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2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: Wyoming

Joe Glenn inherited a program that won five games in three years before his arrival, and he gradually rebuilt the Cowboys in his first four seasons, highlighted by a win against UCLA in the 2004 Las Vegas Bowl. Wyoming won five of its last seven in 2006, earning bowl eligibility for the second time in Glenn’s tenure and raising hopes that the program was ready to take its place as an annual bowl contender.

The Cowboys opened last season with a 23-3 rout of Virginia, a win that grew more impressive as the Cavaliers won seven consecutive games after leaving Laramie, and beat MWC preseason favorite TCU 24-21 to push their record to 4-1.

There were signs of trouble for close observers — primarily quarterback Karsten Sween‘s penchant for interceptions — but Wyoming was winning and Glenn, who won a I-AA na-tional title at Montana and a pair of Division II crowns at Northern Colorado, appeared to have the Cowboys ready for a return to the postseason.

But the heightening expectations only made Wyoming’s fall more disappointing. After a 20-3 loss to New Mexico, the Cowboys suffered a 20-12 setback to Air Force from which they never seemed to recover. Leading 9-7 and driving for a score, running back Wynel Seldon fumbled and the Falcons returned it 85 yards for the decisive touchdown, dropping Wyoming to 4-3.

The Cowboys eventually lost six of their last seven games and the season bottomed out with a 50-0 loss at Utah. The relentlessly upbeat Glenn guaranteed victory in the week leading up to the game, and Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, apparently took offense and decided that merely beating Wyoming wasn’t enough. Leading 43-0 in the third quarter, Whittingham ordered an onside kick, and Glenn responded with the traditional one-fingered salute.

The gesture, which was out of character for Glenn, drew a reprimand from the MWC, but it highlighted the frustration the Cowboys felt. A season that began with great promise ended in even greater disappointment.

“I don’t think I could put my finger on any one thing [that caused the skid],” Glenn said in an apt choice of words. “All I can tell you is our team culture was good throughout. Our kids never gave up fighting and competing. … Yes, we did probably lose a little confidence, and the quarterback didn’t find the target.”

Glenn, now entering his sixth season, made offseason changes to try and rectify the problems. Gone are former offensive coordinator Bob Cockhill and tight ends coach Harvey Patton. Replacing them are new offensive coordinator Bob Cole and Casey Glenn, Joe’s son, who will coach tight ends. Cole, who guided prolific offenses at Montana and Utah State, joined the Cowboys after a three-year stint as offensive coordinator at Florida A&M, and he inherits a unit that will likely determine the team’s fate.

With an inexperienced offensive line in 2007, Wyoming relied primarily on a one-back offense that tried to throw the ball down the field, and the results were ugly. The Cowboys were last in the MWC in scoring offense (18.6 ppg), total offense (322 ypg), passing efficiency (105.2), and turnover margin (-1.09) and didn’t rank higher than 107th nationally in any of those categories. On the bright side, Wyoming returns eight starters, including its entire offensive line, and Cole’s system should emphasize the personnel’s strengths. The Cowboys will rely more on the short passing game and make much better use of the fullback and tight end, moves that should help them become a more physical offensive team.

It’s never wise to read too much into spring practice, but Glenn was pleased with the work of his offense. Wyoming returns seven starters off a defense that ranked fourth in the MWC and 23rd in the nation in total defense (326 ypg), and the offense was able to move the ball, particularly on the ground.

“The guy is really special,” Glenn said of his new OC. “Bob Cole has come in and done a great job for us. He’s been a real shot in the arm with his enthusiasm and his positive attitude.”

What Wyoming needs is for the enthusiasm and progress the offense made in the spring to translate into production in the fall. Glenn was wildly successful at Montana and Northern Colorado, but time may be running short in Laramie. The once proud Cowboy program, which enjoyed great success from 1987 to 1999, has had just one winning season in the last eight years.

The Mountain West is as strong as it’s ever been and has just four bowl tie-ins, making Glenn’s job all the more difficult, but 15 returning starters and a manageable schedule work in Wyoming’s favor.

QUARTERBACKS

A year ago Wyoming believed its future at quarterback was secure. Karsten Sween directed the Cowboys to victory in five of their last seven games in 2006 as a freshman, and the lefty with a big arm looked like a star on the rise.

Inside the Mountain West

Instead of lifting his play and the team’s along with it, Sween (6-2, 222) regressed as a sophomore. He was the MWC’s lowest rated passer (108.9), and his interception rate (17) seemed as high as the Laramie altitude at times. Sween threw for 2,028 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was never able to play with consistency.

In his defense, the Wyoming offensive line was inexperienced and at times overmatched, but he didn’t handle the pressure well. Sween rushed things in the pocket, resulting in bad decisions and backbreaking turnovers. He threw multiple interceptions in four games and had a pair of forgettable eight-completion performances against UNLV and Utah.

Over the season’s final nine games, Sween threw for less than 100 yards as often as he surpassed 200 yards (two times each).

“He had a tough season, and if there is any blame to go around, he didn’t have a lot of time to throw, and we were throwing the ball quite a ways down field where you need to protect for a long time,” Glenn said. “With the package we have now, we are going to get the ball out quicker, and we are going to run the ball more effectively to help take some of the pressure off the quarterback.”

Glenn hopes the on-field pressure on his quarterback will be reduced, but Sween will enter August practice fighting to protect his job. Wyoming signed sophomore Dax Crum (6-4, 210), who enrolled at mid-year after transferring from Mesa (Ariz.) Community College, to compete for immediate playing time. Senior Ian Hetrick (6-2, 190) could also earn time.

“We brought in a JC kid, and we have a senior to get [Sween’s] attention and up the ante as far as competition,” Glenn said. “The kids battled all through spring ball. They all took reps with the ones. I’ll probably make a decision [on who will start] after one or two weeks of [August] practice.”

Sween, who added 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason and, says Glenn, rededicated himself, would still seem to have an edge, but he failed to seize the job in the spring.

“He had a chance to separate in our spring game and he really didn’t get it done,” Glenn said. “He had a touchdown throw that was wide open and threw the ball into the ground. Had he made that throw, I would say, ‘Yeah, [its his job],’ but he hasn’t really separated.”

The post-spring depth chart lists the No. 1 position being held by Sween, Crum or Hetrick, but Crum would seem the most likely candidate to unseat Sween. A walk-on who trans-ferred out of Arizona State after redshirting as a freshman, Crum had a banner season at Mesa, completing 61 percent of his passes for 2,807 yards, 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions.

Crum averaged 227.6 yards passing, the sixth best figure in the nation, and led a Mesa team that went 2-7 in 2006, to a 10-2 record and its first bowl appearance in 11 years.

Hetrick, who redshirted in 2006 after transferring from Santa Rosa Junior College, completed 19-of-41 passes for 211 yards and two interceptions last season. Glenn gave every indication that Hetrick’s chances of winning the job were as good Sween’s and Crum’s, but the fact he couldn’t unseat Sween last season, means he will likely have to show considerable improvement.

RUNNING BACKS

One of the biggest beneficiaries of Cole’s arrival should be the running game and more specifically, Devin Moore (5-10, 191). The Cowboys ranked eighth in the Mountain West in rushing (129.8 ypg), but they return their entire offensive line and will make much more liberal use of the fullback.

Those factors make Moore, who averaged 4.9 yards per carry and gained 965 yards last season, a prime candidate for a breakout senior season. Moore is one of the team’s fastest players and bench-presses 390 pounds.

“We will probably put one of the fastest backs in the nation with Devin Moore on the field,” Glenn said. “He has the ability to go the distance on any play. With the line growing up a little more and the fullback and tight end, I’m saying D-Mo is going to have a banner season. He is really special.”

Moore cracked the 100-yard mark four times last season, including a 198-yard performance against Ohio. He doesn’t have optimal size to be a 20-plus carries per game back, but he is a playmaker on an offense in search of a spark, so expect Moore to surpass the 198 carries he had last season.

If Moore provides the speed, fellow senior Wynel Seldon (6-0, 219) should provide the power and a good change of pace. Seldon, who gained 554 yards on 148 carries, is Wyoming’s best short-yardage back. He scored eight touchdowns in 2007, and seven of them covered two yards or less. Seldon’s longest scoring run of the season was four yards. He isn’t a big play threat, but Wyoming doesn’t need him to be as long as Moore is healthy.

Sophomore Darius Terry (5-11, 207) and redshirt freshman James Davis (5-9, 199) will try to position themselves for the starting job in 2009 with their work in practice.

Glenn is excited about the addition of the fullback to the Cowboy offense, believing he has two players capable of helping open holes. Junior Greg Genho (6-3, 245) emerged from the spring atop the depth chart at fullback. A backup tight end the previous two seasons, Genho made the move to fullback in the spring and was impressive.

Redshirt freshman Josh Biezuns (6-2, 246) will also be a load as a lead blocker and should see the field.

“[Genho and Biezuns] were heroes of our spring game with their blocking,” Glenn said. “They really showed up on film and caught the ball well out of the backfield; both are really crisp blockers and brought toughness to the offense.”

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

If Wyoming’s search for consistent quarterback play weren’t enough, the Cowboys graduated three of their top four receivers and the academic status of Greg Bolling, who took classes at a community college in the spring in hopes of regaining his eligibility is uncertain. The graduated receivers and Bolling accounted for 145 of the team’s 242 receptions and 69 percent of the team’s passing yards. The quartet of Michael Ford (48-559), Bolling (35-375), Hoost Marsh (30-370), and tight end Wade Betschart (32-296) didn’t provide many game-changing plays, but they were the best the Cowboys had.

The team’s expected starting wide receivers, senior Chris Johnson (5-10, 175), redshirt freshman Brandon Stewart (5-11, 185) and sophomore Travis Burkhalter (6-1, 185), combined for 15 receptions last season.

Among the projected starters, Johnson, who had 12 catches for 132 yards, is the most experienced. Though his numbers were modest last season after transferring from junior col-lege, Johnson has good speed, and the 21.3 yards per reception he averaged in JUCO suggest he has big-play ability on the outside.

Junior Dontae Morgan (5-11, 185) is second behind Johnson on the depth chart, but he could earn a more prominent role. Morgan, who sat out last season after transferring from St. Joseph’s (Ind.) College, earned a scholarship last spring and impressed Glenn. One of the team’s fastest players, Morgan caught 13 passes for 221 yards as a freshman at St. Joseph’s, but he played just two games as a sophomore.

If Bolling is able to return, he would be a significant asset and a likely starter.

Stewart was the projected starter at the H receiver (or inside spot) coming out of spring practice, but he will be pushed by senior Kyle Jacobo (6-2, 200) and sophomore David Leonard (6-4, 185), who is actually the team’s top returning wideout. Leonard caught 13 passes for 134 yards and two touchdowns in 2007. His height makes an inviting target around the goal line, but Leonard needs to get stronger.

Jacobo, a former high school quarterback, should also figure into the rotation at the inside receiver position. He had five catches for 38 yards in 2007.

Sophomore Travis Burkhalter (6-1, 185) is the expected starter opposite Johnson. Burkhalter had three catches as a freshman and appears poised for a more prominent role.

Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys play Moore in the slot on occasion in an attempt to get him the ball in space.

At tight end, Wyoming faces the unenviable task of replacing Betschart, a second team All-MWC performer last season. There may not be an individual that replaces Betschart, but Glenn believes Wyoming has the talent on the roster.

Exiting spring, junior Jason Salyards (6-5, 236) was atop the depth chart, ahead of sophomore Joe Evers (6-5, 250) and junior Chris Sundberg (6-5, 245), who has battled injury problems. Salyards had 10 catches for 97 yards last season, and with the tight end playing a more prominent role in the offense (Betschart often thrived as an H-back), Salyard’s production should increase.

Despite three returnees, expect junior college transfer Orlando Arnold (6-4, 255) to be a factor. Arnold, who has run a 4.7 40-yard dash, caught 49 passes for 620 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore at Contra Costa (Calif.) Community College. Arnold must be a good athlete — he also started for the Contra Costa basketball team.

“I can’t wait to see what he can do,” Glenn said. “He showed on film [he is a] good blocker. … I’m saying Orlando can come in and make an immediate impact.”

OFFENSIVE LINE

For all the talk about the skill positions, any chance for Wyoming to return to the bowl picture will begin along the offensive line. A year ago, the Cowboys broke in four new offensive linemen, starting a freshman, two sophomores and two juniors, and the results were predictable.

Wyoming averaged just 3.3 yards per rush and surrendered 30 sacks, numbers that helped contribute to the team’s offensive woes.

Heading into 2008, inexperience is no longer a concern. Wyoming returns all five offensive line starters, and after a winter of hard work in the weight room and a very good spring, better days could be ahead.

“I told everybody last year we just needed some birthdays,” Glenn said of the line. “They are the most improved position on our team throughout winter program and spring ball. … We have more people, we are bigger and stronger and more experienced. You have to have senior leadership on the offensive line, and we finally have a couple.”

The leader of the Wyoming line will be senior Kyle Howard (6-7, 312), who has started 28-of-31 career games and protects Sween’s blind side. The right tackle has tremendous size and Glenn believes he will be an NFL draft pick in 2009. Redshirt freshman Clayton Kirvan (6-6, 301) is Howard’s understudy, and he appears to have a bright future in Laramie as well.

Junior Russ Arnold (6-4, 290) returns at right guard, where he started 10 games a year ago. Arnold started the other two games at center. Sophomore Jack Tennant (6-4, 310) and redshirt freshman Brandon Self (6-3, 296) are the primary reserves.

Senior Tim Bond (6-4, 300) returns for his second season as the starting center.

Redshirt freshman Travis Hillen (6-5, 271) is second on the depth chart at center, but if Bond were injured, Arnold would likely step into the role.

At left guard, sophomore Sam Sterner (6-4, 297) returns after starting 12 games in 2007. Massive junior Zack Kennedy (6-6, 327) is behind Sterner, and he is the team’s top reserve at guard, part of the improved depth.

At left tackle is junior Ryan Otterson (6-5, 289), who should team with Howard to give the Wyoming line a very good pair of bookends. Behind Otterson are sophomores Nick Brousseau (6-9, 283) and Garrett King (6-6, 302).

KICKERS

This is an area of great concern for Wyoming. A year ago, Billy Vinnedge capably handled both punting and place-kicking duties. But Vinnedge was forced to be the place-kicker because junior Jake Scott (5-8, 158) couldn’t handle the job. Scott was 2-of-4 on field goal attempts as a freshman and didn’t have an attempt in 2007.

This will be the third consecutive season Scott has the opportunity to win the job. This fall, his primary competition is expected to come from freshman Austin McCoy (6-3, 190). McCoy, who converted 5-of-6 field goals and 35-of-36 extra points as a senior at Winter Haven (Fla.) High School, is also an accomplished racecar driver.

Redshirt freshman Branden Shoop (6-1, 185) will also compete for the job.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Wyoming’s strength is along its defensive line, where it returns three junior starters — defensive ends John Fletcher (6-6, 280) and Mitch Unrein (6-4, 270) and nose-guard Fred Givens (6-0, 301) — who anchored a unit that was 22nd in the nation in total defense (332.0 ypg) a year ago. Fletcher, who had 10.5 sacks (10th in the nation) and 14 tackles for loss, gains most of the notoriety. A second-team All-MWC selection a season ago, Fletcher, who finished with 60 tackles, is on the Outland Trophy Watch List.

Starting opposite of Fletcher, Unrein is no less a player. He finished with 55 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and five sacks last season.

“Unrein is every bit as good [as Fletcher],” Glenn said. “Mitch Unrein is a whale of a ball player.” Givens is an effective plugger in the middle, one of the primary reasons Wyoming ranked 27th in the nation and fourth in the MWC in rush defense (124.7 ypg).

Just as encouraging as the play of the starters is the depth the Cowboys have. Seniors Danny Dutmer (6-3, 248), Rob Holloway (6-4, 267) and Anthony Wilson (6-3, 274) provide quality reserves. Junior defense end Mike Neuhaus (6-3, 259), who finished with 16 tackles, 3.5 sacks, broke up two passes and recovered a fumble, gives Wyoming another productive player off the bench.

The Cowboys have consistently been among the MWC’s best defenses in recent years, and the defensive line should go a long way toward allowing them to maintain that perch.

LINEBACKERS

On the surface, graduating a pair of starting linebackers and a top reserve would be cause for concern, but Glenn believes this could be the best group of linebackers he has ever had. Returning is senior Ward Dobbs (6-0, 230), who led the team in tackles last season with 98. Dobbs, an inside linebacker, sat out spring practice after shoulder and sports hernia surgeries but should be recovered by the start of fall practice. Dobbs, who has started 29-of-35 career games, needs just 17 tackles to move into the top 10 on Wyoming career tackles list and could finish in the top five with a big season.

If Dobbs needs a break, junior Zeb Whipp (6-1, 235) and redshirt freshman Mark Oliver (6-1, 245) will provide it.

Joining Dobbs inside is freshman Gabe Knapton (6-3, 227), who has the look of a rising star. Knapton is big, physical and fast. His father, Bob Knapton, was a star at Northern Colorado and his uncle, Jeff Knapton, was an all-WAC performer at Wyoming in the mid-1980s. Based on his play in the spring, Knapton appears poised to carry on the family name.

“I’m not kidding you, sideline to sideline — like his dad was 25 years ago — our number ones and number twos couldn’t block him all spring,” Glenn said. “He made play after play, and he kept big plays from happening. He is an excellent football player.”

Knapton beat out senior Jake Edmunds (6-2, 221) for the starting job.

Returning to start at the Buck linebacker position is senior Mike Juergens (6-4, 230), who had 46 tackles, four tackles for loss, three sacks and a team-high two forced fumbles in his first season as a starter.

Junior Matt Barella (6-2, 233) and redshirt freshman Bryson Studnicka (6-3, 236) will be Juergens’ primary backups.

Junior Weston Johnson (6-3, 226) is the likely starter at the Sam linebacker position. Playing as a backup last season, Johnson made 26 tackles, and he will provide the defense with a shot of athleticism. Pushing Johnson will be highly regarded redshirt freshman Brain Hendricks (6-1, 221).

“The linebacking corps is as good as I’ve ever had,” Glenn said. “I think our front seven is special.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The biggest question surrounding the Cowboys’ defense is at cornerback, where Michael Medina and Jules Stinson, both two-year starters, are gone. The Cowboys struggled against the pass last season, ranking eighth in the MWC and allowing 225 yards per game.

In addition to surrendering yardage, Wyoming picked off just seven passes. The Cowboys do return both starting safeties, seniors Quincy Rogers (6-1, 211) and Michael Ray (6-1, 210), and a very talented reserve in sophomore Chris Prosinski (6-1, 204).

Wyoming entered the spring looking for a pair of cornerbacks and may have found them. Sophomore Marcell Gipson (5-10, 172), who redshirted in 2006 and took last season off, returned and had an outstanding spring and will start at boundary corner.

“The guy that came on was Marcell Gipson,” said Glenn, who believes Gipson can be the MWC’s Newcomer of the Year. “He was, perhaps, the best surprise of spring football. … Marcell is a kid that will turn some heads in our league. He is very physical, very tough, he can cover, he can tackle and he can blitz. We are really excited about him coming into the fold.”

Sophomore Keith Lewis (5-11, 190) is expected to back Gipson up.

Junior T.J. Atwater (5-9, 185) earned the starting nod at field corner. Atwater played in six games and had five tackles last season. Freshmen Tramaine Brown (5-9, 175) and Ryan Handford (5-9, 175) will provide depth.

Rogers, the free safety, will be one of the defense’s leaders. He was third on the team in tackles last season, finishing with 85, and he had two interceptions. Ray, a strong safety, had 53 tackles and should improve in his second year as a starter.

The best safety in spring practice may have been sophomore Chris Prosinski (6-1, 204), and he will see the field this fall as part of a safety rotation. Senior Derrick McMahen (5-10, 175) will provide quality depth as well.

PUNTERS

This is another area of concern. Vinnedge, who averaged 42.7 yards per punt and pinned 26 kicks inside the 20-yard line, is gone, and there is much uncertainty entering the fall.

Sophomore Nick Landess (6-3, 197) is the presumed starter, but Wyoming spent a significant portion of spring practice in its new $11 million practice facility, which limited his ability to punt. Landess took a step forward in the spring game but will have to prove he is worthy of the job in the fall.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Cowboys led the MWC in kick returns last season, though Troy Lewis, who handled the majority of the returns, has graduated. Moore is expected to be the primary return man, and he should be an upgrade. Moore averaged 27.1 yards on 10 returns in 2007, a number that would have led the league with enough attempts.

Redshirt freshman Brandon Stewart (5-11, 185) is the most sure-handed punt returner, and he should open the season as the starter.

The Cowboys coverage teams weren’t good last season, allowing 27.8 yards on kick returns and 10.7 on punt returns.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Cowboys
Unit Grade
Offense C
Special teams C-
Defense B
Intangibles C

The Cowboys are a tough team to figure. A year ago they appeared to be on the upswing, but after collapsing at the end of the season, uncertainty abounds. Glenn is a glass-half-full kind of guy and viewed through that prism, there is reason to believe the Cowboys can regain their footing and contend for a bowl berth.

The return of the entire offensive line and the presence of Moore give the offense a chance to be much improved, if it gets consistent play at quarterback. Defensively, the front seven should be very strong, and a solid group of safeties should help cover the cornerbacks as they grow on the job.

Even under the best of scenarios Wyoming likely won’t have much margin for error, which makes special teams play particularly worrisome.

One thing that works in Wyoming’s favor is its schedule, which includes seven home games. With the exception of the Oct. 11 game against Utah, Wyoming should be favored to win each of its home games. Of course road games at BYU, New Mexico, TCU and Tennessee won’t be easy. The Cowboys most winnable road game — at UNLV — comes five days after the game in Knoxville.

If someone emerges from the trio of Sween, Crum and Hetrick at quarterback, it’s not unreasonable to think Wyoming can win seven games. Whether any of the quarterbacks are capable of playing at the requisite level will likely determine the team’s fate.

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