LARAMIE -- Easton Gibbs was awarded the starting outside linebacker job Monday.

But for the redshirt freshman, it was hardly a time to celebrate.

Sure, he gained a new spot atop the depth chart -- one he and coaches feel was deserved -- but he lost the company of a close friend in the process.

Charles Hicks, who started five of Wyoming's six games at the WILL spot last fall, announced that afternoon that he was entering the NCAA Transfer Portal. It's unclear if he bolted because he lost the starting job, but regardless, Gibbs said the whole situation has been bittersweet.

"There's a point where it's like, I'm hurting because he's such a good friend," Gibbs said. "We've been through so much together, just working hard and just that respect ... It's tough just trying to balance out being happy and also seeing a true friend impacted like that."

After the news broke of Hicks departure, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl didn't address the situation directly, saying only that the coaching staff evaluated everything.

"We feel really good about how he's playing. So, I'm excited about Easton," he said. "... We're going to play the best guy."

That guy is Gibbs.

And it's no accident.

Though he started just one game in 2020 -- the season finale against Boise State -- the Temecula, Calif., product registered 42 tackles, which was good enough for third on the team behind only safety Esaias Gandy (43) and fellow linebacker Chad Muma (71). Thirteen of those stops came in that lone start against the Broncos, a team he grew up rooting for and the college his mother, Jennifer Gibbs, graduated from.

The blinding snowstorm didn't slow him down that day. Neither did one of the top offensive teams in the country. There were no deer-in-the-headlights moments, either.

"No, honestly it was surprising for a guy in his first start, in that atmosphere. He really embraced it," UW linebackers coach Aaron Bohl said. "I don't expect anything less this year."

Bohl said even he was stunned when he saw Gibbs' name so high on the season-tackle sheet, adding he only played roughly 30% of the Cowboys' snaps on defense.

"I was like, 'holy crap, this guy is productive,'" he said with a grin.

What eventually vaulted Gibbs into the starting role?

Speed.

Football IQ.

Toughness.

Character.

Craig Bohl said during the spring, despite battling a nagging hip injury, Gibbs simply kept plugging away. He wasn't at full speed, but that didn't stop him from competing.

"A lot of guys would find their way to get off the field and he's found his way to stay on the field," UW's head coach said last April.

That sore joint had more to do with his recent promotion than just showing off his dedication, too. When Gibbs couldn't utilize his quickness, instead he relied on film work, studying and things he learned from guys before him like Logan Wilson, Cassh Maluia, and yes, even Hicks.

Ultimately, he trusted his techniques.

"It sounds kind of crazy, but a lot of times I just get going too fast, overlooking keys and stuff like that," Gibbs said. "Having the hip injury definitely did slow me down quite a bit, but it actually kind of helped me in a sense, being in the right spot and not over running things."

 

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When Gibbs trotted onto that snow-covered field for his first start last December in Laramie, He weighed in at around 200 pounds. Since, he's added 28 more to his 6-foot-2 frame.

When Gibbs was told Monday he was officially the starter, instead of enjoying the moment, he had a question for his coaches: could he still play on the Cowboys' special teams units?

Gibbs smiled, shrugged.

"Anytime I can be on the field and help this team that's what I want to do," he said. "I loved playing on special teams last year. It's something I took pride in."

Gibbs won't be running down kickoffs anytime soon. He has a new fulltime job.

So does Hicks.

Thursday night he announced on Twitter that he was signing with the Missouri Tigers. On the day Hicks hit the open market though, Gibbs said he received a text message from his friend.

"Overall, it's just the respect we have for each other," Gibbs said. "I mean, it means a lot that we both stay connected in that way. We're both happy for each other, for sure. We're both ready to go, move on and get stuff rolling."

Just The Facts: Size Doesn't Matter For Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium

Did you know it would take the populations of Gillette (32,857), Laramie (32,381), Rock Springs (23,319), Sheridan (17,844) and Wright (1,200) to create a sellout inside Michigan's famed 107,601-seat Big House, the largest college football stadium in the nation?

For those of you not familiar with the Cowboy State, those are Wyoming's third through sixth most inhabited cities, along with the small mining town in Campbell County.

- Just The Facts: Size Doesn't Matter For Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium