Breaking down the ‘Boys: Running backs
LARAMIE -- The early offseason around here has been, shall we say, eventful, for Craig Bohl and his Wyoming football program.
First, there was the 52-38 victory over Kent State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Less than 24 hours later, the floodgates opened, spilling the first of 10 players -- seven of which still have multiple years of eligibility -- into the already overflowing NCAA Transfer Portal.
Has that caused a bit of worry among the faithful? You bet.
In what was billed as a year with championship aspirations, Wyoming won just six games in the regular season after starting the year 4-0. Underperformance, along with the exit of so many critical pieces to this roster, will do that to a fanbase.
We're not sure if the dust is completely settled from a wild first two weeks of the offseason, but here's a position-by-position breakdown and analysis of who we think will suit up for the Cowboys when the 2022 season opens next August in Champaign, Ill.
We've already looked at the quarterbacks and wide receivers. Today, it's all about the running backs.
Who are they:
Titus Swen (Jr. 5-11, 202, Fort Worth, Texas), Jeremy Hollingsworth (Soph. 5-9, 205, Longmont, Colo.), Joseph Braasch (R-Fr. 6-1, 210, Columbus, Neb.), Alphonzo Andrews Jr. (Soph. 5-10, 185, St. Louis, Mo.), DQ James (Fr. 5-7, 180, Lancaster, Texas), Jordon Vaughn (Fr. 6-2, 220, Manvel, Texas), Dawaiian McNeely (Soph. 6-2, 190, Ceres, Calif.), LJ Richardson (Fr. 6-1, 205, Bellevue, Neb.)
How they fared in 2021:
After amassing 1,070 yards on the ground last fall, Xazavian Valladay became the second-leading rusher in Wyoming history, surpassing names like Wynel Seldon, Ryan Christopherson, Devon Moore and others.
Valladay wrapped up his career in Laramie with 3,274 rushing yards, just 1,013 behind Brian Hill (4,287).
The Illinois product averaged more than five yards per carry and scored six touchdowns out of the Cowboys backfield. Valladay's best outing came in a week 8 meeting with San Jose State when he rushed for 172 yards on 22 carries. He eclipsed the 100-yard mark four times.
MORE UW RUNNING BACKS NEWS:
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* Senseless tragedy, doubters fuel DQ James
* Xazavian Valladay latest to enter NCAA Transfer Portal
* Yep, the Pokes have another beast in the backfield
Sharing the load, Titus Swen gave the Pokes a potent 1-2 punch in Bohl's trademark power running game.
Swen, who opted out of the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, averaged nearly six yards per carry and rolled up 785 rushing yards. He also found the end zone seven times, most of any UW back.
Dawaiian McNeely also provided a spark for the Pokes, rolling up 113 yards on just 17 carries. He also scored a touchdown from 18 yards out in a blowout win over Ball State.
Trey Smith, a graduate transfer from Louisville, was a feature back in 2020, rushing for 488 yards and five touchdowns. Last fall, he finished with just nine carries during the regular season. Smith finally got some touches late in the Cowboys bowl victory, gashing the Golden Flashes for a 49-yard score late in the fourth quarter.
Jeremy Hollingsworth is the only other UW running back to get a carry last season.
Wyoming boasted the 20th-ranked rushing attack in the nation, averaging 211.7 yards per game.
No surprise here, Wyoming again featured one of the best rushing outfits in the country. That should happen when you finish with 543 attempts and have a veteran offensive line that came into the season with 145 combined starts.
Was the rushing attack solid? Yes.
Could it have been even better? Also, yes.
Inconsistencies along the offense front, along with a predictable weekly game plan, Wyoming's running game grinded to a halt during the first three outings of a four-game slide to begin conference play.
How bad was it?
In losses to Air Force, Fresno State and New Mexico, the Cowboys averaged just 116 rushing yards and 3.7 yards per carry. Despite that lack of success, the rushing attempts increased from 17 in Colorado Springs to 36 in that unforgettable home loss to lowly New Mexico.
When Wyoming can't run the football, those things will happen. Even losing to the Lobos.
Valladay is now in the NCAA Transfer Portal as a graduate transfer and Smith has exhausted his eligibility. Still, this unit should be the Cowboys strength going forward.
Why the confidence? Two words: Titus Swen.
The 5-foot-11, 202-pound bowling ball said he will return to Laramie in 2022. That's a good thing. Not only does the Texan have unbelievable power, he can flat out fly. We saw that during his record-breaking 98-yard touchdown jaunt in Logan, Utah. When the junior finds a crease, he's gone. When he doesn't, pity the poor soul who gets in his way.
Swen will be the Cowboys featured back. That's plenty of reason for excitement.
Here's some more.
McNeely appears to have the goods. He is young and fast. Once he lowers his pad level, the California kid could really do some damage between the tackles.
For those who don't know, the media doesn't get to watch practice. So, we've seen as much as you have when it comes to the youth in the Pokes backfield. We have to rely on tape, interviews and word of mouth.
Word on the street is freshman DQ James is the fastest back on this roster. He stands just 5-foot-7 but is stout and can break ankles. I can already imagine him hiding behind the line before bursting into the open.
I've also been told Jordon Vaughn, all 6-foot-2, 220 pounds of him, can be a real steal out of the Greater Houston Area. His high school film is impressive. A year in the weight room can't hurt, either.
Also keep an eye on incoming freshman LJ Richardson. He was courted by Nebraska and Iowa State, among other schools. It's not surprising. The Omaha-area product rushed for 2,180 yards and 36 touchdowns last fall at Bellevue West. Richardson averaged an eye-popping 9.2 yards per carry.
Wyoming, once again, will pound the football between the tackles in 2022. We've seen this movie for eight straight seasons. Don't expect a big change in that department.
However, running the ball might be a necessity more than anything next fall with no proven quarterbacks on the roster and a youthful receiving corps.
There's another looming question: Who's going to block for those guys?
Alonzo Velazquez and Logan Harris graduated. Rudy Stofer hung up his cleats and Keegan Cryder is hoping to hear his name called in the NFL Draft. Eric Abojei could return, but has not yet publicly announced his intentions.
Can Wyoming's offense strike a balance between the pass and run or will defenses, as always, load the box and sellout?
There's no qualms about the talent in the running back room, but plenty of additional factors lead to sustained success on the ground. We'll see how that all shakes out as we move deeper into the offseason.
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