Speaking the language of football
TUCSON, Ariz., — Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd could only look on in disbelief.
They didn’t talk. They couldn’t.
For the first time that November night, they felt the frigid Idaho air. A majority of Boise State’s football team exploded off the bench. Clad in black, they screamed toward the Wyoming sideline, celebrating a 20-17 overtime victory over the Cowboys.
“That’s the toughest lost I have been a part of,” Crall said, adding that the loss in the 2016 Mountain West title game hurt, but he was a redshirt freshman. “That was brutal. I’m being real with you — We just sat there and watched them come all the way up to us. At first, you get angry and want to do something, but you can’t.”
Byrd could only shake his head when he recalled that moment.
“It was a surreal feeling,” he said. “It didn’t feel like we lost.”
One thing Wyoming’s two defensive ends have in common is detesting the feeling of walking off a field with a loss. That one hurt. They both mentioned fellow senior end, Josiah Hall, who fell in his last chance to beat the Broncos in Boise.
During that game, Crall and Byrd had a meeting at Boise State quarterback Chase Cord. Byrd came from the right, Crall from the left. They hammered the signal caller into the frozen blue turf. They rose, slapped hands and walked back to the line in hopes of doing it all over again.
It was in that moment that you realize these guys don’t have many similarities when it comes to how they got to this moment, but they both speak the language of football.
Crall is a junior from Hicksville, Ohio, a farming village of just over 3,500 residents on the Indiana border. Mark Twain mentioned Hicksville in the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s Tom Sawyer’s hometown.
Crall was a second-team All-State quarterback. He played basketball and baseball. He was a four-time member of the honor roll. He walked on in Laramie.
His long, flowing blonde hair, laid-back attitude and love of hunting, fishing and all things nature, screams country boy.
Byrd came to Laramie from Los Angeles County, the largest district in the country. His hometown of Palmdale was featured in a Britney Spears video. Taylor Swift shot one there, too.
The 6-foot, 4-inch, 243-pound freshman was courted by Mountain West foes Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. Even Army wanted Byrd to consider playing his college football at West Point after a prep career that featured 155 tackles, 16 sacks and six forced fumbles.
AJ Cooper, Wyoming’s defensive ends coach, said both players have plenty of differences, but added another similarity — they are both striving for greatness.
“They have both played well, but there are things we need to clean up,” Cooper said. “Both of those guys embrace that. Personally, it’s awesome to see them embrace those things. They take that type of critic and use it as motivation.”
Byrd leads the Cowboys with 6.5 sacks. Crall has added 4.5, matching his career high from 2018. Both are relied on to flush — and ultimately hammer — opposing quarterbacks, but Cooper said the maturation of both has been on display in all facets of the game, whether it’s tackling, knowing which gaps to expose or ripping at the ball, among other factors.
When it comes to Crall, Cooper said he likes the junior’s leadership and raved about his effort. Toughness was also a keyword in this conversation. Last fall, Crall played the final five games of the season with a fractured left foot.
Instead of calling it a season, Crall simply switched to the left side of the line.
“That’s what you would expect from a small-town kid,” Cooper said of Crall, who has 52 tackles and a fumble recovery this season. “He’s hard working and a tough dude, man. He shows his teammates how important this is. These guys only get 12 opportunities a year to play and they work all year long for this.
“He’s a guy I have to monitor because he won’t tell me if he’s hurt. He still has that walk-on mentality. He doesn’t want to get ‘Wally Pipped.'”
Crall said there isn’t any crazy thinking behind his decision to play on the injury that required two screws and a seat on the bench for spring practice — “I could walk, so I could play.”
And unlike Wally Pipp, Crall is in no danger of losing his starting spot on the Pokes defensive line.
He also credits the attitude surrounding head coach Craig Bohl’s program.
“I mean, I’m just always been one — I don’t like when people are soft. I just play through it,” he said. “I wasn’t raised to be soft. If you can play, play. It was never in my mind that I wouldn’t.
“The saying around here is ‘Cowboy tough.’ If I can still run, coach Cooper says bite on your mouth piece. I just did it. And I don’t even wear a mouth piece.”
As far as Byrd goes, his “welcome-to-college-football moment” came last season in Columbia, Missouri. He was a true freshman, lining up across from an SEC offensive line. He wasn’t set up correctly, Cooper laughed.
“The guy bent him over and his ankles touched the back of his head,” Cooper said with a grin. “He came back to the sideline and I was laughing and just said ‘I told you.'”
Byrd was able to take advantage of the NCAA’s four-game rule in 2018. He played against Mizzou and late in the season versus San Jose State and New Mexico. He was able to keep his redshirt. Byrd picked up just five tackles, but according to Cooper, a world of experience.
“He has a lot of potential,” Cooper said. “He’s a young man. We are nowhere near his ceiling.”
Some have already labeled Byrd a star in the making. Cooper isn’t ready to crown his young talent quite yet.
“He’s really developing, but I hate to label kids that,” he said. “He’s young. He’s barely shaving right now. He doesn’t like to admit that.”
Though Byrd might be saving a ton of money on razors, he has played big in big games. Twice he has recorded 2.5 sacks. He picked up one against Tulsa and half-a-sack when he and Crall took down Cord.
“I find myself really knowing what I’m doing,” Byrd said.
Is he shocked by his early success? Not one bit.
Neither is Crall.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “Me and ‘Solo’ are pretty close. He and I have a great relationship. We’re always talking football and laughing. On the field, we might be on different sides of the line but we work together instinctively. One of us pressures the quarterback into one of us getting a sack. It’s fun.”
Byrd is also fond of his long-haired line mate.
“He’s crazy,” Byrd laughed. “As a player — whether it’s pass rush or playing the run — he’s the perfect player in football ways. Off the field, he gives me tips and pointers. He helps me with my body and different things that get me ready to play.”
Tuesday afternoon in Tucson, No. 88 and 51 will set their sights on Georgia State signal caller, Dan Ellington, in the Arizona Bowl.
The Panthers offensive line has allowed 19 sacks this season. Wyoming’s defensive end duo went the final three games of the season without registering a sack.
GSU’s senior is also playing with a partially torn ACL, which has severely limited his mobility.
You think these two smell blood in the water?
Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. from Arizona Stadium.