TUCKER: Let’s buck the trend, focus on positives of UW football in 2020
LARAMIE -- In a time when it's so easy to focus on the negative, I have decided to flip the script.
I think we all need that right now.
That doesn't mean I'm ignoring the issues -- I'm just choosing to ring in 2021 with positivity. I hope you'll join me.
Believe it or not, there were some great things that took place during this forgettable, virus-plagued year none of us won't soon forget. When 2020 is mentioned -- for years to come -- I'm sure we will all flinch and give plenty of examples of why it sucked.
Here are some things that didn't.
Let's start with the Wyoming football program.
Instead of focusing on the 2-4 record, an anemic offense and that a certain trophy is no longer residing in Laramie, here are some things that will pay off or already have for Craig Bohl and Co.
No one is thrilled about the Cowboys' record this season. There are elements of the program that are getting some major criticism -- it's warranted.
But think back to Aug. 10, a day that will forever serve as one of the biggest gut punches in my 37 years on earth. The season was being canceled. No Cowboy Joe. No tailgating. No Wyoming football.
There are bigger tragedies in the world, but that was rough.
“It was extremely hard for me,” Bohl told the media over a Zoom meeting, 2020's new way of communicating. “I didn’t handle it very well.”
It appeared COVID-19 had claimed another victim. That is until the Mountain West reversed course in late September.
It wasn't the original schedule, but the Pokes opened the season in Reno on Oct. 24. Players would be tested for the virus three times per week. Any rash of positives in a program would result in a cancelation. We saw it twice with Air Force and Utah State.
That wasn't the Cowboys' fault though.
Players and coaches constantly made their way to coronavirus testing, jabbing giant swabs into their brain so they could play football. There were some hiccups -- thankfully no major health issues that we know of -- but these guys bought in. They were committed and dedicated to getting on that field.
Plus, imagine the bond this team has built. They were in the fox hole together all season. They basically saw each other every day. That's it. No restaurants, bars or other college activities.
“I think it’s important that we recognize that we were provided a game plan and our coaches, our support staff and our medical staff, and particularly our players, bought into that protocol," Bohl said. "… But you know, we answered a bell.”
Yes they did.
Xazavian Valladay and Chad Muma are special players
Xazavian Valladay once again dominated in the Mountain West, rushing for 550 yards on 99 carries. That's an average of 5.6 yards per carry. That was tops in the league in 2020. Of course, he also lead the MW in rushing in 2019 with 1,265 yards.
Chad Muma, as you might have heard, had huge shoes to fill during his first season as a starter in Laramie. I'd say he exceeded all expectations and made the transition from No. 30 to No. 48 quite seamless.
The junior and team captain, tallied 71 tackles in five-and-a-half games. Remember, he missed the second half against New Mexico because of a targeting call. That total is good enough for fourth in the nation in that category.
Both, along with center Keegan Cryder, were named to the All-Mountain West First Team. Rightfully so.
These two will be back in the Cowboys' lineup next fall. And guess what, they will still be juniors.
Wyoming found itself a kicker
I think I speak for most when I say that the placekicking was a concern heading into the season opener in Nevada. Bohl coaches the kickers. When asked about them, he never said anything negative, but he wasn't exactly raving about the guys who would attempt to replace the program's all-time leading scorer, Cooper Rothe.
There's a reason for that -- mainly quarantine.
Bohl likes to joke that before the opener at Nevada that he knew his freshman kicker's name was John and he wears a red kicking shoe. That's about it. When the first field goal sailed through the uprights, I scrambled for a roster in the press box.
"Who the hell is John Hoyland?"
Now, we all know.
The walk-on from Colorado was 4-for-4 that day inside Mackay Stadium. He earned Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Hoyland wasn't a one-hit wonder either. He nailed 13 of his 14 attempts on the season and was a perfect 16-of-16 on extra-point tries. His two field goals a game was tops in the nation.
"You know what, I tell him don’t make it too complicated,” Bohl said. “He’s listened to my coaching. But there’s a flipside to that — there’s too many times that he’s kicking field goals.
“… I can tell you this, we have a placekicker.”
Because this team played, it gained invaluable experience.
The guy above, imagine what his confidence will be like heading into 2021. Same goes for guys like Jordan Bertagnole, Easton Gibbs, Isaiah Neyor, Keonte Glinton and a host of others.
Levi Williams would probably be the first one to tell you he wasn't happy with his performance in 2020. Most guys on the roster would probably say the same, but they saw live rounds for six weeks.
I know it's easy to forget because Williams was so dynamic in that Arizona Bowl victory over Georgia State on this day a year ago, but that was his first start. He started five games this season, taking over for Sean Chambers, who was lost for the season on the third offensive play from scrimmage.
He's young. Most of the roster is. This was a learning experience.
It could pay off big time in 2021.
We're all in this together
When the season was axed, the financial stress the department was under was a moving target.
Would they lose hundreds of thousands, or add another digit to the bill? There would be no season ticket sales. No television money. The ramifications from the virus would likely cost jobs, scholarships and future revenue.
That's when Tom Burman, Bohl and Wyoming fans around the globe stepped up. Even our friends in South Carolina decided to pitch in $1.1 million. That would be the price tag for Clemson, which canceled next year's matchup.
Wyoming's Athletics Director took a pay cut. Bohl donated $100,000 to spring scholarships. Supporters raised more than $200,000 in less than 48 hours. That number today is $566,682.
One of the many things that makes this program special is the support. It's second to none.
Wilson and Maluia get the call
The tension is unexplainable. Nerves are shot. Emotions, they're all over the place.
That only partially describes what was going on inside Logan Wilson's Casper home as the commissioner stepped to the podium to announce each selection of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Wyoming's middle linebacker, the Governor, as he's known around here, waited patiently on the couch for his phone to buzz. It did. With the 65th pick of the third round. Wilson is a Cincinnati Bengal.
“It’s hard to explain,” Wilson said of his emotions. “It’s overwhelming. My heart is still pounding.
“I’m just excited they picked me.”
The next day, fellow linebacker Cassh Maluia got the call. The New England Patriots took the California native in the sixth round.
A Wyoming player has been selected in the NFL Draft four years in a row and six of the past seven.
Speaking of the NFL
Former Wyoming players are littering NFL rosters like never before these days.
As of today, 16 Pokes are playing at the highest level.
Josh Allen is a legit MVP candidate. Tashaun Gipson is still picking off passes and making plays in year nine in the league. Mike Purcell earned a new three-year deal with the Broncos, and Carl Granderson, Brian Hill, Jacob Hollister, Chase Roullier and others, continue to make plays on Sunday.
It's a good problem to have when you can catch a former Cowboy in nearly any game you turn on. It really says a lot about the development in this program.
Putting a bow on 2020
Bohl hosted an emotional press conference at season's end. He touched on nearly every aspect of the program he has built over the past seven seasons. He didn't sugarcoat his feelings on a number of issues, but my main takeaway was this -- the guy is more motivated than ever.
During that 41-minute chat, I opined to the head coach that he seemed more reinvigorated than I had ever seen him.
"I don't know if it's reinvigorated or more frustrated than I ever have been," Bohl said. "You know, what you want to see is you want to see your guys go out there and and come as close as they can to maxing out to their potential. OK, your football team, you want to look at that football team and say, OK, we understand we're not the '85 Chicago Bears but by God how good can we be this year? Then, when you when you don't meet some expectations -- we got to be better than that. Our fans deserve better than that. Our program deserves better than that."
The bar is being raised. Will that lead to attrition?
"There's going to be some guys that quite frankly don't like expectation," he said. "... I think you guys might agree with this, when when a player or a team has expectations and they don't meet those expectations, you go one of two ways. The guys that think everything is just rosy and the bar gets raised, they spit the bit out and they quit. OK, the guys who recognize by God I'm gonna look myself in the mirror, look my teammates in the eye, look our coaches in the eye and go, that's got to improve. That's where you see a groundswell of focus and energy and determination to answer that bell of raising the bar.
"2021 is here and the bar is getting raised. And I want to just say this, if we have fans out there, everything else, you know what? That season's coming ... There's going to be a determined attitude and focus to get back to doing things that we need to do and do them better."
Don't count the Cowboys out in 2021.