Tuck’s Take: Jay Sawvel, So Far, Pushing All The Right Buttons
LARAMIE -- Jay Sawvel, so far, is making all the right moves.
Wyoming's rookie head coach grabbed the microphone at halftime and stood at midcourt last Saturday inside the Arena-Auditorium. Surrounded by a handful of his players, he told the 4,000-plus in attendance they were partially responsible for the Cowboys' perfect home record last fall. He also thanked them for making the trip to Tucson last month.
"2023 was a great year for Cowboy football," he continued. "We won nine games for the first time in 27 years, we went 7-0 at home, we beat two ranked teams, we played on national television multiple times ...
Sawvel paused before pointing at senior defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole, who was holding a shiny bronze trophy, one that means more to this program than any other.
"And we got the boot."
Sawvel's lone mistake in his 23 days on the job might be the timing of that impassioned speech. If he had waited just one more week, he could've paraded that Border War bounty right in the faces of Colorado State's basketball team and its fans.
We'll give him a mulligan on that one.
How do we judge a college football team's offseason? There are a few ways these days.
How many players jumped into the NCAA Transfer Portal? What coaches are coming or going? Where did the early recruiting class rank? Who is returning?
Wyoming hasn't always ended up on the right side of any of those questions posed above. All you have to do is think back to 2021. Before the French fries had a chance to leave a grease stain on the blue turf inside Albertsons Stadium, players -- lots of them -- were skipping the Potato Bowl celebration and instead in hot pursuit of the school's Director of Compliance, Peter Priggie.
They wanted out.
Within days, if not hours, the team's leading rusher, pass catcher and both quarterbacks were in the portal. Two starting corners joined them. So did a pair of edge rushers, a starting safety and a defensive tackle.
Isaiah Neyor, Solomon Byrd, Jaylen Pate, Xazavian Valladay, Azizi Hearn, Keyon Blankenbaker and CJ Coldon all landed at Power-5 programs. Sophomore signal caller Levi Williams bolted to longtime rival, Utah State. Fellow quarterback Sean Chambers followed departing offensive coordinator Brent Vigen to Montana State.
These guys left for various reasons. Some were graduate transfers. Some needed a change of scenery. Some were openly disgruntled with head coach Craig Bohl, who was seen by many as having a lack of relationship with players.
No matter the reason, they were gone.
For the pessimistic, it proved the theory Wyoming, and other smaller Group-of-Five schools, would only serve as a minor-league system for the big boys.
This wasn't the exception, they said, it was the rule.
Sawvel said during his introductory press conference in early December his job was to sustain and elevate what Bohl had built after a decade at the helm. The analogy the former defensive coordinator dropped really says it all.
"I told him yesterday, it's like a 4x4 relay," Sawvel said, smiling in the direction of Bohl. "He ran the first three laps of it and he handed me the baton with a couple of hundred meters to go. Everything is in place for us to take steps, have great success and continue to build on what's here. Now, we've got to do that, and that's the challenge I have. That's a goal I have."
The first order of business for Sawvel was keeping a signing class intact. He did just that.
Wyoming lost a single verbal commitment late in the game. Devyn Hidrogo flipped to TCU. The Cowboys also scooped up a player with a change of heart, snagging three-star quarterback, and former Iowa State commit, Deyon Batiste, out of the Greater Houston Area.
When the dust settled, Sawvel and Co. inked 26 new players, including four in-state prospects: Alex Haswell (Sheridan), Drew Jackson (Cheyenne), Keelan Anderson (Cheyenne) and Tegen Seeds (Douglas).
"This isn't done," Sawvel said. "This list here is a huge start. We're on a good roll right now. There's a really good momentum about it and there's a really good excitement about everything. I'm really comfortable with where we are at with this. This is an awesome list. It's a really good list to start with but we want to supplement that with some more guys.
"This is important for us. We're not done. We've got more work to do."
Sawvel's next task was to find a new offensive and defensive coordinator, as well as a safeties coach.
He accomplished that in a matter of weeks all while preparing for the Arizona Bowl.
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Aaron Bohl, Wyoming's linebackers coach, will take the reins of a defense Sawvel has run over the previous four seasons. This will be Bohl's first job as a coordinator at any level, though he has served under Sawvel and his father cut his teeth as a DC during Nebraska's heyday.
It's in his DNA.
Jay Johnson spent the last four years as the play caller at Michigan State. In 2021, he was named a finalist for the Broyles Award, an honor given to the top assistant in college football. That doesn't happen by accident. Johnson also spent time on Kirby Smart's staff at Georgia before following Mel Tucker to Colorado and eventually East Lansing.
The final piece of the puzzle was snapped into place with the hiring of Jason Petrino, who served as the defensive coordinator at North Dakota State in 2023. He will take over a safeties group led by Wyett Ekeler and Issac White.
Wyoming fans have gnashed their collective teeth in the months of December and January over the previous two years. That has very little to do with the weather and everything to do with the transfer portal.
That number today sits at five, including just one starter, cornerback Kolbey Taylor, who signed with Vanderbilt.
That very much has to do with the in-house hire of Sawvel, a true players coach.
"I feel like if we were to hire someone outside of the program that we didn't know, I feel like a lot of guys would have been most likely in the portal just because there's a lot of unknown," Ekeler said. "But having someone like Sawvel come in here, it reassures us that we're going to be the same team next year. So, it's awesome."
"I think that's a really big deal in today's age of college football," added starting quarterback Andrew Peasley. "I think if you get a new staff, half of this team would leave. I think you'd have a bunch of transfers coming in and it would just be a totally different culture. It would be weird.
"So, I think what they did was really good, and I have full faith in Sawvel to be a really good head coach. I'm excited for this team next year."
Eighteen players were announced during senior-day festivities in Laramie before a 42-9 dismantling of Hawaii in late November. Nine of those guys were out of eligibility. Linebacker Easton Gibbs has declared for the NFL Draft.
Three have since made the decision to return to Laramie for a sixth season: wide receiver Alex Brown, linebacker Shae Suiaunoa and Bertagnole.
The Cowboys have also signed former Texas Tech receiver Tyler King and the 16th-leading tackler in the FCS, Evan Eller.
Maybe Sawvel's most important, under-the-radar move of the offseason is naming Evan Svoboda the starting quarterback heading into spring. It's the junior's job to lose, but the distraction of who will be under center has already been answered.
Tom Burman is taking a big chance on a greenhorn head coach. Wyoming's Athletics Director immediately handed down his blunt marching orders: Win a conference title.
Easier said than done.
This program hasn't accomplished that feat since 1993, and that was shared.
If banners were hung in the offseason, though, bust out the needle and thread.
"It's now 2024, and we bring back what I think is a really good football team," Sawvel said last Saturday. "We have a lot of work to do. We will need all of your help this coming fall in the games we have at War Memorial Stadium. We have two goals in our program: That our players compete and earn their degree academically and that we win a Mountain West Conference Championship."
While we don't know if wins will follow, one thing is crystal clear, retaining and ultimately elevating Sawvel has put the Cowboys in the best position to reach that ultimate goal.