How good can Wyoming’s offensive line be?
LARAMIE -- Serving as the offensive line coach at the University of Iowa might be compared with being a running backs coach at Alabama, a quarterbacks coach at USC or a linebackers coach at Penn State.
It's viewed as prestigious.
Craig Bohl admitted that the day he hired the Cowboys new offensive coordinator, Tim Polasek, who coached the front five in Iowa City from 2017-20. Making that even more impressive, Polasek had never coached the line before Kirk Ferentz gave him that opportunity.
The Hawkeyes currently have 37 players littering rosters throughout the NFL. Nine of those guys, including 13th overall pick in 2020, Tristan Wirfs, is a former Iowa lineman. Last fall, Polasek's unit was partly responsible for the Hawkeyes ranking No. 1 in red-zone offense (0.917), second in scoring (31.8 ppg) and third in the Big Ten Conference in fewest tackles for loss allowed with 5.1 per outing.
Polasek's center and tackle, Tyler Linderbaum and Alaric Jackson, respectively, earned First Team All-Conference and All-American honors. Cole Banwart was named to the second team.
Three of Iowa's front five are considered the best in the country.
So, now the big question is, what does he think about the new line he inherited in Laramie? Any similarities? Any red flags? Can they reach Iowa-type heights?
"We're still different than we were in Iowa," Polasek said. "From the standpoint, we weren't as heavy at Iowa as we are here. Or you know, as big even in some areas with the height. you know, we were much more built around just inside and outside zone at Iowa. Those kids can really run. I think we're playing faster and, I think we're using our hands better in pass protection. I can comment on those two things from a technical aspect and that makes me extremely happy."
Of course, Polasek's new gig involves the entire offense now, specifically calling plays and serving as the quarterbacks coach. Derek Frazier is Wyoming's new offensive line coach. He spent the previous two seasons in the same position with the New York Jets.
Through three weeks of spring practice, key words have surrounded both new coaches -- "intense," "energy" and "fun" -- to name a few.
Super senior Logan Harris, who decided to return to Laramie thanks to an NCAA ruling that allowed every player an extra year of eligibility, said the changes when it comes to Polasek running the offense are drastically different than in years past.
"I think there's a big change in energy throughout the practices," Harris said. "I know talking to a lot of guys on the offensive side of the ball, this is the most fun that they've had practicing. Everybody knows that 24-period practices during spring ball can get pretty grueling, so I think he definitely brings a really good energy and he's always there to correct you. If you mess up he's going to correct you, he's not going to MF you or anything. He just has a good energy and he's a pickup guy not a putdown guy."
"He's awesome," the Cowboys' right guard said. "I think it's kind of a blessing and a curse that we've had this many switch ups at the offensive line, but everything is able to carry over. Some coaches are more technicians and the other guys are get the guy moving out of the way and play hard. Being able to cross all these things over has definitely helped when you can combine the technique with the drive and the playing style ... it makes you the best that you can be."
Harris said Frazier fits right in the middle of technical and tough.
"He's really good with technique. He's smart," Harris continued. "He's seen some of the best alignment in the nation. He was at the Jets previous to this and he sees what it takes to get to that level and what works best, because at that level, it's not easy. If we can combine those things here at this level, there's nothing we can't do."
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Wyoming's offensive line could be the strength of this team once again in 2021. They return nearly intact from not just last fall, but the one previous to that. In both of those seasons, Xazavian Valladay was the leading rusher in the Mountain West Conference. Only Air Force featured a better rushing attack than the Cowboys.
Bohl said this group has been rotating all spring.
That should also be a strength.
When the Cowboys hosted Boise State for the season finale last December in Laramie, the line went like this from left to right: Latrell Bible, Eric Abojei, Keegan Cryder, Harris and Frank Crum.
Those guys are all back. So is Rudy Stofer, Blayne Baker, Marco Machado, Zach Watts, Mason Schultz and Nofoafia Tulafono. Alonzo Velazquez, another super senior like Harris, will also return after missing all of 2020 with an injury. Every one of those guys has playing experience. In fact, There are more than 145 combined starts on the Cowboys' line.
There are more youngsters coming down the pike, too.
"Tell you what, you don't get much better than that," Frazier said of Wyoming's offensive line depth at his introductory press conference in early March. "We have that type of experience, and with the depth of the of that unit, I have to do a good job and make sure they do the right thing and not screw them up."
So far, so good.
"(Frazier) has came in and brought something to our unit," Abojei said. "I really want to say that's like, high -- very high -- energy ... He has helped us become leaders on the field, too. A lot of things have changed, but he's told us even though things are changing, he's going to make sure that we're put in the right position to make sure that we're always dominating and that I make the right plays."
The old O-line coach in Polasek comes through during practice. He can't help it. He likes what he sees so far.
He's liked the leadership of former All-American and First-Team All-MWC center Cryder. He mentioned Abojei's physical transformation, dropping 55 pounds in the offseason. He likes what he sees from Crum and Velazquez and added that Stofer might be playing his best football ever right now. Bible, who played the tackle position last fall, has moved to the guard spot.
For one, it's his natural position, according to Bohl. Secondly, there's that "D-word" again -- depth.
The reality for this group is this: We know they can run block. They've proven that basically since Bohl strolled onto campus back in 2014.
Can they protect the passer?
Wyoming gave up 16 sacks in just six games in 2020. They also allowed more than six tackles for loss per outing. The Cowboys' passing game was among the nation's worst. Levi Williams tossed just one touchdown pass, while UW's aerial attack managed just 153.3 yards per game. That was 113th in the country out of 127 teams.
"Any O-line coach wants to see guys do well," Polasek said. "Play fast with the first two steps and get their pads on people and finish with their legs. Then use their hands in pass protection. I'm seeing guys really fast get better with that, creating separation away from the linemen rather than carrying them on the chest. That's been good."
There's also an X-factor this year, if you will.
These guys are not pleased with their performance last fall.
"We always have something to prove," Abojei said. "Every season that we walk into, we try to make sure that we we expand our our goals and our standards. (2020) put a chip on his shoulder ... that's made the stakes high. We want to be able to improve in all those areas.
"... I believe that after last season, we're definitely working on something."