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Blue Ribbon Preview Wyoming

COACH AND PROGRAM

Wyoming coach Joe Glenn has likened his four-year tenure in Laramie to an old country dance, the two-step. Wyoming has shown a tendency to take two steps forward before falling back.After four years of sometimes-painful building — the Cowboys are 21-26 during Glenn’s tenure — the program could be ready to begin a more uninterrupted march forward. Last year’s 6-6 finish isn’t eye-catching, but if Wyoming has its first winning campaign since the 2004 team went 7-5 and won the Las Vegas Bowl, the roots of that success will be traced to 2006.

First off, last year’s team deserved the MWC’s fourth bowl bid, but a system that allows .500 teams to go to bowls obviously has holes. Despite finishing with an identical regular-season record as New Mexico, finishing a game ahead of the Lobos in the MWC standings and winning the head-to-head match-up, Wyoming’s season ended in November. The Lobos “earned” a bid to the ticket-hungry New Mexico Bowl, played, conveniently enough, on campus at UNM.

Glenn took over a program that won a total of five games in the three seasons before his arrival. Only the team’s 4-7 record in 2005 could be considered a real disappointment, and there is little doubt about Glenn’s ability to coach. His career record is 179-85-1 and he has a Division I-AA national championship to his credit at Montana and he won a pair of Division II titles at Northern Colorado.

With Wyoming sitting at 1-4 in ’06, Glenn made a decision that changed his team’s season. Two of the Cowboys’ first four losses — to Virginia, Boise State, Air Force and Syracuse — came in overtime, and none were by more than seven points.

Jacob Doss started the season at quarterback and statistically performed reasonably well, completing 61.8 percent of his passes, but the Cowboys were missing a spark, and it showed on the scoreboard.

Freshmen Karsten Sween played the second half of the of Syracuse game, throwing for 201 yards and two touchdowns, including a 15-yarder with five seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime. Wyoming eventually lost the game, but the Cowboys found a quarterback in the Carrier Dome. Sween was installed as the starter and Wyoming won five of its final seven games, losing only to BYU and TCU, both of which finished the season in the top 25.Seven starters return on offense, including the leading skill position players. Wyoming lost six starters off a defense that finished ninth in the country, allowing just 262.9 yards per game, but there is cautious optimism that there is enough talent on hand to sustain the unit. All the players in the program were recruited by Glenn, and the feeling in Laramie is the Cowboys are again ready to ride.

“I think our kids have confidence we are going to take a step forward,” Glenn said. “We are excited about it.”

Wyoming isn’t exactly chock-full of high school talent, so recruiting isn’t easy for the Cowboys, but the program, with the exception of Vic Koennig’s disastrous 5-29 tenure at the turn of the millennium, has enjoyed success. Wyoming had just three losing seasons between 1987 and 1999, and Glenn appears ready to return the Cowboys to their winning ways.

QUARTERBACKS

The optimism in Laramie is in large part because of the presence of Karsten Sween (6-2, 204), a sophomore. Sween went 5-2 as a starter, throwing for 1,304 yards, nine touch-downs and eight interceptions. His teammates responded to his presence and he delivered in difficult situations, leading Wyoming to its first victory at New Mexico since 1991 in his first start.

“Karsten showed a strong arm and the ability to anticipate his throws,” Glenn said. “When receivers were coming out of the break, the ball was there, even though he wasn’t com-fortable with all his reads being a first-time guy at the collegiate level. We were a different team with him at the throttle.”Sween struggled against BYU and TCU, throwing three interceptions and failing to throw a touchdown against either team, but so did nearly every other quarterback. He had minor knee surgery after the season and was held out of all contact drills in the spring, but he will be 100 percent in August. Despite sitting out contact drills, Sween participated in 7-on-7s in the spring and the left-hander was extremely sharp.

“He’s gotten more physical and he was amazing throwing the football in the spring ball,” Glenn said. “The ball is on the express and it comes in rhythm.”

Sweden’s status as the starter is unquestioned, but one of the stories of the spring was the play of junior Ian Hetrick (6-2, 195), who redshirted last season after transferring from Santa Rosa (Calif.) Junior College. Hetrick took advantage of Sween’s absence and surged past senior Jacob Doss (6-2, 218) on the depth chart. With Doss sitting out the spring game with a shoulder injury, Hetrick took every snap in the final scrimmage and went 20-of-31 for 269 yards and three touchdowns.

The team struggled to win with Doss at the controls in 2006, but he had a passer efficiency rating of 124.8 and threw for 826 yards, seven touchdowns and five interceptions.

With Sween, Hetrick and Doss, Wyoming is as deep at quarterback as any team in the MWC.

RUNNING BACKS

The Cowboys don’t have a dominant running back, but they hope the junior combination of Wynel Seldon (6-0, 208) and Devin Moore (5-10, 182) provide a stout ground game. Seldon, the bigger back, will carry a heavier load, as he looks to recapture the form he had in 2005 when he set a Wyoming freshman record with 871 yards rushing, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns. He led the team in rushing as a sophomore, but he had just 610 yards, scored only one touchdown and averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.Seldon suffered a bruised quad on Oct. 28 against TCU, an injury that forced him to miss the San Diego State game and slowed him the final two games of the season. The injury was partly responsible for his drop in production, but not the sole reason.

Pushing Seldon for carries will be Moore, the big play threat out of the backfield. The speedy Moore, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash at Wyoming’s pro day, averaged 7.2 yards and gained 574 yards last season. He also caught 21 passes for 113 yards and was eighth in the MWC in all-purpose yards (77.7).

Moore was responsible for Wyoming’s longest play from scrimmage — a 71-yard run against BYU. He also earned MWC Offensive-Player-of-the-Week honors after rushing for a career high 131 yards on 22 carries against San Diego State, the game Seldon sat out with an injury.

It might be asking to much for Moore to carry the ball 20-plus times a game, but he will log far more than the 80 carries he had in 2006. If Seldon is unable to duplicate his freshman effort, Moore could become the feature back.

Sophomore Jimmy DeAndrea (6-0, 205) and redshirt freshman Darius Terry (5-11, 203) will provide depth.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Sween will have no shortage of familiar faces to throw the football to. The Cowboys return five of their top six receivers, including senior Michael Ford (6-2, 203), who led the team with 60 catches for 674 yards.Ford, who was 39th in the nation in receptions, is the team’s biggest receiver and most reliable target over the middle. Ford isn’t typically a deep threat — the longest of his 108 career receptions is 40 yards — but he will, again, be Sween’s primary target.

Wyoming’s most explosive receiver could be senior Hoost Marsh (5-9, 172), who has 4.4 speed. Marsh’s junior numbers, 23 catches for 280 yards and three touchdowns, were modest, but he is dangerous in the open field. Expect Wyoming to go down field to Marsh more often in 2006.

Sophomore Greg Bolling (6-2, 180) will be the third starting wide receiver, stepping in for the graduated Tyler Holden, who had 41 catches for 461 yards. Glenn believes Bolling, who had only one catch last season, has star potential.

“Bolling had a breakout spring,” Glenn said. “He was a sensation in practice [last year] but we never got him into the flow of the games as much as we wanted to.”

Junior Kyle Jacobo (6-2, 192) will be the fourth receiver. Jacobo, who had 10 catches for 74 yards last season, is a possession receiver. Freshman Travis Burkhalter (6-1, 285), a gray-shirt last season, arrived on campus at mid-year and showed enough that he will likely play in the fall. Senior Darion Donnelly (6-2, 205) will provide depth and experience.

Senior H-Back Wade Betschart (6-3, 250) is a big target in the middle of the field. Betschart caught 18 passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns last season, and this season he should match that production, at the least. Sophomore Greg Genho (6-3, 250) is the backup.

Junior Chris Sundberg (6-5, 238) returns as the starting tight end. Sophomore Jesson Salyards (6-5, 235) is the primary reserve. Sundberg and Salyards combined for 10 catches and 126 yards last season, but their true value is in their ability to block along the front.

Freshman Joe Evers (6-5, 245) is the third option.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The skill positions are set for Wyoming. The team’s primary offensive questions are along the offensive line, where just two starters return and both of them are changing positions.The Cowboys must replace a pair of all-conference linemen in Chase Johnson and Jason Karcher, and Hunter Richards, who started the final 34 games of his career.

One of the returnees, junior Kyle Howard (6-7, 312), is switching from left guard to right tackle, where he will be responsible for protecting Sween’s blindside. Expect Howard to make the transition smoothly.

Sophomore Ryan Otterson (6-5, 281) enjoyed a strong spring and will start at left tackle. Glenn likes Otterson’s long term potential, but his lack of heft is a concern. Freshmen Nic Brousseau (6-9, 284) and Garrett King (6-6, 288) are the second team tackles, but Wyoming can ill-afford an injury to Howard or Otterson.

Junior Tim Bond (6-4, 296) will make the permanent switch from right guard to center. He started three games at center last season when Karcher was injured, so he has experience. Freshman Erik Kottom (6-4, 281) has shown promise, but he needs to add size.

The two guard positions will be among the most competitive on the team. Freshman Jack Tennant (6-4, 304) appeared on his way to winning the right guard job until an injury sidelined him for two weeks in the spring. Tennant may still win the position, but sophomore Russ Arnold (6-4, 287), who started three games at right guard last year, played very well in his absence.

Freshman Sam Sterner (6-4, 288) is atop the depth chart at left guard, but he could be challenged by either Arnold or Tennant, as well. Kottom could also see action at either guard spot.

Wyoming doesn’t have a senior on its two-deep depth chart along the line and eight of the 10 players most likely to play are freshmen or sophomores.

KICKERS

Missed extra points seemed to decide an unusually high number of games throughout the 2006 college football season, and Wyoming was one of the first teams to fall victim to the problem. Aric Goodman, a freshman, missed an extra point in overtime at Virginia, sealing the Cowboys’ 13-12 loss.While the media attention faded, Goodman went on to have a respectable rookie year — making 10-of-16 field goals with a long of 52 and 18-of-20 PATs — but he transferred at the end of spring practice, telling Glenn he was never happy in Laramie.

Goodman was the probable starter heading into the fall, but sophomore Jake Scott (5-8, 158) was pushing him. Scott made 2-of-4 kicks last season, including a 47-yarder, but he will have to prove he’s ready for the full-time job.

Goodman wasn’t going to win the Lou Groza Award, but he will be missed.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Like their offensive counterparts, the defensive line will be young and inexperienced. The Cowboys graduated all three starters along the defensive line and emerged from the spring with three sophomores, who have combined for 33 career tackles, atop the depth chart. But Glenn is optimistic.Sophomore Fred Givens (6-0, 310) will be in the middle at nose tackle. Givens played in all 12 games last season and had 12 tackles. The primary reserve will be sophomore Ben Smith (6-2, 272), who made the move from center.

Sophomore John Fletcher (6-6, 274) will start at defensive tackle and Glenn believes he could be “special” before his time at Wyoming is over. Fletcher saw limited duty in nine games in 2006 but had three tackles for loss and two sacks.

Juniors Danny Dutmer (6-3, 249) and Anthony Wilson (6-3, 263), a transfer from Diablo Valley (Calif.) Community College will also see playing time.

Sophomore Mitch Unrein (6-4, 257), who played in 11 games last season, had as good a spring as anyone on the team to earn the starting job at defensive end. Sophomore Mike Neuhaus (6-3, 256) and junior Rob Holloway (6-4, 276) will push Unrein.

“[The defensive line] worked very hard during spring training and needs to continue to do so during the fall,” Glenn said. “That being said, this is a group of excellent football players.”

LINEBACKERS

Junior Ward Dobbs (6-0, 229), an inside linebacker, leads a unit that is the unquestioned strength of the Cowboys’ defense. Wyoming returns three of its four starting linebackers, and Dobbs is the centerpiece. He had 69 tackles, including five for loss and three sacks, to earn second-team All-MWC honors.”He is just tough,” Glenn said. “He is one of those guys that when he blitzes, he’s hard to block. He just overpowers people. He has the intangibles. He is tough physically and has good instincts. When he hits you, you stay hit.”

Dobbs will pair with senior Luke Chase (6-1, 240) to give the Cowboys one of the best pair of inside linebackers in the conference. Chase, sixth on the team in tackles with 44 last season, hasn’t missed a game during his career at Wyoming.

Seniors John Prater (6-0, 234) and Brandon Haughen (6-1, 239) are second on the depth chart, and they are productive players as well. Prater had 36 tackles in a reserve role in 2006 and Haughen finished with 24, including three sacks.

Senior Sean Claffey (6-3, 227) returns on the outside. An excellent student, Claffey totaled 37 tackles, including eight for loss and three sacks. He will be moving to strong-side linebacker this season but that shouldn’t affect his performance.

Junior Mike Juergens (6-4, 235) will start at weak-side linebacker. Though this will be Juergens’ first year as a starter, he has played in all 23 games during his first two seasons. Juergens is one of the defense’s best athletes, and there shouldn’t be any drop-off with him taking over for the graduated Austin Hall.

Sophomore Weston Johnson (6-3, 221) will be the primary reserve at outside linebacker. Sophomore Matt Barella (6-2, 237) will see field time as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Glenn may be a little biased, but he believes he has the league’s best pair of returning cornerbacks in seniors Michael Medina (6-0, 190) and Julius Stinson (5-10, 182). With so many questions on the defensive line, the Cowboys may need Medina and Stinson to provide blanket coverage.Stinson, an aggressive corner unafraid to provide support against the run game, was third on the team in tackles with 57. He also had 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and broke up three passes. Wyoming, which allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 52 percent of their passes, was eighth in the nation, allowing just 156 passing yards per game.

Medina’s tackle numbers weren’t as gaudy — he finished with 31 — but he intercepted two passes and broke up a team-leading seven. Sophomore T.J. Atwater (5-9, 185) will be the chief reserve at both corner spots. Senior Troy Lewis (5-7, 165) will provide depth.

“[Stinson and Medina] probably give us the best two tandem corners in the conference,” Glenn said. “I hope they give us the year they did last year, and we will be great.”

The two safety positions don’t have the same amount of certainty. Both of last year’s starters are gone, including All-MWC strong safety John Wendling, a sixth round pick of the Buffalo Bills, and his team-leading 78 tackles. Dorsey Golston, who intercepted a team-leading four passes, has also graduated.

Stepping into their places will be a pair of juniors, Quincy Rogers (6-1, 207) and Michael Ray (6-1, 206). Rogers will play free safety and Ray will replace Wendling at strong safety.

Rogers will be a first-year starter but he saw plenty of playing time in 2006. He played in 12 games and had 40 tackles. Ray’s playing time was more infrequent. He saw the field in nine games and made only five tackles. Both players will bring athleticism to the field.

Freshman Chris Prosinski (6-1, 200) has shown promise and will back up Rogers. Fellow redshirt freshman Alex Toney (6-1, 205) enjoyed a strong spring and will be Ray’s primary reserve. Junior Derrick McMahen (5-10, 188), a transfer from Palomar (Calif.) Community College, could see immediate playing time as well.

PUNTERS

The Cowboys are fortunate to have one of the nation’s best punters in senior Billy Vinnedge (6-1, 196), who last season averaged 43.2 yards per punt, 21st in the country and fourth in the Mountain West. Vinnedge pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 18 times.With Goodman’s departure, Vinnedge may be asked to perform kickoff duties.

SPECIAL TEAMS

With Hoost Marsh returning kickoffs and punts, the Cowboys have one of the conference’s best. Marsh, a first team All-MWC punt returner as a freshman in 2004, averaged 8.5 yards per return, sixth best in the conference last season.This will be his first year as a fulltime kick returner, but he has averaged 19.6 yards on 35 career returns.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

After four seasons of building and accumulating a roster full of his recruits, Glenn has Wyoming ready to return to the bowl scene. The offense is loaded with returning skill players and quarterback Karsten Sween provided an immediate boost when he was inserted into the lineup. The only significant question is the offensive line.

Grading the Cowboys

The defense has major questions at safety and along the line, but it was ranked ninth in the nation last season. The Cowboys will suffer some regression, but a strong corps of linebackers and two good cornerbacks should prevent the unit from free falling.Wyoming isn’t ready to crack the hold TCU, BYU and Utah have on the top three spots, despite tying with Utah in the 2006 standings, but it should close the gap and be one of the best of the conference’s remaining teams. But apparently being the fourth-best team in the MWC doesn’t guarantee the league’s fourth bowl bid.

The red flags for Wyoming are lack of experience on both the offensive and defensive lines and a nonconference schedule that could make piling up a gaudy record difficult. The Cowboys’ nonconference schedule includes home games against Utah State and Virginia and trips to Boise State and Ohio.

On the positive side, BYU and TCU both come to Laramie and, on paper, road games at Air Force, San Diego State and Colorado State appear to be winnable going into the season.

There won’t be much that separates fourth and sixth place in the MWC, but Glenn is a proven winner on the sideline and his team is on the upswing.

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