Halliburton lends thoughts on Pokes’ newest safety duo
LARAMIE -- Alijah Halliburton headed for the bench.
It wasn't for a breather or a disciplinary reason, just the normal rotation implemented by then-defensive coordinator, Jake Dickert.
Missouri scored touchdowns on its first two possessions that warm August evening inside War Memorial Stadium. The Tigers' new star quarterback, Kelly Bryant, completed six of his first eight passes for 83 yards and a score. The Cowboys' defense was being dissected early.
It all changed on one play.
The one Halliburton was on the sideline for:
Esaias Gandy was credited with the forced fumble when his violent form tackle of Bryant was complete. CJ Coldon rumbled 30 yards to give Wyoming its first touchdown of the night.
The home team would reel off 20 more points during that second quarter en route to the 37-31 opening-night upset.
"That was the first play he got in," Halliburton joked Sunday night, speaking of Gandy. "I was sitting there like, 'wow, that could've been me.' I thought, 'man, you're lucky.'
"It's crazy. I was still hyped. That really sparked everything."
When the dust settled, Wyoming's strong safety made plenty of noise himself. Halliburton earned National Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 17-tackle performance in the victory. He also picked up a Missouri fumble late in the second quarter and returned it 79 yards:
Halliburton took some razzing from teammates for not being able to outrace Mizzou's signal caller. After all, he said, that play came at the end of a long drive. Plus, Halliburton said Bryant might be the fastest quarterback he's ever seen.
A late juke did force Bryant to horse collar Halliburton, which set up and untimed 23-yard field goal from Cooper Rothe.
Back to the earlier fumble. The Gandy one. Halliburton said that could serve as a preview of what his understudy could bring to the table in 2020.
"Gandy is definitely a very productive tackler," Halliburton said. "Seeing him in scrimmages, practices and games, I would say he has a lot of qualities like myself. I feel like he is a true strong safety."
Gandy, who is now a senior, tallied 25 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a pair of pass breakups in a limited role last fall.
Halliburton, who said he weighed just 185 during the season, said Gandy already had "15 or 20 pounds on him."
Physically, Gandy is made for the position, according to Halliburton. But it might just be the mental aspect of the game that leads to new heights for the fellow Aurora, Colo., product.
"I definitely see a lot of hard work and effort," he said of Gandy. "For a young guy, sometimes you don't really see them watching film on their own. I feel like he did that. He took the time outside of practice and on off days put in extra work. I definitely saw that in him."
That work ethic, Gandy said, was instilled in him by guys like Halliburton. As a sophomore, Gandy also had a front-row seat for the weekly show Andrew Wingard and Marcus Epps would put on.
"Just seeing how they practiced and how they prepared everyday -- I just try to take the things they did and I try to do the same things," Gandy said Friday night over a Zoom call. "I know that preparation prevents poor performance, and I try to prepare like everyday is game day."
And don't think for a second Gandy doesn't know about other safeties who have come before him. Not just players -- NFL players.
Tashaun Gipson, John Wendling, Chris Prosinski, Epps and Wingard were all once Cowboy safeties.
"It’s cool. It’s nice to know that there have been a lot of guys make it from my position," Gandy said. "I have a lot of leaders to look up to. I know I have big shoes to fill, and I’m just ready to go out there and show everybody what I can do."
Like Halliburton, Gandy had to wait for his time.
Both were patient.
"I would tell him to stay the course," Halliburton said. "Leave it all out there, which is really what I did. It brought me great success. He needs to worry about the moment, not the future and what it holds. Focus on what you're doing then and there."
Gandy isn't the only new player on the backend of the Cowboys' defense. Senior Braden Smith will take over at the free safety spot in place of Rome Weber, who decided to opt out of the season because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Smith and Weber battled all throughout fall camp a season ago. In the end, Weber got the nod. Smith still played a big part in a Wyoming run defense that was one of the best in the nation.
The Lakewood, Colo., native played in all 13 games, posting 11 tackles and hauling in an interception in a Week 2 win at Texas State.
"I’m really looking forward to seeing Braden (Smith) play this season," Bohl said. "Braden is a guy who has played a lot of football for us. He believes in the Brown and Gold. We appreciate him and his effort. He’s got a new coach in (defensive coordinator) Jay Sawvel, who’s done a good job with him. It will be fun to see him play. He will be playing a lot.
"We like his skill set and what he’s doing."
Halliburton said speed sets Smith apart at the safety spot. Hesitating, however, is something the former UW standout said Smith needs to improve on.
"He can really fly to the ball," Halliburton said. "I think, for him, is making sure he limits mental mistakes. He needs to make sure to study film and get in the playbook ... He's really talented. Man is like really, really fast. Out of all the safeties last year, he's the fastest.
"If he mentally puts everything on the table he can achieve everything he wishes to."
Gandy said the Pokes' newest safety tandem has made plenty of progress during camp. They are just ready to get on the field and prove it.
"Me and Braden have good communication," Gandy said. "We get better and better everyday. We feed off each other’s energy. We’re ready to perform on Saturdays."
Halliburton will be just a football fan this fall for the first time since he can remember. He plans on watching his former team take on the Wolf Pack Saturday night from the comfort of his couch.
He knows one thing, he will see "Cowboy tough" football.
"I'm psyched for them. I'm excited to see what they can really do," Halliburton said, adding that he's heard the defensive scheme hasn't changed too much. "It will be interesting to see how mentally focused they can be to get through these trials and tribulations.
"I'm excited for them and have all the faith in the world for them."