Wyoming football’s position battle breakdown
LARAMIE -- With 95 percent of the Cowboys' roster returning in 2021, position battles were few and far between this spring.
Still, it took Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl 25 days to publicly release a two-deep depth chart.
All 11 starters are back on the defensive side of the ball, along with three opt outs from last year's COVID-shortened six-game season. On offense, 10 of 11 starters return to the lineup. So, what battles were we keeping an eye on?
Let's talk about it:
Sean Chambers vs. Levi Williams
After the Cowboys' annual spring game, Bohl said the race for the starting quarterback spot was too close to call, though Sean Chambers and Levi Williams had distanced themselves from the field in 15 practices.
UW's eighth-year head coach announced Wednesday that Chambers is atop the depth chart heading into summer conditioning and fall camp, making it three straight seasons the Kerman, Calif., product has earned the starting nod.
"I'm just going to keep working like like someone is chasing me," Chambers said on May 8 after the Brown and Gold game in Laramie. "I think that light or that fire underneath you is what drives me and I love that. I embrace that. I embrace competition. It makes me a better football player."
Williams, who started five games for the Cowboys in 2020 in place of Chambers, who suffered a season-ending leg fracture on the third play from scrimmage, said he thought he did enough to earn the role out of spring ball. However, if he isn't the guy under center on Sept. 4 when Montana State rolls into town, Williams said he will be ready regardless.
"I know coach (Tim Polasek) is going to put in the best guy and that's all that matters, you know? So, he's going to play the hot hand, and if it's me, if it's (Chambers), that doesn't really matter," Williams said. "It's just what's best for the team and that's how it's going to go."
Williams went 2-3 in his five starts last fall and completed 49.6 percent of his passes. The redshirt freshman tossed one touchdown and ran for six more, despite playing a majority of the season with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
Chambers, who has been sidelined for the season with various leg injuries in three straight seasons, has gone 9-3 as a starter for the Pokes. In 2019, he threw for 915 yards and seven touchdowns while completing just 43 percent of his passes. The redshirt sophomore did carry the ball 90 times for 567 yards and 10 scores.
The lingering question remains: Can Chambers stay healthy for a full 12-game schedule?
Bohl is giving him the shot to prove he can.
Charles Hicks vs. Easton Gibbs
Does anyone have a better job in college football than Aaron Bohl?
The coach's son and second-year linebacker coach started his young career with a pair of future NFL players, Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia, roaming the second level of the Cowboys' defense. Surely replacing them would be a tall task, right? Not so far.
Chad Muma is fully entrenched in the middle, but the battle at the outside spot has been heavily contested throughout spring.
Charles Hicks, who started five of the Pokes' six games last fall before suffering a leg injury against New Mexico, registered 27 tackles and a pair of sacks in his first season at the top of the depth chart. The San Diego product also proved to have a nose for the football, snagging an interception and recovering a fumble.
"It's always good to have competition because, at the end of the day, that makes us push harder," Hicks said. "I make myself push even harder because I feel like people that maybe don't have a certain competition behind them kind of can get lackadaisical. I feel like that's the worst way to go."
Despite starting just one game, the season finale at home against Boise State, Easton Gibbs tallied 42 tackles for the Cowboys during his redshirt freshman campaign. That was a third-best mark on the team behind only Muma (71) and free safety Esaias Gandy (43). Over the final two games, Gibbs, also a southern California native, finished with a team-high 23 tackles.
These two didn't make the decision easy on the head man.
"It's been good to see those guys mix it up," Bohl said. "It's got the makings of a good linebacking corps."
Hicks is listed as the starter, but Gibbs was also suffering from a hip injury this spring. These two are both going to rotate and play a ton of snaps in 2021.
It's a good problem to have.
DeVonne Harris vs. Solomon Byrd
Many were stunned to see former Freshman All-American Solomon Byrd second on the depth chart behind DeVonne Harris at the defensive end spot.
"He's playing OK," Bohl said when asked how Byrd's spring has gone since deciding to opt out of the 2020 campaign due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "You know, you'll see a depth chart that comes out, and unless something changes, he's probably not going to be at the top of the depth chart. We evaluate everything, every single thing. So, football's a developmental sport and how you move and your weightlifting and your conditioning all come into play."
You can read between the lines there.
Harris, a redshirt freshman from Minnesota, tallied a modest nine tackles last fall in a limited role, however, it was his final performance that has had a lasting impact on his coaches. In a whiteout snow storm against Boise State, Harris registered five tackles and showed off his athletic ability, chasing down Broncos' quarterback Hank Bachmeier undeterred by the slippery playing surface.
"He keeps on showing up," Bohl said. "He's still a little bit light, I think he's 225 pounds, but he's got good range. You know, he's having a very good spring. That's part of what we're trying to do in establishing a depth chart and depth and things of that nature."
Byrd, a sophomore from the Los Angeles area, suited up in 12 games for the Cowboys in 2019, racking up 45 tackles and a team-best 6.5 sacks. He also forced a pair of fumbles and recovered one.
Byrd is a very prideful player. Expect him to get into game shape over the summer and be ready for fall practices.
If he indeed spends the season coming off the bench, once again, that's a pretty nice luxury to have for this squad. Harris played well late last season, but he should get pushed to improve even more every day in practice by not only Byrd, but team captain, Garrett Crall, on the opposite side.
Braden Smith vs. Rome Weber
Like Byrd, Rome Weber didn't just roll back into the lineup after a year off and regain his starting spot at the strong safety position.
Braden Smith, a super senior who started all six games last fall, isn't handing it over, either.
"Well, there's a battle that I think Braden is separating himself in," Bohl said this spring. "He's a little bit injured right now, but he's had a couple of really good scrimmages. Rome has done OK. I think he's certainly improved, but right now, I think that there's a separation between the two."
A year after registering 23 tackles, a sack and an interception, Smith is indeed the starter heading into the summer.
"I don't want to really call it a battle," Smith said this spring. "I'd rather call it like a friendly competition, stuff like that, you know? I love Rome. I got a lot of respect for him and I know he has respect for me, too. So, right now, it's just whoever is going to help the team get better."
Weber opted out of the 2020 season because of the virus. In 2019, he secured 38 tackles, a sack, an interception and broke up four passes. The sophomore's best outing came in a 26-21 road loss to Utah State where he finished with a season-high eight tackles and a sack.
Weber is a really talented player who stepped in right away in 2019 and made an impact. Second-year defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said this spring that it isn't easy to be away from the game for 15 months when you play a skill position like safety. He added that Weber is slowly making his way back into playing mode.
Don't be surprised to see Weber push Smith during fall camp and into the season. Like the battles above, the Cowboys should be in good shape no matter who's on the field.
Alonzo Velazquez vs. Rudy Stofer
The decision for Alonzo Velazquez to return to the program this offseason wasn't a difficult one. He came to Laramie to play football, he said. As long as he can still run and block, that's what he is going to do.
That brought a smile to his head coach's face.
"I'm really glad he's here," Bohl said of Velazquez returning thanks to an NCAA ruling that grants every player an additional season because of the coronavirus. "... He's getting to be an old man. You know, his knowledge and what he's doing and his perseverance is certainly important. He adds great value to our offensive line. I know coach (Derek) Frazier is really happy with him and I am as well."
Velazquez, who is listed as the starter at left tackle, missed the entire 2020 season after hurting his shoulder in a team walkthrough. A knee injury cost him four games the previous year and another setback allowed him to play in just five games in 2018.
Junior Rudy Stofer appeared in 24 games as a freshman and sophomore. He has played a major role in helping Cowboy running backs earn three straight Mountain West Conference rushing crowns.
Bohl said this spring that Stofer was behind Velazquez but he appreciated his efforts and added he will see the field in 2021 no matter who the starter is on opening day.
The offensive line is Wyoming's most veteran-laden position group. Eight returners have started at least one game in Laramie. Those guys have combined for 145 starts.
These guys will rotate. And at the rate Bohl likes to run the ball, expect the entire two-deep to see the field at some point this fall.
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