As the reigns of the Wyoming Cowboys are handed over to first-year head coach Craig Bohl, there is a lot to look forward to for this team. Bohl spent 10 years building a tip-top program at North Dakota State, leading them to the NCAA Division I Championship in his final three seasons, and was also recognized as the MWF Coach of the Year each time.
His move to the FBS is long overdue, but he couldn’t have picked a better time to land a job with Wyoming. The Cowboys definitely have some questions to answer, but there is an undeniable amount of talent on the roster, and Bohl will do a fine job of molding them into a better team.
The immediate question that pops up when looking at the Cowboys’ offense is who will be replacing Brett Smith, who departed for the NFL. Smith would have still been eligible for this season and would have worked well under Bohl’s offense, but the focus must now shift to finding a starter for 2014.
Redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard was inactive last season but spent 2012 backing up Smith. He landed one start vs. Cal Poly that year, a small sample size to judge. The final spring depth chart lists Kirkegaard as the starter, but that can obviously change. The other candidate making a bid is Tom Thornton, who saw action in four games as a true freshman last season but only attempted four passes.
One defining characteristic of Bohl’s offense at ND State was the ground-and-pound approach, eating up the clock and utilizing the play-action pass. Kirkegaard does fit well into that system, but his protection may not allow him to thrive. This O-line returns seven guys who have starting experience and will be anchored by junior Jake Jones, who has the most starts with 24.
Bohl has acknowledged that his O-line isn’t quite where he had hoped, but these guys have spent up until this spring working for a hybrid offense that worked to move quickly. For them to suddenly buckle down and open up holes for a traditional ground attack will take a lot of time.
Bohl coaches strong, athletic defenses that suffocate opposing offenses. There’s plenty of talent on this year’s roster, but some critical questions remain. Four of the top six tacklers on the D-line return, along with seven of the secondary’s nine top tacklers. The D-line shouldn’t cause problems for Wyoming this season, even with the switch to a 4-3 set.
The deepest and most talented unit on this defense is the linebacking corps. Jordan Stanton (MLB) and Mark Nzeocha (SLB) are locks. Stanton led all linebackers last season with 101.5 tackles and two interceptions, while Nzeocha tallied 82.5 tackles and forced two fumbles. The weakside linebacker is up for grabs between senior Devyn Harris and sophomore Lucas Wacha. I think it will be Wacha who comes away with the job after being an 11-game starter last season.
If Wyoming’s secondary does not improve, the production of the linemen and linebackers could be all but eliminated. The Cowboys are very susceptible to the big play, and departure of leading safety Marqueston Huff and his 100-plus tackles will make an impact. This secondary, though experienced, will be the Achilles’ heel of the defense.
Wyoming opens its 2014 season with Montana, which is going to be a good early test to see how far along the Cowboys have come under Bohl. The next week opens conference play for the Cowboys as they play Air Force‘s triple-option attack on the road.
Wyoming has two huge non-conference games against Oregon and Michigan State, both on the road. Frankly, there is no way the Cowboys will hang with either team, especially this early in the season, but it’ll be a good chance to play against some elite competition.
The Cowboys have a fairly balanced road the rest of the way within the Mountain West, traveling to Hawaii, Fresno State, Colorado State and New Mexico, but in return get San Jose State, Utah State and Boise State at home.
The Mountain West isn’t going to be won by a Wyoming team that can’t stop the pass, and that has to be priority No. 1 for Bohl. But if the secondary can hold its own and the O-line can create lanes for a ground attack, I don’t see any reason why the Cowboys can’t do something special in the Mountain West for Bohl’s first season.