Q&A With Wyoming Defensive Coordinator Jay Sawvel
LARAMIE -- Jay Sawvel simply smiled and shook his head when asked about the first time he popped on film of the Cowboys' first opponent, Texas Tech.
"It was like in February," Wyoming's third-year defensive coordinator said. "Then I was like, why the hell did I start watching this? I've got plenty of time before I have to start watching this."
What did that tape reveal?
What we already knew.
The Red Raiders possess a potent, fast-paced offense, which averaged 461.4 yards per game in 2022. Joey McGuire's squad also scored more than 34 points per game. Five times they eclipsed the 40-point mark, including a 63-point outburst in last season's opener.
"They're really, really good," Sawvel said. "They're extremely well-coached. I think at all the positions across the board, offensively, they have everybody back. So this isn't where you're getting some offense that lost half their guys or their quarterback hasn't played or is new or something. They've got a really good running back and they've got receivers -- multiple receivers -- that can catch it and run with it after the catch.
"Then I think the tempo that they go at is the thing that makes them the maybe the most challenging offense we'll see all year."
Could this be one of the best defenses the Red Raiders see this fall?
Wyoming returns 10 starters from a season ago, including preseason Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, Easton Gibbs. The junior from Temecula, Calif., tallied a team-high 121 tackles in '22. He tacked on three sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
Cole Godbout and Jordan Bertagnole anchor a defensive front that could be one of the best in the country. DeVonne Harris tallied a team-best 8.5 sacks last fall and Sabastian Harsh will make his much-anticipated return to the field after suffering a season-ending knee injury.
The lone "newbie" on this defense is Kolbey Taylor.
The 6-foot-4 cornerback did appear in eight games last season in a reserve role. The sophomore started the final two, but was ejected just minutes into the Arizona Bowl for a helmet-to-helmet hit.
Jakorey Hawkins will again be a starting corner opposite Taylor.
The Cowboys also welcome back both starting safeties -- Wyett Ekeler and Isaac White -- along with nickelback Wrook Brown. Shae Suiaunoa, the team's second-leading tackler last season with 73, will remain the weakside linebacker.
We sat down with Sawvel Monday afternoon to discuss this talent group and what his thoughts are as Texas Tech awaits in just 10 days:
Q: Do you like the hype that's surrounding this defense? I mean, the fans are talking about them, the media is talking about them, the accolades are rolling in. Everybody's talking about how good this group can be. Do you like that?
A: I don't have a problem with it one way or the other? Because I really don't listen to it.
Q: Do they?
A: So long as they listen to me, they hear the truth on it. We have the capability of being good. We were average to upper average last year. We weren't good last year. We had stretches of good and we had stretches where we weren't good. We weren't consistent enough. We didn't tackle well enough and weren't physical enough all the time at the point of contact. We could have handled a few situations a little bit better. We have all the people back, right, so that gives you optimism. And there is reason for optimism. I think we're going to be better, at really all the positions, than what we were a year ago. In order to kind of be what everybody hopes that we can be -- you know, a really good defense -- that's an everyday thing. That's not, we think we can flip a switch. We have to play as a collective. We've got good players and we've got solid talent, but we don't have one or two bell cows that just show up and run around the edge and sack everybody or blows every play up inside. You know, we don't have that, so we have to play as a collective. That's good and that's the way you want it, but by the same token, that's the challenge, because it's an everyday thing. I think we can be good. We talked about that. We've got to go out and prove it and play it. I'm excited for it. I'm excited for the group. So, we'll see what happens.
Q: You have to be sick to your stomach that Buck Coors, once again, is injured and had to have surgery. Bohl said it could take a month or so to get him back. That had to be a real punch in the gut. I know you really like him.
A: Yeah, it was hard. No. 1, he's a good player who played two positions for us. So, it hurts us depth-wise because he would've been the first guy at nickel and he'd be the first guy on the field at safety. So, it hurts from a football standpoint. I mean, as a guy that coaches him directly day in and day out, it hurts because you love the kid. I don't know that it's exactly the same, but it's not far off like when you see one of your own kids get injured or fall short of what their hope or expectation was. It still stings you the same way. So, yeah, I'm disappointed in that. But he'll be back.
Q: You have a lot of young safeties. I see TJ Urban has made his way onto the depth chart. Do you need more than three?
A: TJ has played really well. He's the most improved player, defensively, that we have from the spring until now. In spring, he wasn't very good. Let's just say it that way. Now, you started to see it coming maybe a week and a half ago where all of a sudden, hey, that kind of looks better. Then, it just kept getting better. Then this past week, you know, he made plays like he belonged. Saturday he had a really good scrimmage. Now it's also manifested itself, right? Like, this past spring, I think he was still lacking confidence in his leg fully along with learning a position that he never really played. He had a really good summer. His speed numbers are good and all the physical stuff. Now, he's got confidence in the legs and now he can just focus on improving as a football player.
Q: I assume you're very comfortable with the two starting safeties Wyett Ekeler and Isaac White?
A: They're doing well. I think they both had great summers. They both had really, really, really good falls, so far. Yeah, I mean, we're going to ride them. Right now, we'll be riding those two quite a bit. We're not in a position where the third (safety) is equal to those two. Those two are clearly our first two.
Q: The legend of Kolbey Taylor continues to grow. How good is this guy?
A: He's got a chance to be good. I think what happens is, we all have to realize there's a curve. When Kolbey Taylor goes out there and plays against Texas Tech in 11 days, or whatever it is, I mean -- he played a little bit against Fresno State and he played like three plays against Ohio -- but he's played a handful of plays. right. But this still isn't starting, extended action, the whole deal. He's uber talented. He's got a really good attitude toward it. He's going to make some plays through the course of this year that people are going to be like, whoa. That's a really, really good play. When you're a corner, there's going to be some (rough) patches early. That's going to happen and he's going to have to learn from it. Part of the success level of a corner -- and I've been around them for a long time -- is when you get a bad rep, you get a bad play, or you get a bad stretch, how do you come back from it? Do you lock back in and learn from it or does it eat at you and you dwell on it? That's still that great unknown. This guy could be really good. I mean, when he runs out on the field it's not going to be hard to look at him and go, OK, where did you get that guy?
Q: Is this the best corner depth you've had since you've been here?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think maybe overall depth. I mean, we'll see. I think we have three (Taylor, Jakorey Hawkins and Tyrecus Davis). Since I've been here, we've really only had two true playable people at a time. In 2022 -- the Covid year -- and in 2021, it was really just two guys that played. Last year, we had three guys that played, but corner was the weak spot for us. We had three guys play, yeah, but they didn't play well all the time. We didn't tackle well enough at the position. Every game we went into I was kind of always like, you know, if we hold up pretty well we will have a chance. We made sure that we did some things to kind of help that. I think this year, we've got three playable guys that as they go, I mean -- we have two great, great offenses to play in the first three games -- as they go and learn and everything else, each step that we go, if we handle that the right way, the hope would be by the time we get into this (conference) season, we continue to develop and improve. I think we have a chance to be good, for sure.
Q: Have you seen an urgency from Easton Gibbs seeing that this is his final season?
A: Yeah, I think so. I think that's the biggest challenge, right? Like, there's an urgency with quite a few of our players. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I think there's a lot of us that realize that we not only can be good, we should be good. You know, there's an urgency with (Jordan) Bertagnole. There's an urgency for Shae Suiaunoa. There's an urgency with DeVonne Harris. There's an urgency with the safeties right now. You know what I mean? Overall, there's an urgency among the group, because, you know, one of the things we talked about was, there were games last year that we kind of let get away. You know, we had a halftime lead against BYU until the last 10 seconds. We had multiple opportunities to be off the field on that drive. We had a lead in the bowl game and lost the game. Now, we won some other games and other situations, too, but we need to be better. The guys who have played, overall, have an urgency about him, Easton included.
Q: Are you finding good depth at the defensive end and defensive tackle spots? I think you're probably pretty happy with your starters there.
A: At defensive tackle, for sure. I mean, I think we've got, you know, Cole (Godbout) and Jordan (Bertagnole) and they are good players. Gavin Meyer is really good. Gavin Myers is as good as the other two. We have three really solid defensive tackles now. You know, they're solid guys -- really solid guys -- and we're glad we got them. Ben Florentine has been good as the fourth. Then Caleb Robinson and Jaden Williams, they provide something, but they're outside of that top four right now. But that's further along than what we were a year ago at this time, and we needed a lot of guys. It's a tough position. I'm happy with that right now. Defensive end. I mean, I think when we have everybody out there and going, then yes. Sabastian (Harsh) is still coming back from his (knee) and all that stuff, so, it's like, when you have everybody, you'll feel good. Tyce Westland is getting better, doing some solid things. You know, that gives us maybe a fourth guy right now. We're further along at D-tackle than we are at D-end as far as the number of playable guys.
Q: As much as we've heard about Kolbey Taylor, we were hearing the same kind of stuff last year about Sabastian Harsh. How excited just to get him on the field -- and healthy -- and see what he can do?
A: I think that's the biggest thing, right? Sabastian can give us a different element than maybe what we've even had before. In the summer, you watch him run, you watch him do stuff and he's running like a defensive back. So, the element of him to be able to do all the things we did last year with the ends that we had; he'll be a far better player. Sabastian is a really good player.
Q: True freshman Keany Parks has moved to cornerback. I know he's a hell of an athlete, but how's he doing so far after moving from the running back room last week?
A: Really good. Really good. He's got a good demeanor for it. He's got a great body for it. I mean, his build is, you know, he's explosive. There's some things that he naturally does that's pretty solid. Then we're just trying to force him along as much as we can right now, because he will compete, he'll fight and do those things that way. I'm really happy with that move. It's on us to get him far enough along, as fast as we can, in order to be, you know, what we want. I think that's the challenge right now. Will he be ready to help us at all by the time we play Texas Tech? Maybe, maybe not. But can we get him shortly thereafter to be a guy that can help? That would be the hope.
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