Linebacker spot has developed into strength for Pokes’ defense
LARAMIE -- What a difference a year makes.
Last fall, one of the questions entering the 2020 Wyoming Football season was who would fill the shoes of linebackers Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia. The duo had held starting spots in the Wyoming linebacking corps for four years and were each selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.
The Cowboys entered the 2020 season with one experienced linebacker returning in Chad Muma. He had been the third linebacker for two seasons, rotating in the lineup at both the middle linebacker (MIKE) position, backing up Wilson, and at the weak-side (WILL) spot, with Maluia.
Muma did start two games as a sophomore in 2019, and recorded 51 tackles, ranking sixth on the team. But beyond Muma, the experience was limited.
Chuck Hicks appeared in all 13 games for the Pokes in 2019 as a redshirt freshman, playing primarily on special teams and saw limited reps on defense. Redshirt freshman Easton Gibbs had appeared in only one game as a true freshman in 2019.
But as the 2020 season progressed, the three linebackers quickly grew into a talented trio who helped fuel a very productive defense.
“With what we do, by having another year under their belt that knowledge and experience they gained is really important,” UW head coach Craig Bohl said. "I think they all have the ability to see and diagnose things well. They also have the ability to drop into coverage and also be good blitzers.”
“Those three really rose to the occasion last year,” UW linebackers coach Aaron Bohl said. “We had a feeling that Chad was going to be a really good player based on how he had played for us the past couple of seasons. We didn’t necessarily know he was going to be as good as he was but he had a big year, and so we’re excited to see how he will continue to grow.
“Chuck and Easton did a fantastic job last year playing at a high level in spite of having as little experience as they had going into the season. They were great at taking extra time to watch tape and were excited to get in as many reps as they could to grow and improve. They both care a lot and work really hard, so we’re excited to see all three of those guys continue to get better.”
Muma broke out as one of the best linebackers in the Mountain West and in the nation in 2020.
He ended the season with a team high 72 tackles and averaged 11.8 tackles per game in six games to rank No. 1 in the Mountain West and No. 3 in the nation. Muma also led Wyoming in both sacks (3.0) and tackles for loss (8.0) on way to being named First Team All-Mountain West Conference.
Prior to the 2021 season, he has been named to both the Butkus Award Watch List (Best Collegiate Linebacker) and the Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List (College Defensive Player of the Year).
“Seeing how much leadership Chad provided last year was probably the least surprising part of his development,” Aaron Bohl said. “He embraced being a leader and he loves being the MIKE linebacker. Chad is a guy who likes to know everything going on in our defense. He loves to run the show for our defense and he loves the task of getting everyone aligned properly.”
The added plus for Muma in the 2020 season was for the first time in his career he was able to focus on one position -- middle linebacker. With Wilson moving on to the NFL, the MIKE linebacker spot was now Muma’s full-time spot, and he made the most of the opportunity.
“It was definitely nice last year to concentrate on one position,” said Muma. “The previous years when I was rotating between the middle and the weak-side I had to split my pre-game preparation between both positions and in the games I had to make sure I was focused on completing my assignments for whatever position I was playing in a particular series. Last year, it also allowed me to have a little better focus when I was watching film on opponents to just concentrate on what my keys were going to be at the MIKE position. It was definitely nice to have those two guys (Hicks and Gibbs) by my side, knowing they would handle the WILL spot.”
As Muma prepares for the upcoming season, there are things he feels he does well, but there are other areas where he is striving to improve.
“I think one of my strengths is being a leader out on the field and off the field,” said Muma. “That is one thing that guys look for in a MIKE linebacker -- being a leader of the defense, getting guys lined up and getting them going and ready to play.
“Last year, I didn’t have a lot of takeaways, so that is an area I’ve been working on. Also refining my skills in pass coverage, both in my drops in zone defense and my technique in man coverage. Getting off blocks better is something else I continue to work on. After putting on some weight this season, I’m working on driving through guys on tackles better.”
For Hicks, the 2020 season saw him emerge as that second starter, taking over Maluia’s previous role on the weak-side.
He started the first five games of the season before missing the sixth and final game due to injury. Over that five-game span, Hicks was credited with 27 tackles, 2.0 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. But it was as a big-play defender where he really shined. Hicks led the Cowboy defense in takeaways with three, two fumble recoveries and one interception. His interception came on a 47-yard interception return against Hawai’i that set up a Cowboy touchdown on way to a 31-7 victory.
At this point in his career, Hick is probably most comfortable playing close to the line of scrimmage, in the box, and his position coach Aaron Bohl agrees with that assessment.
“Chuck really has a great feel in the box,” said Aaron Bohl. “He has a great ability to find his way through all the trash and make a play. He has also done a fantastic job since he got here in learning the playbook, which is complicated in our system. Chuck, especially as a young guy, kept hammering away at learning. He didn’t wait until it was his time to play, he started learning it way before it was his time to get on the field. He’s understanding schemes a lot better and his ability to track a ball during action is great.”
Like his linebackers coach, Aaron Bohl, Hicks also believes his ability to learn is a strength of his.
“I feel like when it comes to learning new things quickly, that is one of my biggest strengths,” Hicks said. "Coach only has to tell me once and then I’ll fix it the next time. I think that also enables me to play fast on the field, having that confidence of knowing where I’m supposed to be in our defense in different situations.
“I want to continue to improve reading plays, being able to see plays before they happen. A lot of what we key off of are reading different offensive formations. Being able to do that helps us to anticipate plays, and helps us react faster and play faster.”
Gibbs had an excellent redshirt freshman season.
He finished the season third on the team in tackles, with 42. His speed allowed him to make plays sideline to sideline. Gibbs saved his best game of the 2020 season for the final game against Boise State where he made a career high 13 tackles. His other double-figure tackle game of the season was a 10-tackle performance against New Mexico.
The former high school linebacker, quarterback and safety brings an athleticism that also allows him to be very effective in pass coverage.
“It was huge to get those six games in last year,” Gibbs said. “And now it’s great to get those games back. Who would have known that we would basically get a free six games. Getting all those reps on the field last year, you can’t replace that kind of experience. I think it not only benefitted younger players like me but it benefitted our entire defense, and it helped us develop more depth on our team. Those six games also helped the three of us linebackers develop a really good feel together.”
Asked how he benefitted from seeing Wilson and Maluia play his freshman season, Gibbs said, “It was great to see not only what they did on the field but watching how they prepared in practice, seeing how they carried themselves when we went on the road. I just tried to take all of that in and I try to replicate how they handled all those things. It is irreplaceable to have guys like that to learn from.”
In terms of what Gibbs feels he does well at this stage of his career versus some of the things he needs to improve upon, he said, “One of my strengths is definitely running -- I pride myself on getting to the ball. Hustling and pursuit are probably my strengths. I think my feel in the box has gotten a lot better from when I first got here. It’s been nice to feel a lot more comfortable in defending the run game.
“I need to continue to get better in the box. You can always learn and get better. n the pass game, I need to improve at reading things quicker, and then overall just get better at studying film so I can pick up on keys faster.”
“Easton does a great job in space,” Aaron Bohl said. “He runs really well. He’s a really athletic guy. Easton and Chuck really complement each other well.
“This year it will be fun to see them keep competing and keep growing. The best thing about their competition with each other is maybe some things that Chuck isn’t as efficient at as Easton -- like playing in space -- Chuck has worked to get better at. And Easton has gotten better in the box. They are both pushing each other to get better.”
“Last year, seeing how Chuck and Easton were able to play and compete with one another was exciting,” Muma said. “They’ve developed so much. We are all much more comfortable playing with each other now after getting those six games in last year. Both of them are very capable play-makers.”
“I feel like all of us stepped up last season, and I think we’ll just get better each year,” Hicks said. “I was nervous to start last season, moving into a starting role. I’m definitely more comfortable now than I was last year at this time. Having played a few games with each other now, It’s very easy to roll now. We know each other a lot better, and we communicate a lot better.”
* University of Wyoming press release