LARAMIE – Xazavian Valladay joked that he added an extra 10 pounds to his squats every time he got word that a Wyoming running back left the program this offseason.

That’s a lot of weight.

Reow Jackson, Jevon Bigelow and Theo Dawson all decided to transfer. The Mountain West’s leading rusher in 2018, Nico Evans, walked across the stage with his diploma.

Valladay went from a sophomore who showed speed, elusiveness
and a tendency to make the big play, to the elder statesman in the running back
room.

In fact, he’s the only running back on the roster who even
has a carry in a Wyoming uniform.

“It makes me more hungry but it hurts to see those guys leave,” Valladay said. “We all believe, whomever coach recruits, we will be a special group in the Mountain West. We have to believe we can still make that happen.”

In 2018, the Chicago product amassed 396 yards on 71
carries. That was good enough for an average of 5.6 yards per carry. He also found
the end zone three times.

Valladay’s best game came in the season finale where he rushed for 192 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 31-3 rout of the Lobos.

He did all of that at 185 pounds. Now, he’s tipping the
scales at 196 on his 6-foot frame.

His mission was clear: he wants to be a better all-around
back.

That means catching balls out of the backfield, taking hits, and most importantly, he said, protecting Sean Chambers.

“That’s exactly what’s behind that,” Valladay said of his
offseason workout routine. “I want to be a more complete back. I will try to do
anything just to stay on the field. You never know what will happen.”

That final sentence rang true in 2018.

Against Wofford in week four, Valladay got his first
collegiate start. He took every snap that sun-spanked Saturday afternoon in
Laramie, stepping in for an injured Evans and Bigelow.

His numbers were less than impressive – 15 carried for 57
yards – but if it wasn’t for Valladay, an FCS team would’ve stunned the Cowboys
at home, dropping Wyoming to 1-4 on the season.

Instead, facing a 4th and 4 from the Terriers’ 19-yard line and the Cowboys trailing 14-10 with 32 ticks remaining on the game clock, quarterback Tyler Vander Waal found a wide-open Valladay out of the backfield.

The throw wasn’t exactly on target.

Valladay snagged the ball from his shoestrings before turning up field and being bumped out at the nine-yard line. Two plays later, Vander Waal found Raghib Ismail over the middle for the go-ahead score.

Fast forward seven weeks.

Trailing Air Force 27-21 with under three minutes to play
and facing a 4th and 9 from the Wyoming 43-yard line, Vander Waal
took a high snap and scrambled to his right on the icy, snow-packed turf of
Jonah Field.

No one was open.

Vander Waal avoided a sack, side-stepping a Falcon defender. Ten yards down field, No. 23 (Valladay now wears No. 6) was wide open and waving for the ball. Ge got it – right in the numbers.

Seven plays later, Austin Conway snagged a 22-yard touchdown pass to put the Pokes up 28-27.

Valladay provided the exclamation mark on the biggest comeback win of the season with a 27-yard jaunt to the end zone.

A smile creased the sophomore’s face. He is humble by nature,
but just reliving those memories gets his juices flowing all over again.

“I knew my time would come,” Valladay said. “I just trusted coach (Craig) Bohl and his process. I just waited and watched Kellen (Overstreet) and Nico. I watched them make plays and learned from them. Now, it’s my time to execute and do those same things.”

Valladay has been tabbed the opening day starter by Bohl and Co. Trey Smith, a graduate transfer from Louisville is the No. 2 while up-and-comer Titus Swen, a true freshman and three-star back from Ft. Worth, will also see significant time this season.

Valladay said he has taken the duo, and the other running
backs on the roster, under his wing. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t learning
something new every day, he said.

“We all just share knowledge around the room,” he said.

Valladay said he hopes the other backs take the same mindset
into the season that he did last season.

“I didn’t know if my number would be called,” he said. “I
got thrust right in. Thank God that happened, because it proved that if you’re
third or fourth on depth chart, you have to stay ready.

“You have to practice hard and play fast. It transitions
into the game.”

Wyoming will host Missouri in its home opener Saturday
evening at War Memorial Stadium. Valladay carried the ball five times last
season against the Tigers. He racked up 35 yards and had a team-high 23-yard
run.

Despite the 40-13 loss in Columbia, Valladay said he gained
plenty of confidence in his limited role. He is taking the “they-put-their-pants-on-one-leg-at-a-time”
approach to this meeting.

Is he impressed with the Tigers’ front seven?

Yes.

Is he afraid?

Not a chance.

“I feel good,” he said with a smile. “Coach (Gordie) Haug has a great game plan. All we have to do is go on that field an execute.”

Missouri’s fearsome front doesn’t rattle the sophomore.
Neither does the fact that the Cowboys don’t have one senior on the offensive
line.

He is on the moment. It’s all grins. All positivity.

No one, it seems, is more laidback than Valladay. His last remark
validates why.

“It still hits me to this day. I thank God,” Valladay said. “A
lot of people out there wish they were Division-I players and a starting
running back.

“To be honest, I just said that to myself today.”

There’s that smile again.