise your hand if you said one or all three things about the Cowboy receiving corps last fall.
Let's just look at the numbers:
* 120 receptions
* 1,770 receiving yards
* 11 receiving touchdowns
* 46.9 completion percentage
* 136.2 passing yards per game
* Ranked 123 out of 130 FBS teams in passing offense
* Passing efficiency was 117th
The numbers speak for themselves. It wasn't pretty. Wyoming's leading receiver, Raghib Ismail Jr., caught just 23 passes for 355 yards. Austin Conway also snagged 23 catches. He amassed just 314 yards.
And those guys were both lost to graduation.
There's no sugarcoating it -- the wide receivers didn't have a great season. Was it all their fault? Absolutely not. You see the completion percentage above, right? It's hard to catch passes when they are not close. And in many cases, they weren't.
However, there were plenty of drops, too.
How do you get in a rhythm though? Let's take the Idaho game for example.
Wyoming ran the ball on 21 of its first 30 plays, including 10 straight on its third possession, which ended in a 12-yard touchdown run by Ismail. Of those nine throws, there were three completions. One of those was for a loss.
I asked wide receiver coach Mike Grant back in September how hard it is to watch his guys go out and get limited -- if any -- targets during a game.
"If I was a young coach, this would be very frustrating," Grant said. "In my experience, I’ve seen the ebbs and flows of a season. As my mom always used to say, 'it will all come out in the wash.' I’m not hitting the panic button or wanting to go in and talk to coaches about what is happening. We are a run-first offense. We know it, coaches know it, players know it — we want to dominate the line of scrimmage. We just need to be ready to perform when we are called upon."
Take a look at that last sentence.
That was the company line. Every receiver I asked, that's what I got. But it's easier said than done, right?
Aside from Ismail and Conway, the Cowboys other wide outs combined for 28 catches and 442 yards. Ayden Eberhardt caught the only two touchdown passes in the group.
There were a few bright spots. Eberhardt's two touchdowns were memorable ones. The first, a bomb at Tulsa and the second a last-minute leaping grab in the Arizona Bowl. The junior caught the pass, ducked a would-be tackler and turned up field before leaping into the end zone to give the Cowboys a 24-10 lead at the half:
Ismail made some nice one-handed grabs and was electric with the football, and Conway made tough catches over the middle. Gunner Gentry and Dontae Crow had their moments, too.
If there was anything to hang their hats on, this group went out with a bang. In Tucson, five different receivers finished with a grab. Wyoming's wide outs caught 11 passes for 234 yards and three touchdowns from freshman quarterback Levi Williams.
That was the first time since the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl that the Cowboys hauled in a trio of scoring strikes.
This unit will have a much different look in 2020. Physically, anyway.
The three seniors the Cowboys lost to graduation -- John Okwoli, Ismail and Conway -- all came in around 6-feet tall. Bohl and Co. said they made an effort to get more size at that position in recruiting.
"It was a point of emphasis," Bohl said back in February. "We have to be more explosive and throw the ball better."
And he is a man of his word.
The Cowboys now have two young wide outs who stand 6-foot, 4-inches in freshman Joshua Cobbs and redshirt freshman Alex Brown. Devin Jennings, the fastest player on the roster, and Isaiah Neyor, are both taller than 6-feet, 2-inches.
Along with speedster Tyrese Grant, they all have something else in common, too -- they are all from talent-rich Texas.
Grant told me last fall that he is excited for the young guys that were already on campus: Neyor, Brown and Jennings.
Brown saw action briefly in two games. Neyor got into one.
A football staffer said this to me about those two at Wyoming's annual Pro Day this spring.
"They are going to be really good."
Grant and the staff always talk about the difficulty of the team's "route tree." In layman's terms, the routes they run are not simple out patterns or go routes. There's a rhyme and reason to everything in Brent Vigen's pro-style offense.
Ismail talked about the difficulties of the tree during an interview this spring.
Whoever nails that plays. Oh, and they need to catch the ball and get separation, too.
Wyoming is returning just three players who caught a ball in 2019:
- Eberhardt: 8 receptions, 168 yards, 21-yard average, two touchdowns
- Gentry: 6 receptions, 130 yards, 21.7-yard average, zero touchdowns
- Crow: 5 receptions, 70 yards, 14-yard average, zero touchdowns
- Wieland: 0 receptions
That’s a grand total of 19 catches for 368 yards and two scores.
That won't get it done.
I've been told to watch for a breakout year from Eberhardt. The senior is primed for a big campaign and had a strong finish in 2019. Logan Wilson, Wyoming's linebacker who was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft this spring, said don't be surprised to see Eberhardt be the go-to guy in the group.
Gentry, a junior, has shown he can be a legit deep threat:
Crow has made some tough catches over the middle. Wieland played in 11 games last season. He didn't record any stats.
It can only go up from here, right?
It will need to if the Cowboys hope to compete for a conference title. Bowl eligibility, as we've seen is obtainable without a strong passing game, but this squad is looking for more than that.
It will be interesting to see this crop of new wide outs mixed with veterans like Eberhardt, Gentry and Crow.
And more of this would sure make the fans happy:
Levi Williams posted video over the summer playing catch with Joshua Cobbs in a park in Texas. Let's see if that early connection translates to anything this fall.
By all accounts, Neyor and Brown are ready to step into an extended role on this team. Jennings could be a difference maker too. That kid can flat out fly.
Height and speed can only help, one would think. Wyoming's quarterbacks haven't shown that they can consistently hit a target. The bigger catch radius of tall receivers can only aide in that progression. Bohl sure hopes so, anyway.
There's zero secret here -- Wyoming has to develop a passing threat to go along with its potent rushing attack. Bohl knows it. Vigen knows it. The quarterbacks know it and so do the receivers.
These guys could be the difference between a good season and a great one.