LARAMIE -- He can't deny it, the thought of opting out of the 2020 season crossed his mind.

Not much was known about COVID-19 at the time, only that it could be fatal.

That was enough to make Jaylen Pate pause.

"When it first came out, it sounded pretty scary," the freshman defensive end said, adding that he contracted the virus. "I was hearing about people having long-term heart issues and stuff. So, first of all, I thought, 'is it really worth it?' I still have years ahead of me and with football. Do I want to try and play this season and screw up the rest of my career?"

The possibilities, in the end, outweighed the potential threat, Pate said.

He didn't play a single snap in 2019. Admittedly, Pate struggled in practice and adapting to Laramie, a far cry from his hometown of Chicago.

Before the season, he saw fellow defensive ends Solomon Byrd and Devon Wells-Ross decided to sit out the 2020 campaign. Victor Jones was also moved to the interior of the line, and Teagan Liufau was injured in Week 3. Garrett Crall, a team captain, was not recovering from a foot injury as fast as he'd hoped.

For Pate, this was a legitimate chance to finally get on the field.

He didn't disappoint.

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound former two-star recruit racked up seven tackles and a sack in four games last fall. He helped a shorthanded Cowboy defense hold opponents to just 125.3 rushing yards per game. That was good enough for 21st in the nation. Wyoming's defense also ranked No. 29 against the pass and tallied 17 sacks in just six contests.

"I couldn't replace that experience," Pate said. "It's true -- and I'm really glad I did it."

It wasn't always smooth sailing for Pate. Especially the first time he trotted on the field in the opener against Nevada.

"I got knocked my butt a couple of times," he said with a smile. "... I think kind of just adjusting to like that actual game pace and stuff like that, I had a few moments where I definitely got knocked on my butt. I think I almost hyped myself up too much."

Things started to slow down when the Cowboys traveled to UNLV in Week 4. Pate finished with four tackles that day inside Allegiant Stadium. His quarterback takedown came on an all-out effort play with just 42 ticks left in the third quarter of a 45-14 blowout victory.

Pate bum rushed the Rebels' left tackle four yards into the back field. UNLV quarterback Doug Brumfield stepped up into the pocket and maneuvered toward the sideline.

Pate never stopped coming.

Big No. 91 in white jumped on Brumfield's back, driving him into the turf for the two-yard loss.

"Having him on the field was a big help," Pate said of the season debut of Crall that late November day in Sin City. "UNLV focused on him and that open things up for me. It paid off in a big way."

 

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Crall said he and Pate have a unique relationship. When he arrived on campus as a skinny walk-on in 2016, Crall walked into a defensive end group that included veterans like Carl Granderson, Josiah Hall and Kevin Prosser. Those guys held him accountable.

Crall, now a super senior, is carrying on that tradition.

"I probably get in his head sometimes and make sure he's on it just because he and I are good buddies," Crall said with a grin. "... So, when he messes up, he knows I'm going to be on him. It's motivational."

"He would definitely get on me when I first came here," Pate said. "Not just on the field, but it might be things like being on time and different things like that.

"... If I mess up, he'll definitely let me know. I know Garrett means well and I never take it the wrong way."

Marty English coached the ends last season in his return to Laramie.

He saw his room go from one filled with seasoned veterans to a skeleton crew of guys who had never played in a college football game before like freshmen DeVonne Harris, Cameron Smith and Pate.

Though the record wasn't pretty and the 2020 season was all but forgettable for so many reasons, English's group may have benefitted most from the game experience.

"To watch them perform the way they did throughout the year and continue to get better, just gives us a lot of hope for this year," English said. "The depth is phenomenal right now."

Crall is back. So is Byrd, Jones and Liufau. Those guys have combined for a total of 25 quarterback sacks.

All that returning talent is great for the program, but what does that mean for Pate?

He calls himself a "hybrid."

"I played a lot of three-technique during spring because we had bad depth," he said of lining up at defensive tackle. "I had my time there but I never really let that bother me. I just stay focused on each day, coming in and doing what I need to do to help the team, obviously. I know if I do that and then things will take care of themselves."

Pate said it doesn't matter where the coaches put him in. His goal is set on one thing.

"Whatever helps us win, that's what I want to do."

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