2021 a new beginning for the Cowboy offense
LARAMIE -- When the Wyoming Cowboys concluded the 2019 season with an 8-5 record and a convincing 38-17 win over Georgia State in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl, expectations for the 2020 season were high.
Those high expectations came from the fact that the Cowboys would be returning virtually all of their offensive weapons from that 2019 team.
Among the returning players were First Team All-Mountain West running back Xazavian Valladay, a talented and deep group of offensive linemen and two quarterbacks with starting experience in sophomore Sean Chambers, who started the first eight games of the season and led Wyoming to a 6-2 start, and redshirt freshman Levi Williams, who would start the 2019 Arizona Bowl and lead the Pokes to the win over Georgia State.
But the COVID-shortened season of 2020 wouldn’t unfold the way the Cowboys hoped. A combination of key injuries before the season to players like senior offensive tackle Alonzo Velazquez followed by injuries to Chambers, Valladay and Williams during the season resulted in a frustrating season. But that is then and preparation for the 2021 season is now.
The 2021 Cowboy Football team is filled with optimism and excitement to get back on track for a program that had earned bowl eligibility in four consecutive seasons from 2016-19, played in three bowl games, won two bowl championships and posted three eight-win seasons.
New Offensive Coordinator Tim Polasek
Wyoming’s 2021 offense has a new offensive coordinator to guide them in Tim Polasek, who coached the offensive line at the University of Iowa the past four seasons (2017-20). Prior to Iowa, Polasek (pronounced PAWL-uh-seck) was the offensive coordinator and running backs coach at North Dakota State for three years from 2014-16. He was a record-setting quarterback himself at Concordia University in Wisconsin. Polasek takes over for former Cowboy offensive coordinator Brent Vigen, who was hired as the new head coach at Montana State this offseason.
Polasek brings his own high-energy approach to coaching -- an approach that has been evident during spring practice.
When asked how excited he was for the opportunity to be Wyoming’s new offensive coordinator and what attracted him to the position, Polasek replied, “I feel like it is a good fit for me and my wife, Jill. It was the right move for me at this point of my career and it is with the right people. I am super excited about this job. Everyday I wake up excited about the challenge and excited about the guys I get to work with -- Coach (Craig) Bohl, the offensive staff of Gordie (Haug), Mike (Grant), Derek (Frazier), Shannon (Moore) and our young guys Jordan (Walsh) and Mason (Keeler) and the defensive guys -- really good people here.
“I’ve been so fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had in my career. A big part of that is making your own opportunities. This world isn’t going to give you anything. Every step of the way I’ve had good opportunities. After my original time at North Dakota State, I had the chance to go to Northern Illinois. I didn’t really want to leave Coach Bohl’s staff, but I felt like I needed to continue to grow and learn and that was a good opportunity to do that.
“Then when Coach Bohl came to Wyoming, it provided me an opportunity to go back to NDSU as the offensive coordinator. After that came a chance to go to the University of Iowa as the offensive line coach. Being around that kind of professionalism with Coach (Kirk) Ferentz and his staff at Iowa and the learning experience that provided me was awesome.
“That experience fueled my desire to want to be back in a leadership role as a coordinator or a head coach. For me, I didn’t want to move just anywhere to do it or with just any program. It is very important to me to work in a tough program, with tough kids, with tough-minded prideful individuals. Coach Bohl called me when Brent (Vigen) was about to get his opportunity to be the head coach at Montana State, and once again this opportunity was right for me and excited me.”
Re-Engineering the Cowboy Offense
Cowboy head coach Craig Bohl has spoken in the offseason about “re-engineering” the Wyoming offense heading into the 2021 season.
While Bohl has been clear that doesn’t mean an entirely new offensive scheme, Polasek will have an opportunity to put his own mark on the Wyoming offense. When describing how he and his offensive staff have approached the re-engineering of the offense, Polasek emphasizes that there has to be a balance and a connection between the running and passing games.
“We’re trying to best marry up our run game with the passing game and vice versa,” said Polasek. “There has to be a marriage between the two phases of your offense. First and second downs are very important to the success of an offense. Too many people when they think pass game are either thinking about offenses that throw it all the time or they’re evaluating an offense solely on how they throw it on third down.
“What we want to be is very balanced. We don’t want to be predictable, and we want our looks in terms of run formations and pass formations to be very similar, particularly on first and second down. Regarding third down, we’re still learning about our quarterbacks -- what they are comfortable doing and what they can do well. That is probably the number one thing we have to get solidified here during the rest of spring practice.”
The part of the Cowboy offense that has been very productive during the Bohl era has been the running game. Wyoming has consistently ranked among the nation’s best teams in rushing offense and has featured three First Team All-Mountain West running backs in Brian Hill, Nico Evans and current Cowboy Xazavian Valladay. The three have posted four 1,000-yard rushing seasons between them.
“We wanted to maintain a lot of the fundamental basis of the running game that was already in place here, because it has been very successful,” said Polasek. “But like any good coaching staff, you want to look at the tape of what you’ve done in the past and see how you can improve upon things.”
Key factors in developing an effective rushing attack include decisions made by quarterbacks both in how they read defenses and how they help the offensive line make the proper blocking adjustments prior to a play.
“We’re really trying to train our quarterbacks how to understand defenses and how to evaluate good defensive alignments to run into and bad defensive alignments to run into -- what is good leverage and what is bad leverage,” said Polasek. “When I was at North Dakota State, I believe it was 2014, Carson Wentz (current Indianapolis Colts quarterback) called only one bad run-game adjustment all season where we ran into defensive pressure. I was calling all the plays, but Carson was really intelligent and when he did make an adjustment at the line of scrimmage he was very good at evaluating the situation and making the right adjustment.
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“I think if you look at 100 offensive line coaches they would all be a little different. I think Derek (Frazier) has done a really good job (with the offensive line) and Shannon (Moore) has done a really good job piggy backing him in how he is teaching the tight ends and fullbacks. The re-engineering of the run game is always refining, always teaching guys not only schematics but the concepts and techniques it takes to dominate at their position.”
In regard to re-engineering the passing game, Polasek was asked how much the re-engineering has to do with ideas he and his staff brought into this spring and how much it has to do with what the Cowboy quarterbacks, receivers and running backs can do well?
“It is a combination of both,” said Polasek. “Conceptually, we have everything in our offense that we would want to run. But that is not the only factor that matters. What matters is the execution by the quarterbacks, the receivers, the running backs and then your protection up front being executed properly. There are some nuances we’ve introduced and there are some things I feel real strongly about coaching to help our players better understand our offense and help them to perform well. But at the end of the day, it is going to take constant communication with our quarterbacks to know what they are comfortable and confident doing in certain situations.
“I’ve leaned on Mike (Grant, passing-game coordinator) quite a bit to tell me what these players have done well in the past and what have we done well as an offense in the past. Some of those things have been very clear, but other times Mike and I have decided to take another look at things and have spent time up here at night looking at tape to reevaluate what we want to do moving forward. I think we are close to putting in the type of offense we as a staff believe in. Our execution is not quite there yet, but you can see glimpses of the speed and the rhythm picking up. I know Coach (Bohl) really wants us to be on solid ground come the start of fall camp, and I think we can be.”
Having joined the Cowboy Football program in early February, Polasek has had a couple months to get to know his players and for them to get to know him. He feels like that process has gone well.
"I knew there was going to be a difference for the players with my personality versus Brent’s (Vigen),” said Polasek. “Coming in, I did wonder about how long it would take for the guys to trust me and buy into the way I want to do things, so we could start moving forward. From that perspective, the guys have been outstanding. The players are working hard. The practices haven’t always been as clean as I would like or as good as I would like them to be, but as a coach you probably never feel like you’ve reached that point. But the players have really answered the bell in terms of their positive attitudes and their passion for football is showing every day.
“We’re most definitely leveraging the toughness aspect of the kids in this program and the identity of the state of being Cowboy Tough. We have that attitude on our team, and we have to maintain it.”
In terms of the goals Polasek has for his offense this spring, he has tried to narrow those goals down to three main areas.
“Number one is to get our system in place and to streamline as many facets of our offense as possible,” said Polasek. “We start with a certain amount of concepts in the run game and the pass game with the goal of making it attainable for the kids to not just understand but be able to execute efficiently. Then you want to see what is their potential for learning. We’re over halfway through spring practice right now and we have been able to install most of our offense, so that process has gone well.
“Number two, you always want to be establishing depth throughout the program. I think it comes from my experience with Coach Bohl when I worked with him at North Dakota State -- program depth isn’t just one position it needs to be across the board. That also incorporates whether you are growing as a coaching staff. Can you share and cultivate ideas as a staff and master what you want to be great at as a group.
“Then the third thing is for us to learn as much as we can about these kids and figure out what they can and can’t do well, so that we can ultimately put them in positions to reach their potential. I take great pride in helping kids try to reach their potential.”
In addition to coordinating the Wyoming offense, Polasek is coaching the Cowboy quarterbacks. Having been an offensive coordinator before, having coached quarterbacks before and having played the position himself, Polasek has some specific things he is working with the quarterbacks on this spring to improve their consistency and accuracy.
“Consistency starts from the ground up,” said Polasek. “It is important for a quarterback to be on balance and be in rhythm. Most of the better players at the college and pro levels have that. They play with their feet balanced on the ground, so that is where we’re starting. I want our quarterbacks to think about how consistently they can get their feet set both at the end of their drop but also when they have to move in the pocket. We want them to always be throwing out of an athletic base, on platform, with their feet underneath them. The idea is not to try and be Patrick Mahomes, because there is only one Patrick Mahomes. We are shooting for our quarterbacks to be throwing out of a structure with a good base. That is probably the number one thing we’re consistently working on.
“We’re also continuing to work on making sure they are always ready to throw the ball, especially on the third, fourth and fifth steps of a drop and then on a play-action play are our quarterbacks pushing back from the play action and ready to pull the trigger. It’s one thing as a quarterback to observe the defense, orient yourself and then decide where you want to throw the ball but then you still have to act -- you have to pull the trigger.
“The third thing that we’re consistently working on is defensive identification -- trying to find something pre-snap that will help us decide what may be our best option on a particular play. We’re trying to get the guys to even sweat a little bit in the meeting room. I want them to consciously be going through mental repetitions of identifying the defense, going through that decision process and burning that mental power it takes to play the position as best as they can.”
Cowboys Return a Veteran Offensive Group -- 20 Players With Starting Experience
Ten out of the 11 regular starters return from last year’s team, with another 10 players returning who have starting experience during their careers for a total of 20 returning offensive players with starting experience. There are also 29 offensive lettermen returning for the Cowboys in 2021.
Running the Ball Will Continue to be a Strength
The portion of the offense that has been extremely productive since Bohl has been the head coach of the Cowboys is the running game. Wyoming has perennially been one of the top rushing offenses in the country. For each of the past three seasons, 2018,’19 and ‘20, the Cowboys have had the Mountain West’s leading rusher in terms of average rushing yards per game. Current Cowboy junior Xazavian Valladay has led the MW in rushing in both of the last two seasons (2019 and ‘20). Former Poke Nico Evans led the league in 2018. Valladay and Evans were also First Team All-Mountain West selections in each of the past three seasons -- Valladay in 2019 and ‘20 and Evans in 2018. Prior to that, former Cowboy Brian Hill was a First Team All-MW honoree in 2016 in his junior season before he declared for the NFL Draft.
Not only does the Cowboy offense return Valladay in 2021, but graduate Trey Smith returns after ranking No. 6 in the MW in rushing last season. Valladay averaged 110.0 rushing yards per game last season, while Smith averaged 81.3. In addition to UW’s top two backs there are two others who have recorded 100-yard rushing games in their careers. Sophomore quarterback Sean Chambers has recorded six 100-yard rushing games as a Cowboy and sophomore running back Titus Swen has one 100-yard rushing game to his credit (136 yards vs. UNLV in 2019).
Cowboys Return Two Experienced QBs in 2021
Wyoming has two talented and experienced quarterbacks returning in 2021 in sophomore Chambers and redshirt freshman Levi Williams. Both Chambers and Williams entered 2021 spring practice healthy and have participated fully in spring drills. Chambers of course broke a bone in his lower leg on the third play of the 2020 season at Nevada, knocking him out for the remainder of the season. Williams played with an injured shoulder for much of the 2020 season.
When they were both healthy in 2019, they combined to lead UW to an 8-5 record and the Arizona Bowl Championship. Chambers has started 12 of the 13 career games he has played and Williams has started six of his nine career games as a Cowboy. With 18 starts between them, they provide the Wyoming offense will excellent leadership heading into the 2021 season.
Experience in the Trenches -- Offensive Line Has Started a Total of 145 Games Between Them
Also returning in 2021 will be an experienced offensive line that includes eight individuals who have starting experience as Cowboys. Those returning eight offensive linemen have a combined 145 games started to their credit. That group is led by First Team All-Mountain West center Keegan Cryder, a junior, and Honorable Mention All-MW guard Logan Harris, a senior. Cryder has started all 31 games he has played as a Cowboy. Harris has started 30 games in his Wyoming career. They are joined by senior tackle Alonzo Velazquez (23 career starts), junior tackle Rudy Stofer (21), junior guard Eric Abojei (17), sophomore tackle Frank Crum (11), sophomore guard Zach Watts (7) and redshirt freshman tackle Latrell Bible (5).
Talented Young Receiving Corps
When looking at the Wyoming receiving corps, there are a number of talented young players on the roster ready to earn their opportunity in 2021. Entering spring practice the group was led by a couple veterans in senior wide receiver Ayden Eberhardt, who led the Cowboys last season with 16 receptions for 252 yards in six games, and junior wideout Gunner Gentry. Unfortunately, Gentry was injured early in 2021 spring practice. The rest of the wide receivers and tight ends on the spring roster are all sophomores or freshmen, but in that group are a number of individuals who gained experience last season.
Redshirt freshman wide receiver Isaiah Neyor burst onto the scene in 2020 with his ability to make big plays. Neyor averaged 31.0 yards per reception on eight catches and added one rush for 58 yards. If he would have averaged the NCAA minimum of two receptions per game, he would have led the nation in yards per reception. His performance did earn him Honorable Mention All-Mountain West honors from MW head coaches and media. Neyor is a big wide receiver at 6’ 3” and 210 pounds, but he is by no means the only Cowboy receiver with excellent size. Fellow redshirt freshman Alex Brown measures 6’ 4” and 190. True freshman Joshua Cobbs is 6’ 4” and 196, and redshirt freshman Devin Jennings comes in at 6’ 2” and 189.
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Added to that group of wide receivers is a talented group of tight ends. Sophomore Treyton Welch led all Cowboy tight ends with five receptions for 95 yards in 2020. He will be joined by fellow sophomore Jackson Marcotte to give the Pokes a pair of tight ends with game experience. Parker Christensen was shifted to fullback in 2020, but he can also line up as a tight end. Christensen had a couple receptions last season as a redshirt freshman.
And don’t forget the running backs being utilized in the passing game. Both Valladay and Smith are excellent receivers out of the backfield. Valladay was Wyoming’s second leading receiver in 2020 with 13 receptions, while Smith added three catches. Before opting out last season, sophomore running back Swen had three receptions himself in 2019.
Strong Offensive Numbers to Build On
The Cowboy offense is looking forward to getting back on the field for a full season with a full complement of players in 2021. The Wyoming offense has generated some strong numbers the past two seasons to build on. In rushing offense, Wyoming ranked No. 23 in the nation in 2019 (214.8 yards per game) and No. 14 in 2020 (219.5). In the passing game, the Pokes have excelled at generating big plays, ranking No. 10 in passing yards per completion in 2019 (14.75 yards per completion) and No. 7 in 2020 (14.84). But the overall passing game is what the offense will be focused on improving, and head coach Craig Bohl has made that clear this offseason. If UW’s offense can achieve that balance between rushing and passing productivity that offensive coordinator Polasek is striving for, then 2021 could be another in a string of successful seasons the Cowboys have enjoyed since 2016.
Wyoming will continue spring football through the first week of May leading up to the Spring Game on Saturday, May 8. The Spring Game will kick off at 2 p.m. from War Memorial Stadium and will be free to the public.
2021 University of Wyoming Football Spring Practice Schedule
Tuesday, April 6 Late afternoon (Practice #1)
Thursday, April 8 Late afternoon (Practice #2)
Saturday, April 10 TBA (Practice #3)
Tuesday, April 13 Late afternoon (Practice #4)
Thursday, April 15 Late afternoon (Practice #5)
Saturday, April 17 TBA (Practice #6)
Tuesday, April 20 Late afternoon (Practice #7)
Thursday, April 22 Late afternoon (Practice #8)
Saturday, April 24 TBA (Practice #9)
Tuesday, April 27 Late afternoon (Practice #10)
Thursday, April 29 Late afternoon (Practice #11)
Saturday, May 1 TBA (Practice #12)
Tuesday, May 4 Late afternoon (Practice #13)
Thursday, May 6 Late afternoon (Practice #14)
Saturday, May 8 2 p.m. (Spring Game, War Memorial Stadium, Open to the Public, Practice #15)
The Spring Game on Saturday, May 8 will be free and open to the public. All other practices are closed.
* University of Wyoming press release