Cowboys Open Football Practice; Expectations High: Chip Firmly on Shoulder


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LARAMIE, Wy. -- Wyoming opened its football practices on Friday, just like every other year -- only different.

This year the Cowboys have expectations. They were picked to finished second in the Mountain West Mountain Division by the media, the highest preseason prediction the Cowboys have received since the creation of the conference.

They had three players selected first team All-Defense – safety Andrew Wingard, defensive end Carl Granderson, and defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan. They also were named to the Bronko Nagurski Watch List, the first time three Cowboys received that distinction. Granderson and Wingard were named to the Chuck Bednarik Award Watch List. And Ghaifan was named to the Outland Trophy Watch List.

Get the picture. People are paying attention.

But for the Cowboys the key is to ignore the hype. This is a group of players that is used to being ignored. It’s from a school that traditionally is graded as one of the bottom three of four teams in the conference in terms of recruiting. It’s a program that has learned to live with a chip on its shoulder.

And it doesn’t want to forget that mentality.

“If the underdog mentality disappears, it’s a bad thing,” said Wingard. “We had a meeting the other day in the safeties room and coach (Jake) Dickert was telling us this program was built with an edge. It wasn’t built around being picked second in the conference.

“It was built around being picked last in the conference and going out, and proving people wrong.”

And, said Wingard, there is still plenty for the Cowboys to prove.

“We won eight games the past two years,” he said. “We’ve got to two straight bowl games. We’ve played in the Mountain West championship game. People say we have arrived.”

Hogwash, said Wingard.

“We haven’t arrived,” he said. “We haven’t won a championship. We have had two good years, but we have to keep our edge. We still have to be two-star guys with one FBS offer, guys who are going to go out and prove people wrong. That’s what Coach Bohl preaches. Keep our blue collar mentality, putting our nose in the dirt.”

And it is up to the seniors, like Wingard and Granderson, to make sure that message is delivered.

The Cowboys have a challenging schedule. Yes, Division I-AA Wofford will make a trip to Laramie for a non-conference game, but the Cowboys three other non-conference games include a trip to New Mexico State, coming off a bowl game of its own, and a road game with Missouri, and home game with Washington State.

What the Cowboys have in their favor is experience. They return eight starters and 22 lettermen on a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West, and No. 9 nationally, while leading the nation in turnover margin. And they have nine starters, and 24 lettermen returning on offense.

They are missing quarterback Josh Allen, who went to the NFL Buffalo Bills, the seventh player taken in the draft.

That is a major void. Freshman Tyler VanderWaal is listed as the starter, and fifth-year senior Nick Smith is No. 2 on the depth charge. But that is not as set in stone as Allen’s status a year ago.

“Last year we had an entrenched starter,” Bohl said, when asked if VanderWaal will be “the” guy. “Nick Smith is a guy who has done some good things. Tyler has not played in games. He redshirted. He was a talented player out of high school. He’s smart and runs the offense well.”

What will be the primary concern of fall practice is revamping a running attack that was not a factor a year ago, and bring the offensive lineup up several notches.

“We have to get our five guys blocking the right guys and moving the line of scrimmage,” said Bohl. “That’s easier said than done. There’s not a coach that doesn’t say, ‘I want to run the football. I want to run the football.’

“I spent a lot of years coaching defense. You play Josh Allen and he throws a 60-yard post.
You take the safety or corner to the side and pump him up. The other 10 guys (on defense) don’t feel so bad. You run the ball down somebody’s throat and you have 11 guys who are demoralized. It starts up front and starts with the mentality of the running back.”

In the big picture, Bohl welcomes what will be his fifth season as the Wyoming head coach.

“The type of football team I envisioned as a head football coach at Wyoming is one that will be noted first of all for a tremendous defense, a physical team that would be able to control the line up front. Certainly exploit and so some things in the passing game, and be explosive on special teams.

“I think our personnel on defense is significantly better than we have had since I have been the head coach.”

Bohl smiled and brought up a conversation with defensive coordinator Scott Hazelton, who joined the Cowboys a year ago, but also had been on Bohl’s staff at North Dakota State, where he coached the school to three Division I-AA titles in his last three years.

“When Scotty came (to Wyoming), he said it looked like old times,” said Bohl. “I said, `You missed some of the fun times.’ The arrow is pointing up.”

But the mentality remains the same.

The Cowboys have a chip on their shoulder. They have something to prove. And they don’t want to ever lose that edge.