Wyoming’s front five motivated, moving on from 2020
LARAMIE -- In just six games in 2020, Wyoming's veteran, battle-tested offensive line gave up 16 quarterback sacks.
They gave up just 22 in 13 contests the previous season.
A front five mostly made up of upperclassmen, mostly the same guys who bullied Missouri -- an SEC team -- a year prior, looked out of sorts from the third play from scrimmage when Sean Chambers was awkwardly spun around and planted into the turf in Reno.
It would result in a broken leg. Chambers, for a third straight year, was forced to watch from the sideline with a season-ending injury.
Was it all the line's fault? Nope. You have to give some credit to Nevada. Also, the play was doomed from the moment Chambers' hands touched the ball. It never had a chance.
But what about the rest of the mishaps?
A week later in Laramie, Levi Williams was slammed into the frozen turf when a blindside Hawaii blitz wasn't picked up. The redshirt freshman was never the same after suffering a right shoulder injury. He was sacked 13 more times. Luckily for him, college football doesn't keep track of quarterback hits.
You can point the finger to an inept offensive scheme. Maybe it was a young, inexperienced signal caller under center? It could've been the virus itself, which caused a disconnect throughout the football program like so many others around the country.
A couple of these guys are still searching for answers.
Super senior Logan Harris could only shake his head when the question was posed. This is a proud group. Sixteen sacks doesn't sit well in the ear drum to this day.
"I just think it was an off-year, you know? I mean, everyone kind of got hit hard and things were out of the normal," the Cowboys' right guard said. "I don't know, it's just something that we have to work on and definitely something we've improved on over the summer."
Keegan Cryder is just as perplexed, thought he has some thoughts.
"That year was really hard for us," Wyoming's former All-American center said. "There's a lot of factors that went into it ... Having weeks where you're expecting to play somebody, and then having three weeks not playing somebody. Plus, just getting different things that we were not seeing from film on the game day and not being able to react to them as well."
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There was also the mononucleosis diagnosis that forced Harris to miss time, not to mention drop 30 pounds in just three weeks. Alonzo Velazquez, another senior, missed the entire campaign with a freak shoulder injury that happened during a preseason walk-through, of all things.
That three-week lapse Cryder referred to is when Air Force and Utah State canceled games in Laramie mid-season because of virus concerns, giving Wyoming an unexpected 21-day layoff between games.
Then, there were the opt outs.
No, none of the Cowboys' front five decided to sit out, but some of the guys they face everyday in practice did.
Defensive ends Solomon Byrd and Devon Wells-Ross didn't suit up in 2020 because of concerns with the ongoing pandemic. Neither did interior players Mario Mora and Claude Cole. To make matters even more difficult, Ravontae Holt, arguably the team's most talented defensive tackle, was also lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2.
A familiar phrase that often comes out of UW's locker room is "iron sharpens iron."
Well, the Cowboys' latest defensive iron was still being torched and shaped. In other words, youngsters like Jordan Bertagnole, DeVonne Harris, Jaylen Pate, Caleb Robinson, Gavin Meyer, and others, were forced into action.
"I definitely think so," Harris said of that being a factor last season. "We weren't getting the looks that we did."
"Certainly," Cryder added. "I mean, not only that, we are used to double-repping and there were weeks we'd only have the (starters) going against each other. That is not how we've been doing it since I've been here. Those are talented guys. Those are very, very good football players, and not being able to work against them and get that experience, I think did effect us as one of the factors."
Thanks to an NCAA ruling that allowed every college athletes and extra year of eligibility, this unit remains intact for the Cowboys. This group has 145 combined starts under its collective belts.
Harris and Velazquez are healthy. Left guard Eric Abojei dropped 50 pounds during the offseason. Frank Crum, the team's right tackle, has turned from a local project to a bonified starter.
Depth guys like Rudy Stofer, Latrell Bible, Nofoafia Tulafono and Mana Taimani are on the two-deep. Blayne Baker and Zack Watts have playing experience. Carlos Harrison, Marco Machado, Emmanuel Pregnon, Mason Schultz, Malik Williams and Jack Lookabaough are on the cusp after earning plenty of reps last fall.
Add some motivation from last season's shortcomings and a new voice in Derek Frazier -- not to mention UW's new offensive coordinator, Tim Polasek, who had been the line coach at Iowa the past four seasons -- and this group thinks it can once again be an all-around powerhouse at the line of scrimmage, not just in the run-blocking category.
Wyoming's new offensive line coach has watched the film and heard the horror stories. Craig Bohl's rallying cry since running off the field after a season-ending loss to Boise State has been turning the page from the "bad movie" that was 2020.
Frazier is toeing the company line.
"Let's just talk positives," said Frazier, who spent the last two seasons with the New York Jets. "The way they handled adversity, I thought, you know, there's a lot of teams that didn't probably handle it as well as they did. I see a strong team that has strong chemistry and a strong culture. You can see that in how they kept plugging everyday ... There's a lot of teams that folded shop."
Frazier did have plenty of compliments for the run-blocking scheme that helped make Xazavian Valladay the Mountain West's leading rusher for the second straight year.
The depth alone, Frazier joked, still makes him pinch himself.
"It's amazing," he said. "I've never been any part of anything like it."
Wyoming's championship aspirations begin and end with the production of this unit. An off-year, Frazier said, hasn't taken away from the swagger and temperament that earned this group the nickname "Dirt Dogs."
"It's all about having confidence in who you are and what you do," he said. "... When they feel good, and they feel great about what they're doing, they're going to play fast and play hard. They're going to play physical.
"That's what we have to do."