LARAMIE -- Entering the 2020 season -- COVID-19 aside -- a few of the larger question marks surrounding the Cowboys roster were finding a few replacements.

Like, who would step in for the program's all-time leading scorer, Cooper Rothe?

How about two-time All-American linebacker, Logan Wilson?

Same can be said for the outside linebacker position and who would fill the shoes of Cassh Maluia?

We now have the answers to those three questions: John Hoyland, Chad Muma and Charles Hicks, respectively.

But what about at the safety spot? Did Wyoming actually have someone on its roster already who could replace Alijah Halliburton and his 130-tackle performance in 2019?

That answer was also, yes.

That man is Esaias Gandy, Halliburton's former back-up. The senior tallied 43 tackles last fall, second to only Muma, who finished with 71. Gandy also registered a sack while proving to be the big hitter and sure tackler out of the Cowboys' secondary.

Gandy could've called it a career after the 2020 campaign. After all, he's been in Laramie since 2017. When the NCAA granted an additional year of eligibility because of the ongoing virus, Gandy said he didn't give it a second thought.

"Honestly, I love Wyoming and I love the team," he said. "And I feel like we can do something special this year, like something we've never done. That's win a Mountain West championship.

"Also, I think it gave me a better chance to accomplish other personal goals like going to the NFL."

Sound crazy? It shouldn't.

Right now Wyoming has three safeties on NFL rosters, including two of Gandy's former teammates, Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps. Former Cowboy Tashaun Gipson is currently a 10-year veteran in the league.

Other former UW safeties like Chris Prosinski, John Wendling, Trent Gamble, John Salley and others, have also made it to the pros.

Halliburton said he wishes he had the frame of Gandy, who stands 6-foot-1 and 198 pounds. Maybe he'd be playing on Sundays right now, too.

 

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Back to Gandy's original reason for coming back to UW for one more year. What gives him the confidence that this team can compete for a league title right now?

He pointed to the energy from both coordinators, Jay Sawvel on the defensive side and newly hired Tim Polasek on the other side of the ball.

That's not all.

"Everybody around me just works," Gandy said. "This is probably one of the hardest working teams we've had since I've been here. That's why I think we can win the Mountain West."

At least some of that motivation comes from a disappointing year that saw the Cowboys finish 2-6 overall, according to Gandy. Wyoming lost the Bronze Boot to rival Colorado State for the first time in five years. They also fell to a lowly New Mexico team that hadn't won a game in nearly two seasons.

An overtime loss to Nevada on the road started the season. A loss to perennial power Boise State inside a snow-covered War Memorial Stadium bookended a mostly forgettable 2020 campaign.

It was also the first season under Sawvel. Gandy said understanding the new defense was like "learning a foreign language." Now, he added, he knows it "like the back of my hand."

"I definitely think last year left a bad taste in everybody's mouth," he said. "Of course, we could blame it on all sorts of things like Covid and stuff, but we knew we could play better. We just took it personal and we've all just been working to see improvements everyday."

Bohl has had the luxury of stellar safety play since he arrived on campus in 2014. Overall, he was impressed with Gandy during last year's abbreviated six-game slate. Are there still things to work on? Sure. But overall, like with Hoyland, Muma and Hicks, there wasn't a major drop off -- if any.

"He really played well during the course of this last fall," Bohl said. "He's an excellent tackler and really finds the football well, very similar to Alijah from that standpoint. We'll need to make sure that he continues to improve his play out in space. You know, he's the safety in there so there's going to be times that we'll need him to cover the two-deep zone. We'll continue to work on that, but he's a smart, insightful and a very instinctive player."

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