Answers to our five preseason questions
LARAMIE -- The dust is settling on the Cowboys' 8-5 season that culminated in a 38-17 victory over Georgia State in the Arizona Bowl Tuesday evening in Tucson.
There were plenty of positives this season -- beating Missouri, retaining the Bronze boot for a fourth straight year and winning a bowl game for the second time in three tries. There was also the emergence of Wyoming's offensive and defensive lines, a breakout performance from sophomore Xazavian Valladay and a host of accolades throw the way of three-time captain, Logan Wilson.
There were others, too.
Wyoming did face its fair share of adversity this season. Injuries played a big role, especially the losses of Sean Chambers, Eric Abojei and a pair of running backs, Titus Swen and Trey Smith.
Inconsistencies reared in Tulsa, San Diego, Logan, Boise and Colorado Springs, too. Wyoming's passing game was non-existent for a majority of the season. Same can be said for the pass defense.
We posed five questions to Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl before the regular season began. Now, we have the answers:
1. How crucial is the wide receiving corps if UW hopes to contend for a MWC title?
I think we all saw how this unfolded. Let the stats speak for itself: 120 receptions, 1,770 yards, 14.8 yards per catch, 11 touchdowns -- as a unit.
Ja'Marr Chase, LSU's wide receiver and 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner, for example, caught 75 passes for 1,559 yards and 18 touchdowns.
If it wasn't for a 234-yard passing day in Arizona from true freshman Levi Williams, the Cowboys would've finished behind Air Force in yards per game through the air for a second straight season.
Let that sink in.
Bohl joked in his postgame press conference that he "finally listened to you guys tell me we always need to be more balanced," referring to the media. Wyoming threw the ball 26 times in Tucson compared to 47 rushing attempts, by far the Cowboys most balance on offense this season.
"We have been working hard on the pass game," Bohl said. "And so that blend of run and pass certainly stresses a defense, and then those guys up here making plays like that, both in the run and the pass game really helped."
Wyoming's leading receiver in 2019 was Raghib Ismail. The senior had 23 snags for 355 yards and two touchdowns.
To say the Pokes need more from this position would be a gross understatement. Gunner Gentry (6 catches, 130 yards), Ayden Eberhardt (8 catches, 168 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Dontae Crow (5 catches, 70 yards) are the returning leaders for this unit.
2. Can the new faces on the coaching staff keep this train rolling in the right direction?
An emphatic, yes!
Bart Miller, who was promoted to the team's run-game coordinator Thursday, was worth his weight in gold this season. No one knew what to expect from the Cowboys' offensive line or its new leader. What they got was one of the best units in the nation.
And it continued into the recruiting process, where Miller and Co. picked up five new commits on the offensive line. Next season, he should have a healthy stable of running backs to play with, too.
Jake Dickert also did a nice job filling in for the departed Scottie Hazelton, who left for Kansas State after last season. Wyoming has one of the top defenses in the nation when it comes to stopping the run and getting to the passer. The pass defense was suspect, but losing Antonio Hull wasn't helpful.
Even Aaron Bohl did well enough to pick up a promotion. He stepped in as the interim linebackers coach when Willie Mack Garza was fired midway through the season. Thursday, Bohl was named the full-time coach at that position.
3. Who will replace the production from so many graduated stars on the defense?
We didn't know who might step in for departed stars Andrew Wingard, Marcus Epps, Carl Granderson, Kevin Prosser and Youhanna Ghaifan this season.
We got our answer.
Alijah Halliburton, who had been basically waiting in the weeds the past three seasons, registered a team-high 130 tackles from his safety spot. He was named first-team All-Mountain West and Defensive MVP of the Arizona Bowl.
Esaias Gandy, Rome Weber and Kenyon Blankenbaker also proved to be valuable on the back end of the Cowboys defense -- and should only get better.
Not a bad solution.
On the interior line, we know know names like Cole Godbout and Mario Mora. Javaree Jackson had a nice regular season, but was dismissed from the team before the bowl game.
Solomon Byrd did his best Granderson impression this season, leading the team with 6.5 sacks.
4. Are you nervous about the rushing attack this season?
This almost seems laughable now. When I looked at that question, I thought to myself, "did I really ask that?"
I did. And for good reason. Coming into the season there were a ton of unknowns in the Pokes backfield. With so many offseason transfers and youth at that position, all we had to go on was 73 carries from Valladay in a very limited role in 2018.
It took one half of football against Missouri for most to forget about those issues.
The sophomore rushed for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns this season. His 204-yard performance on the ground in Tucson earned him Offensive MVP. The 90 yards receiving and two touchdowns didn't hurt his cause either.
Titus Swen, a true freshman from Texas, also proved to be a serviceable back in limited action this season. He was hurt and lost for the season at San Diego State. Before that leg injury he rushed for 337 yards on just 67 carries. Graduate transfer Trey Smith, who was also lost for the season in week four, amassed 227 yards on 44 carries. Those two combined for four rushing touchdowns.
Coaches expect Smith to return next season. They are confident he will receive a medical redshirt. Wyoming also has youngster Alphonzo Andrews Jr. waiting in the mix. He didn't play this season, but could be a factor in 2020. So could Dawaiian McNeely and incoming freshman, Joey Braasch.
This spot seems to be just fine. Unless there is another mass exodus this offseason, I don't see this question being uttered again anytime soon.
5. Can Sean Chambers handle the pressure of being the face of the program and take the reins of this offense?
This answer is simple -- yes. The difficult question is, can he stay healthy?
For the second straight season, Chambers was lost to a leg injury. His physical style of play and propensity for running has cost him parts of his first two seasons in Laramie.
Can he continue to play this way? That's a big question mark heading into an interesting offseason that just saw Williams enter the mix for the starting spot next fall.
Chambers, who was at the Arizona Bowl, is still on crutches more than two months after sustaining an unspecified leg injury. Will he even be healthy enough to compete in spring practices?
If not, Williams will be taking an awful lot of reps.
There is no question Chambers is a competitor and a winner. He makes big plays, extends drives and is a daunting presence for defenses. Does he need to improve in the passing game? Without a doubt. Can he? We'll see.
This story line will drag on until an opening-day starter is announced. There's certainly nothing wrong with a little friendly competition at the quarterback spot.
It looks like Chambers will have that and more. It's a great problem for Bohl and his staff to have.