Wingard, Epps Side-by-Side 37 Games in a Row and Counting
From the Desk of Tim Harkins
Laramie, Wyo. -- On Sept. 19, 2015, the Wyoming Cowboy football team faced Washington State in Pullman, Wash. When the Cowboy defense took the field that day, the starting lineup featured redshirt freshman Marcus Epps at strong safety and true freshman Andrew Wingard at free safety. Wingard would lead the Cowboys in tackles that day with 12. Epps would add five tackles and intercept his first pass as a Cowboy. Who knew that game would be the first of 37 consecutive games the two would start side-by-side entering their senior season of 2018.
Each of the two had started one previous game that season. Epps started the season opener at free safety. Wingard started week two at free safety. They both showed promise, and so in week three Epps was shifted to the strong safety spot and the two have been the heart and soul of the Cowboy defense ever since.
“It’s pretty crazy," Wingard said. "Feels like just a couple days ago I was a freshman and I was meeting everyone and now I’m here (senior season). But I like being the old guy now cause I actually know what I’m doing. This is the first spring where I haven’t had to learn a new defense. I’m relishing every final time I have.”
Epps echoed his teammate.
“Seems like just yesterday we were two young freshmen out there running around," said Epps. "We’re looking forward to making the best of our senior season and having our best season.”
What has it been like to have the relationship they’ve had with one another throughout their entire college career?
“When I first got here and I first met him, he was kind of the quieter guy and I was just a freshman, so we didn’t really interact that much,” said Wingard. “Then about halfway through fall camp, we really started to blend with each other and become good friends. Now four years down the road, he’s one of my best friends. I love him to death.
“Being able to play every game together -- we haven’t missed a game together from the Washington State game our freshman year on. Not many people can say that. It’s been awesome. The stats Marcus and I have put up together, we like to call ourselves the best safety duo in the Mountain West and probably in Wyoming history.”
The numbers prove that out. Wingard will enter his senior season with 367 career tackles to rank No. 6 on Wyoming’s career tackle list -- exactly 100 tackles away from the school record of 467 held by former Cowboy linebacker Galand Thaxton. In the past three seasons, Wingard has recorded 122 tackles in 2015, 131 in 2016 and 114 in 2017. Epps will open his senior season with 262 tackles, only 62 tackles away from the career Top 10 at Wyoming. He tallied 83 tackles in 2015, 111 in 2016 and 68 in 2017.
To gain an even greater appreciation for what Epps and Wingard have accomplished consider where they rank among active Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) players entering the 2018 season. Wingard will enter his senior season ranked No. 1 among all active FBS players at all positions in career tackles, with his 367, and Epps will rank No. 10 with his 262.
Asked how their relationship has grown through the years, Epps said, “It’s grown tremendously, especially from a trust standpoint. We trust each other so much, both on and off the field. That’s my brother forever. It’s been a blessing to share the field with him for four years.”
When they’re on the field together, the relationship between them is almost magical.
“We really don’t have to say that much to each other when we’re on the field,” said Wingard. “I know what he’s doing, and he knows what I’m doing. We just have kind of a telepathic communication between each other.”
The understanding the two have between each other was enhanced when before the 2017 season they actually flipped safety positions, with Epps moving from strong safety to free safety and Wingard becoming the strong safety.
“It was funny. As a freshman, the free safety in our defense didn’t move a lot. Marcus was the one who was always in the box, and that was the more complicated position,” said Wingard. “In 2016, we played cover four, and we both kind of played a mixture of the strong and free positions. Last year, I was the strong all the time. It was a position change that fit both of us. Marcus is a real good ‘man cover guy’, and I can fit in the box. It was fun, and we were both able to make a lot of plays from those two positions.”
Epps underwent a procedure on his back previous to 2018 spring drills, so he is not participating in practice, but is expected back at full strength for summer conditioning. While he isn’t participating in practice, he continues to fill his role as a team leader by being at every practice and sharing his experience with the younger players. Asked if it has provided him an opportunity to get a different perspective by observing the defense, Epps said, “Definitely, it has been nice to be able to continue to learn more about our defense, learn what different players are doing at different positions, so when I’m back out there I know what everybody is doing. It is also good to be out there helping coach the young guys up like Braden (Smith), Cam (Murray), Alijah (Halliburton) and E (Esais Gandy). It has been great to be able to continue to help them out and also to continue to learn and grow from a mental standpoint.”
Both Epps and Wingard have been team leaders from their freshman years on, but they do it in different ways and they came to Wyoming in different ways. Epps walked on to the Cowboy Football program in the fall of 2014 from Edison High School in Los Angeles. He redshirted the 2014 season, became a starter as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and earned a scholarship, was elected a team captain by his teammates as a sophomore in 2016 and was voted a team captain again as a junior in 2017. Wingard came to Wyoming in the summer of 2015 from Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colo., after being named the 2014 Gatorade Football Player of the Year for the state of Colorado.
When asked how his rise from walk-on to a two-year team captain happened and how he views his role as a team leader, Epps said, “I think it happened through hard work and having confidence in myself. Ever since I got here I always kept my head down and grinded. I’ve had that type of work ethic my whole life. I set goals when I got here, and I put in the work to try and accomplish them. I think my teammates see the hard work I put in, and I think that is why they see me as a team leader.
“Dewey (Andrew Wingard) is a little more vocal that I am. He talks the guys up. He makes sure everybody is on point and if people mess up he’s going to help them fix it. I feel like I’m not as vocal. That really isn’t my style. I try to lead by example.”
Wingard arrived on campus as a true freshman and from very early on it was evident he possessed a confidence that immediately gave everyone who watched him the sense that he belonged at the highest level of college football. While it takes some freshmen some time to adjust to the college game, not so with Andrew Wingard. He was ready to go from day one. He recognizes that his style and the his running mate Epps’ style both benefit the team.
“Marcus is the quiet, lead-by-example leader, and I’m kind of the more rah-rah, always yelling and chirping kind of guy,” said Wingard. “Marcus is definitely more reserved on the field than I am, but I remember in the Potato Bowl this past season after several plays he was chirping too, so that was good to see. In general, he is the more stoic one, who’s going to lead by example, and I’m the one screaming and yelling and giving Coach Bohl a hard time.”
Another difference between the two friends is the fact that Epps is the father of 16-month old son Braxton, which provides Epps a very different perspective that most of his teammates. How is fatherhood? “It’s great,” said Epps! “My son is getting big. He’s starting to develop more and develop more of his personality. He’s talking a little bit more and starting to get to a really fun stage.
“It has changed my perspective in that I have people to look out for now. When I’m tired, or I don’t want to wake up I have to keep pushing because it’s just not about me any more. It’s about Braxton and my girlfriend Megan. They come first, and I need to take care of them.”
As freshmen starters in 2015, Epps and Wingard had to battle through a year in which the Cowboys won only two games all season. Over the past two seasons, Wyoming has won eight games in consecutive seasons, played for a conference championship in 2016, earned back-to-back bowl berths and won the 2017 Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. In 2017, they were leaders of one of the nation’s top defenses, ranking No. 1 in the nation in forcing turnovers (38 turnovers forced), No. 1 in the country in fumbles recovered (18), No. 2 in the NCAA in interceptions (20), No. 9 in the nation in scoring defense (allowing opponents only 17.5 points per game), No. 13 in pass defense (174.9 yards per game allowed) and No. 23 in total defense (335.2 yards per game allowed). Epps was asked how satisfying it has been to be part of that transformation.
“It’s been one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” said Epps. “Remembering what it felt like to be 2-10, coming off the field hurt that we couldn’t win games. Going from that to now where we’re one of the better teams in the Mountain West, it has been great to see the transformation. It shows how much hard work we’ve put in and how Coach (Craig) Bohl and the coaching staff came in here and established a mindset and a culture and turned the program around. To be able to put the program back on the map and the school back on the map, especially in the Mountain West, it feels good that we were the ones who started that turnaround.”
Speaking of head coach Craig Bohl, what are his feelings now that his two standout safeties are approaching their final season as Cowboys.
“They’ve been here through all the rough times and now the good times,” said Bohl. “Marcus’ and Andrew’s experience level and their competitive nature have really fueled the development of our defense. They have different personalities and they bring different strengths to our defense.
“We’re going to enjoy them this year. They are going to contribute an awful lot. I don’t want to think about them being gone. Someday I know they will be. It will be a tough one when they run out on senior day. They’ve meant the world to our program.”
Finally, what do the two teammates think their relationship will be like 10 years from now.
“I can see myself coming to a game, seeing Marcus and just laughing about all the great memories we made together,” said Wingard. “We’ve made so many memories together on and off the field. It will be fun to come back and talk about how we started off 2-10 and then helped turn Wyoming Football around.”
“I think we’re still going to be really good friends,” said Epps. “Everything we’ve been through together, that is the type of bond that never fades. This is one of those bonds that will stay with us through the rest of our lives. It will be great.”