Cowboys Football returning all hands on deck in 2021
Wyoming Defense Was One of the Best in the Nation in 2020, Focused on Improvement in 2021
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Wyoming News Now) - The Wyoming Cowboy defense was one of the best in the nation in 2020, ending the season ranked No. 16 among all FBS teams in total defense. The Cowboys return virtually everyone from that defense in 2021.
For second-year Wyoming defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel he is focusing his defensive unit on fundamentals and trying to improve every day as they make their way through this spring’s practices. He isn’t looking toward next season just yet. There will be plenty of time for that later. Sawvel wants his players to work toward becoming the best they can be right now while learning their assignments and their place within the Cowboy defensive system.
Sawvel’s first year as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator was a successful one but was also a challenging one for him, his defensive coaching staff and his defensive players. From the time of his hiring on Feb, 6, 2020, Sawvel had to hit the ground running to prepare for Spring Football, which normally would have began in late March. But a little more than a month after his arrival, it was determined that there would be no Spring Football for the Cowboys in 2020 due to COVID restrictions. Then as fall practice approached there would be another delay when the Mountain West Conference announced on Aug. 10 that there would be no fall season. But finally on Sept. 24, the Mountain West decided that in fact the league would play an eight-game conference only schedule beginning on Oct. 24. Finally, the Cowboys were able to begin practice for the 2020 season.
Wyoming Defense Enjoyed Productive Year in 2020
Despite the starts and stops leading up to the 2020 season, the Wyoming defense was extremely productive last year. UW ranked in the Top 30 in the nation in 10 defensive categories. In addition to ranking No. 16 in total defense, the Pokes also ranked No. 21 in rushing defense, No. 24 in scoring defense and No. 29 in pass defense. How did the Wyoming defense accomplish what they did last year in spite of the interruptions they faced?
“Once we knew we were going to play the season, we had to quickly ramp up and get ready for the first game because we only had about a month or less to prepare,” said Sawvel. “The first game was difficult but once we got past that first game, we settled in and were able to identify what things we were good at and emphasize those things the rest of the season.
“Now heading into this spring, we not only know what we’re good at but we have more time to get better at some of the things we need to improve upon and develop a broader toolkit of what we want to do defensively this coming year.
“Our players play hard and the thing we did a good job of last year is we didn’t give up a lot of big plays. There are all kinds of different stats out there. The one stat that resonates the most with me is there were only a handful of teams in the country who gave up less that five yards per play, and we were one of them. But we still need to be better in some critical situations in tight games, and we need to create more takeaways.”
The Cowboys were in fact one of only 16 FBS teams to allow less than five yards per play. The Pokes allowed an average of only 4.93 yards per play to opponents (1,968 yards of total offense on 399 opponent plays) to rank No. 14 nationally.
A New Set of Talented Players Emerged for the Pokes in 2020
Entering the 2020 season, the other challenge that the defense faced was it was missing some key players from the previous season. Gone were both starting linebackers in 2019 seniors Logan Wilson and Cassh Maluia, who were both selected in the NFL Draft. Also gone was First Team All-Mountain West safety Alijah Halliburton, who graduated, and multi-year starter and senior team captain Josiah Hall at defensive end.
To fill those spots, enter the likes of junior linebacker Chad Muma and senior safety Esaias Gandy along with sophomore linebacker Charles Hicks and redshirt freshman linebacker Easton Gibbs. They stepped in and filled the roles of Wilson, Maluia and Halliburton. Muma would lead the Mountain West in tackles and rank No. 3 in the nation (11.8 tackles per game), while being named First Team All-Mountain West by conference head coaches and media. Gandy would rank second on the team in tackles behind Muma, and would earn Honorable Mention All-MW recognition. Gibbs ended the 2020 season ranked third on the team in tackles, and Hicks ranked sixth, despite missing the final game of the season due to injury.
“Seeing many of our guys step up and take on leadership roles last season was one of the exciting things about last year,” said Sawvel. “When we went to play Nevada in the opener, I remember asking the guys a couple days before the game how many of them had played 15 or more plays the year before when they played Nevada. There were four guys who raised their hands. That is when I realized just how inexperienced we were.
“But the guys had such a good attitude throughout last season, and as the year went on guys began to gain confidence and began to realize that they were getting better. Because of that, we continued to improve as a defensive unit. We’ve got such a good group to work with. Everyday at practice last year, I enjoyed working with that group of players who were there. That attitude carried over into the offseason and has carried over now into Spring Practice.”
Young Cowboys Benefitted From Added Experience in 2020
Another facet of Wyoming’s improvement defensively in 2020 was due to the growth of many young players who gained valuable experience as the year went on. Due to injuries to veteran players like team captain Garrett Crall, defensive tackle Ravontae Holt and nickel back Keyon Blankenbaker, several young players were thrust into the lineup. Players like redshirt freshman defensive end Jaylen Pate, interior defensive linemen Cole Godbout, a sophomore, and Jordan Bertagnole, a redshirt freshman, and redshirt freshman nickel back Keonte Glinton stepped forward to have outstanding seasons and gain invaluable experience.
“It is exciting to know we had a lot of young players get a lot of experience last year and now they are coming back,” said Sawvel. “We also had some veterans who entered the season coming off injuries who really benefitted from last year. A perfect example is C.J. Coldon. C.J. had missed the majority of the previous season, and I think he would be the first to tell you that he got better each week from Week 1 to Week 6. He was cleared by our medical staff to return just before we started preparing for the season, and as we were starting the season he was just getting his legs underneath him. Now he has six more games from last year to build off of.
“It is invaluable to have had all those guys get as much game experience as they did last year. Every good program at some point in time is going to lose good players and you have to replace them with younger players. Going into last year, one of the big questions was how were we going to replace Logan Wilson. Now we have Chad Muma, and Chad is really good.”
Increased Depth Will Be Enjoyed by Many Teams in 2021
With 2020 behind them, now the Cowboy coaching staff, on both sides of the ball, has another unique season ahead of them in that virtually everyone returns from last year’s team due to the NCAA granting all players an extra year of eligibility.
“There is no doubt that this year most teams in the country will have more depth,” said Sawvel. “We didn’t really lose anyone on defense heading into this season. I’ve had teams in the past where we were stacked with experience at a couple of positions from the previous year, but top to bottom at all positions this is unique to have this many players returning with experience.
“The challenge that is still there, in spite of all the depth, is it will be important to have an unselfishness on our team. We will have some positions where we will have the ability to rotate guys in and out where not just one guy has to play the entire game. That can also be a benefit in that this year we’re looking at a normal length season of 12 regular-season games and then possibly 13 or 14 games if you have the kind of season you want to. In a normal 12-game season, you need multiple guys who are ready to play and prepared to play. Everyone is going to need to be all in on whatever their role is.”
Advantages of This Year’s Larger Roster
At this point of preparation for the 2021 season, Sawvel emphasizes that the season ahead is not where he, his staff and his players are focused. They are focused on improving every day in practice. A big positive from having such a large spring roster (the Cowboys currently have 101 players on their spring roster) is it provides many more opportunities for the team to “Double Rep” during practice, which is something head coach Craig Bohl has always utilized to his advantage.
“To be able to double rep is huge, because we’re getting 80 reps in a practice with one set of players and another 80 reps with another set of players every day,” said Sawvel. “People get better by playing football. Football is a unique sport. You can’t just go out in your driveway and play football. You need to have the whole team around you in football to be able to improve because there are different reads, different formations, different motions that you can only simulate by playing the game. Having the ability to rep as much as we are this spring is good for the players and good for us as coaches as we evaluate players and as we work to develop them into being better players.
“Defensive football requires players to be able to make their own adjustments based on what the offense is doing. We send in the defensive call before every play, but the opposing offense may come out in a formation different from what we anticipated and then it is up to our players to make adjustments.
“You can coach a receiver and tell him what route to run on a particular play, where to lineup, when to go in motion. You’re telling him a lot of what he is going to do in advance of the play. As a defender, we may give you a call but based on how the offense aligns that call may change, that call may get adjusted, what you are supposed to key on may get adjusted. As a defensive player you have to be able to react to so many things. Being able to see and experience those adjustments with increased reps and watching those reps after practice on video helps you to react quicker the next time you are put in those situations.”
Getting Back to Normal and Pulling Together
Another big advantage to having a normal spring practice schedule is Sawvel and his coaches are now able to return to normal staff meetings and interact with each other face-to-face. Not only was it Sawvel’s first season at Wyoming in 2020, but cornerbacks coach Benny Boyd was in his first season with the Cowboys and defensive ends coach Marty English was returning to Wyoming for the first year of his second stint with the Pokes.
“This is as good a staff chemistry as I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sawvel. “From everybody willing to provide their input, to everyone being on the same page, to once the game is going we have a real clear line of communication between all of us and we don’t second guess. I think our players know that too -- that we as coaches are all on the same page -- which makes it easy for them to all be on the same page and pull in the same direction.”
Defensive Goals for Spring Practice
Asked what the goals are for the defense this spring, Sawvel responded by saying, “The first goal is for us to see fundamental improvement in each individual. We are of course a team and it is key that we play team defense, but first each position has to get better fundamentally. As a defensive player, if you do your job within the framework of what we’re asking everyone to do as a unit that will help us be the best team we can be. By the end of spring, we hope to be able to say our players got better from Practice 1 to Practice 15 of spring.
“The second goal is to make sure everyone has a good understanding of not only their job but understands how their job relates to their teammates responsibilities within our defensive system.
“Right now, we’re so focused on fundamentals -- a guy’s footwork, where his eyes are looking, how he finishes plays, how he is getting off of blocks, the effort he is playing with. Those are the things we are focused on with each individual because if a player can combine all those fundamentals it will help us as a team.
“This is a time of year when there isn’t a depth chart. That doesn’t matter right now. That will matter when we get ready to go out here and play Montana State in the season opener. Today is about work, about getting reps and doing your job the best you can in each rep. It’s about stringing together good days and stringing together good performances day after day.”
The Cowboys will continue spring football through the first week of May leading up to the Spring Game on Saturday, May 8.
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