LARAMIE -- Wyoming’s defense was a skeleton crew for much of last season. Yet the stats hardly noticed.
First came the opt-outs amid the coronavirus pandemic, all but one of which came on the defensive side of the ball for the Cowboys. Then the injuries. It all resulted in UW missing its top two defensive ends (Garrett Crall and Solomon Byrd), two starting interior linemen (Mario Mora and Ravontae Holt), a starting safety (Rome Weber) and two primary reinforcements along the defensive line (Davon Wells-Ross and Claude Cole) for some if not all of the season.
The attrition didn’t stop there. Outside linebacker Charles Hicks missed the last seven quarters of the season with a bum knee, and veteran defensive end Victor Jones, whose status with the team hasn’t changed, was suspended for the final three games because of a violation of team rules.
And if that weren’t enough, those that were available to play were learning a new system on the fly.
UW coach Craig Bohl brought in former Minnesota and Wake Forest defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel to replace the departed Jake Dickert early last year, but Sawvel didn’t get a chance to install his defense last spring since there was no spring ball. The pandemic did away with that, leaving the Cowboys roughly four weeks for a crash course before their first game once the Mountain West decided in September to reinstate an abbreviated fall season.
“The defense was kind of like a foreign language,” senior safety Esaias Gandy said. “It was like speaking Spanish or something.”
But whether it be personnel or time, UW’s defense didn’t get stuck on what it didn’t have. The unit instead did the best with what it did have.
UW allowed the 16th-fewest yards in the Football Bowl Subdivision on average (328 per game), the fourth straight season the Cowboys have finished in the top 45 nationally in that category. The Cowboys ranked 24th in points allowed (21 per game), the fourth straight season they’ve been in the top 30. Some of their other statistical rankings nationally? 21st in run defense, 29th in pass defense (a significant improvement from 105th the previous season), seventh in red-zone defense, 30th in third-down conversion percentage defense and 24th in sacks.
In other words, UW’s patchwork group didn’t do just enough to get by on that side of the ball. By the end of the season, the Cowboys were one of just 16 FBS teams that yielded less than 5 yards per play.
“In October, I had no idea,” Sawvel said. “But as the season went on and you realized who these players were, how hard they worked and they’d gotten better every week, in the end, you look up at it and go, ‘OK I could see that.’
“Maybe while you’re in the middle of it, you don’t feel it. But at the end of it, when you look back on it, it’s not a huge surprise.”
The Cowboys began the season allowing 496 yards and 37 points against Nevada’s run-and-shoot offense in an overtime loss, the most UW yielded all season. Looking back, Sawvel shouldered the blame for that performance as the first-year coordinator made some calls that didn't best fit the personnel at his disposal.
But as Sawvel learned more about the players he did have and adjusted with the ones he didn’t, UW’s defense began to play more to its strengths. Certain calls that were made early in the season weren’t toward the end, which is when the Cowboys were playing their best ball. UW allowed just six touchdowns over the final 13 quarters of the season.
But the Cowboys feel they’re capable of more, which is a natural expectation given the circumstances. If your defense is that stingy while having to lean heavily on backups and reserves, then why shouldn’t you be able to take it up a notch with a full deck?
That’s what UW is playing with this spring. Well, almost.
The players who opted out last season are going through spring ball, and many of UW’s seniors took advantage of the NCAA’s extended eligibility amid the pandemic by returning for one more season. That means not only do the Cowboys have all 11 defensive starters back but nearly all of their depth as well.
The Cowboys are two-deep -- and, in some cases, three-deep -- at virtually every position this spring, which includes a defensive line that was stretched thin last fall. Holt (ACL surgery recovery) and fellow defensive tackle Jordan Bertagnole (undisclosed injury) aren’t practicing this spring, but Crall (who missed half of last season recovering from foot surgery), Byrd, Mora, Cole and Wells-Ross give the Cowboys an influx of bodies up front to go with the likes of Cole Godbout, Gavin Meyer, Jaylen Pate and DeVonne Harris, who got most of the reps in their absence last fall.
Shae Suiaunoa and Easton Gibbs, UW’s third-leading tackler last season, are back as the primary backups to Chad Muma and Charles Hicks at linebacker. Weber, who started 12 games in 2019, is back competing with Gandy, Braden Smith, Miles Williams and Cam Murray at safety, and Sawvel is confident enough in Keyon Blankenbaker and Keonte Glinton at nickel that both will be on the field at the same time in certain packages this fall, he said.
The only pressing positional question for the Cowboys’ defense this spring seems to be who will be third and fourth cornerbacks behind veterans C.J. Coldon and Azizi Hearn. Glinton, who began last season at corner, is versatile enough to move back outside if needed, but Sawvel would rather see Cameron Stone, Xavier Carter or some of the other young corners step up to a point where he doesn’t have to go to Plan B.
“The goal would be for the third corner to not come out of the nickel group but for one of those other guys to step up and be the three or the four at corner to where we don’t have to dip into different positions and make that work,” Sawvel said.
And the language Sawvel is speaking doesn’t sound so foreign to his players anymore. As accelerated as the learning curve was for the Cowboys last season, it helped Sawvel quickly get familiar with his players and vice versa.
That, combined with a chance to brush up on the defense this spring, has increased the level of comfort for everyone involved heading into Year 2.
“We know what we’re doing,” Hicks said. “We know the plays even better now. It’s kind of like we’re just running things just kind of off reaction now. It’s not like we’re thinking about it. We’re just playing. And I think that’s biggest thing this year. I think that’s going to help us a lot. It’s going to feel good when we get to step on the field and you know exactly what to do.”
It’s all got the Cowboys’ defense banking on more from itself in the fall.
“Our expectation is we should be much better this year,” Sawvel said.