Wyoming Football – Breaking Down the ‘Boys: Nickelbacks
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl and the Wyoming football team are starting spring football a tad late this season.
Last year, COVID-19 put a halt to it all together. So, better late than never, right?
There's a method to Bohl's madness. 1) He wants more time to pass so the virus will hopefully be well under control. 2) He wants to see quarterback Sean Chambers at full strength.
There's arguably never been a more important training camp than this one in Bohl's eight seasons in Laramie. He is "re-engineering" his offense and has a pair of new coaches on that side of the ball, including Tim Polasek, who replaces longtime offensive coordinator Brent Vigen.
April 6 is when it all starts, culminating with the annual spring game May 8. So, what better time to break down this roster position by position?
We've already touched on the Cowboys' safeties and cornerbacks. Now, let's chat about one of the most important positions in Bohl's Tampa 2 or 4-2-5 defensive scheme -- the nickelbacks.
Who are they: Keyon Blankenbaker (Jr. 5-10, 175, Oak Park, Ill.), Wyett Ekeler (Fr. 5-11, 189, Windsor, Colo.), Keonte Glinton (R-Fr. 6-0, 185, Bakersfield, Calif.), Blake Harrington (Soph. 5-11, 180, Prosper, Texas)
How they fared in 2020: With injuries come opportunity and that's exactly what happened for redshirt freshman Keonte Glinton last fall. The Bakersfield, Calif., product stepped in for the Cowboys' fourth-leading tackler in '19, Keyon Blankenbaker, and looked right at home in doing so.
Glinton saw his first collegiate action in Wyoming's home opener against Hawaii, but mainly watched from the sideline throughout the first three games of the season. A hamstring issue sidelined Blankenbaker before the Pokes' first trip to Las Vegas to face UNLV. Not only was Glinton playing, he was the starter. He took full advantage, too. Glinton's stat line says he only racked up a pair of tackles, but the game film shows that he glued himself to Rebel receivers, running backs and tight ends all afternoon.
Mainly lined up across from speedster Tyleek Collins or tight end Zyell Griffin, Glinton helped hold those two in check to the tune of just four catches for 48 yards. The following Saturday, once again in Las Vegas, Wyoming's secondary held New Mexico quarterbacks to just 92 yards through the air. The Lobos 6-foot-3 tight end, Marcus Williams, snagged two passes for 12 yards. Boise State didn't fare much better in the driving snow in the season finale. Aside from a 105-yard, eight-catch day from Khalil Shakir, Bronco pass catchers were held to just 11 more receptions for 76 yards.
The versatile Blankenbaker did appear in four games for the Cowboys last fall and tallied eight tackles and two pass breakups. The year prior, the then-sophomore registered 57 tackles, knocked down 10 passes and forced a fumble. Only Alijah Halliburton (130), Logan Wilson (105) and Cassh Maluia (61) landed more takedowns than the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Illinois native.
Wyett Ekeler, younger brother of Chargers running back, Austin Ekeler, did tally one tackle on special teams a season ago. Blake Harrington also saw limited action, playing in the opener against Nevada and versus UNLV.
Analysis: When healthy, Wyoming now has itself quite the nickel tandem in Blankenbaker and Glinton. It was only four games, but Glinton amassed invaluable experience during the COVID-19-shortened season. He never looked out of place and showed quick closing speed, especially in his first start against the Rebels.
This position is about being hybrid. One second you could be in the trenches, jamming a big tight end, the next, on the outside covering some of the quicker receivers in the Mountain West. Both of these guys have shown how valuable they are in those areas. Blankenbaker was one of the toughest defenders in man-to-man coverage in the nation in '19, according to CFB Film Room.
These two aren't big in stature, but they can drop the hammer. They will also help a Wyoming cornerback unit that is loaded with youth and inexperience. If it wasn't for Glinton seeing the field in 2020, we'd be saying the same things about the nickelbacks.
Questions: Wyoming should be in good shape no matter which one of these guys is in the lineup, but Glinton still has a lot to see. Four games was big for the rookie, but it's just a sample size. Can he take another step forward and become one of the Cowboys top young defenders? Nickelbacks, a lot like safeties, have a lot of thinking to do out there. Can he master this playbook and play fast all the time? That sample size did show that it's very likely.
Blankenbaker has 28 games under his belt. He's been on the field since his true freshman season and hasn't come off it yet. One of his biggest games came in the '19 opener against heavily favored Missouri. All the then-sophomore did was rack up nine tackles and bat down a pass against SEC -- now NFL -- talent. That hamstring injury last season was the exception, not the rule. Blankenbaker has shown despite his stature, durability is not an issue throughout the grind of a full 12-game season.
Ekeler and Harrington were both valuable members of the Cowboys' special teams unit. Making plays there is what will get them a look. Don't be surprised to see one or both get some defensive snaps this fall.
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