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By Robert Gagliardi

Defensive turnaround biggest factor in UW's 2017 football success

Plenty of experience returns as Cowboys seek consistent success.


January 3, 2018

LARAMIE – Expectations were high for the University of Wyoming football team in 2017, and for the most part, the Cowboys lived up to them.

UW posted back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1998-99, and played in consecutive bowl games for the first time in 30 years. Its 37-14 victory over Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl on Dec. 22 capped an 8-5 season, and was its first bowl win since 2009.

But when looking back at this past season, the biggest storyline is more like a worst-to-first scenario.

Despite eight victories in 2016, UW's defense wasn't very good. Yes, the Cowboys forced 27 turnovers, but they allowed 34.1 points and 453.1 yards per game.

That defense remained largely intact heading into 2017 and, along with first-year defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton, UW had one of the biggest turnarounds defensively in the country.

Thanks to a school-record eight turnovers forced against Central Michigan, UW led the nation with 38, which resulted in 122 points. More importantly, the Cowboys only allowed 17.5 points per game. In 13 games, only three teams scored more than two touchdowns against this defense, and none over the last six games.

You have to go back to the 1967 Alabama team that went 10-1 and played in the Sugar Bowl for that kind of defensive dominance when it comes to points allowed.

"This defense is special," said sophomore defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, one of three defensive players who earned First Team All-Mountain West honors this season. "All of us do our jobs, and we do them exceptionally well."

UW's defense kept it in most of its games. The offense didn't need to score a lot of points in most instances to win. Last season, it felt like the Cowboys needed to score on virtually every offensive possession.

UW's 37 points in the bowl game was its third-most of the season – a season where it averaged 23.5 points per contest. That's nearly 14 points fewer than 2016.

Replacing a handful of offensive weapons from 2016, an injury-riddled offensive line that featured seven different starting lineups, an inconsistent run game and the loss of junior starting quarterback Josh Allen for two games with a right shoulder injury were factors in the Cowboys' offensive struggles.

Looking ahead to 2018, expect much of the same from the Cowboys as you saw in 2017.

Yes, there is a gaping hole at quarterback because Allen declared for the NFL draft. However, eight starters return both on offense and defense, as well as all of the specialists other than the long snapper.

It may be unrealistic to think UW will force 38 turnovers, but it is realistic to expect this group to be among one on the best overall groups in the country based on what comes back. Can this group improve? Sure. It will be key that the coaches and players don't rest on their past accomplishments and continue to work on getting better.

Based on that, and to use a term coach Craig Bohl uses often, UW should be able to "leverage its defense" a lot to be successful in 2018.

Back to the giant elephant in the room – who will be UW's quarterback?

Nick Smith will be a fifth-year senior and knows the offense better than any quarterback in the program. That's a huge factor for coaches. In 12 games and four starts in his career, Smith is 67 of 134 for 716 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions.

However, when Tyler Vander Waal signed with UW in 2017 out of Christian Brothers High in Sacramento, California, the goal was to redshirt and then make a run at being the starting quarterback, knowing Allen would forego his senior season.

Vander Waal redshirted and ran the scout team offense. Now, his focus shifts to UW's intricate and detailed pro-style offense. Sean Chambers joins the mix this summer as well. To expect a true freshman to not only learn the offense, but win the starting job, in the span of a few months seems unlikely though.

It also should be noted that, like Allen, Smith graduated from UW earlier in the month. There are no indications that Smith will move on to the next chapter of his life, but there also hasn't been official word that Smith will return.

Bohl was not available for comment for this story. He said during the bowl game that he will meet with players soon to discuss their futures with the team.

For what it is worth, this is how I see the quarterback situation playing out: Smith has the edge to be the starter, and likely will be the guy in the Aug. 26 opener at New Mexico State. If Smith struggles, Vander Waal will get his shot and could end the season as the starter.

But whoever the quarterback is, he should have a solid supporting cast. All of UW's running backs return, as do all of its wide receivers and tight ends. All but one offensive lineman is back.

Either way, UW must do a better job of running the ball – a staple in its offense. Its 108.8 rushing yards per game isn't good enough. If the Cowboys can get that figure in the 175-yard range or higher, it will open up the pass game and make it easier for whomever the quarterback is.

UW must also establish more of a go-to guy in the running game. Keeping the offensive line healthy would help, but if those scenarios can fall into place, the burden on the quarterback won't be as high. In other words, the quarterback can be more of a game manager.

Other questions/concerns for UW heading into next season:

n Replacing senior fullback/long snapper Drew Van Maanen: Not only was he a four-year starter at fullback, he was a leader. Van Maanen's stats, or lack thereof, don't reflect how valuable he was to this team. UW has only one fullback on the roster who has played, junior-to-be Jaylon Watson. The fullback is an important position in UWs offense, so lack of depth and experience is a concern.

• More depth at cornerback: UW loses two cornerbacks in seniors Rico Gafford and Robert Priester. Gafford was a second-team all-conference selection. Junior-to-be Tyler Hall is the most experienced player coming back. UW likes its young talent at the position, but some guys need to emerge during spring drills and fall camp.

One guy to watch is 6-foot-1 C.J. Coldon, who redshirted but nearly played because of his size and skill set. Redshirt freshman Braden Smith was one of UW's best special-teams players in 2017. Perhaps he takes the momentum from that to seeing more time at corner.

• More depth at linebacker: UW is solid with Logan Wilson in the middle and Cassh Maluia outside returning as juniors. Senior-to-be Chavez Pownell Jr. should make a fairly smooth transition to the other outside linebacker spot. But aside from senior-to-be Adam Pilapil behind Wilson, UW needs more depth and production from the backups. There should be plenty of opportunities for youngsters like Ryan Gatoloai-Faupula, Jahmari Moore, Ben Wisdorf and Davon Wells-Ross to provide that depth.

• Healthy interior defensive linemen: UW lost Conner Cain (ankle) and true freshman Ravontae Holt (knee) to season-ending injuries in 2017. Nose tackle Sidney Malauulu missed six games with a knee injury, and Ghaifan missed a game with turf toe. Even interior defensive line coach Pete Kaligis missed some time to have hip replacement surgery.

Much of UW's defensive success was due to the play of the interior linemen. All of those guys return, but they need to be healthy and stay healthy.

• More consistency from wide receivers: Sophomores Austin Conway and C.J. Johnson had 553 and 531 yards, respectively, and combined for 10 touchdowns in 2017. Not bad, as both had increased roles compared to 2016.

Both showed some big-play capabilities, but UW needs more of that from the entire group. It also needs across-the-board improvement, including consistently getting open, avoiding cases of the drops and improving route-running.

The upcoming season is an opportunity for UW to do something it has never done in school history – play in three consecutive bowl games. And not counting divisional conference titles, the Cowboys have not won an outright conference championship since 1988.

UW won't be picked to win the MW. It won't even be picked to win the Mountain Division. But the pieces are in place for it to contend and continue the goal of long-term, consistent success as Bohl enters his fifth season.


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