Vander Waal Era Debuts Saturday in Cowboys Opener at New Mexico State

Josh Allen is gone, the seventh player taken overall in the NFL draft in April, and emerging as the likely Opening Day starter at quarterback for the Buffalo Bills.

His legacy, however, lives on at the University of Wyoming.

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And it will be on display when the Cowboys open the 2018 season at New Mexico State in a Saturday night game that will be televised by ESPN2. Game time is 8 p.m..

Red-shirt freshman Tyler Vander Waal will make his college debut as the starting quarterback for the Cowboys, a three-star recruit out of Elk Grove, Ca. He is in Laramie because of Allen, as much as anything.

Originally committed to Ball State,. Vander Waal made his official visit to Wyoming for the Cowboys MWC title game against San Diego State in December of 2016. And after that game, Vander Waal admits it was the allure of Allen that was a key factor in his decision to change his mind about Ball State and opt instead head to Laramie for his college career.

"I took my visit and had a good relationship with (offensive coordinator/assistant head coach Brent) Vigen and (head coach Craig) Bohl, and knowing that Josh was a guy who was likely to leave after (2017) I knew my time would be coming up soon," said Vander Waal. "Seeing what coach Vigen did with Josh and what he did with Carson (Wentz) had a big impact on my decision."

Wentz was a walk-on at Division I-AA North Dakota State when Bohl was the head coach and Vigen the offensive coordinator. Two years ago, Wentz was the first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles, the second player taken overall. 

Allen, meanwhile, was denied his request to even walk-on at Fresno State, the school he grew up dreaming about playing for, which led him to attend junior college for a year, and then send out an email that included video clips of his junior college games to 100 college coaches. Only one of those coaches opened the email -- Coach Bohl.

Allen was the seventh player draft last April in the NFL draft, the Buffalo Bills trading up for the No. 7 selection to make sure they could land Allen.

That ability of Vigen and Bohl to refine the abilities of Wentz and Allen got Vander Waal's attention.

So did Wyoming fans.

"I came for that championship game and seeing the atmosphere, seeing the fans, it was a big plus," he said. "It definitely changed my mind."

His ambition is being met. After a spring and early camp in which he competed with fifth-year senior Nick Smith, he was officially announced on Monday as the starting quarterback, although Bohl made it clear this won't be like the two years of Allen.

The Cowboys hierarchy does, however, believe in the potential of Vander Waal.

"One thing," said Bohl, "he has that accurate arm. Good arm strength. Good mobility. He has done a good job of extending a play, keeping his eyes down field. If the primary receiver is covered, going to the secondary receiver.

"He doesn't put the ball in harms way a whole lot. He is a smart bright guy. The fact he has been around (Wyoming) for a year certaily helped him."

As a true freshman a year ago, he did not take a snap, but he did get a feel for game action. He was on the sidelines for every game, wearing the headset and passing along information between the staff on the field and the coaches in the booth, atop the stands.

"It gave me a feel for how fast the game is that the college level, the size of the players," said Vander Waal."It was an up-close look at what to expect."

It will be different this year, though. Vigen is open about the fact that the Cowboys offense has to be more versatile than a year ago when the Cowboys, as a team, rushed for 1,414 yards, an average of 108 yards per game.

San Diego State running back Rashaad Perry led the nation with 2,248 yards on his own.

Trey Woods, a freshman who opened camp a year ago as a linebacker, wound up the Wyoming's leading rusher with 493 yards, which tied him for 203rd among Division I running backs. Woods was moved this fall to defensive end.

Kellen Overstreet ranked second on the team at 481 yards, which was tied for 210th. Allen, with 204 yards rushing, was the only other player on the team who totaled more than 90 yards rushing for the seasons.

This year, Bohl and Vigen are adamant, that will change.

The depth chart certainly has. Not only is Woods on defense, but Overstreet, after battling injuries in the off-season, is No. 4 on the chart. Nico Evans, primarily used on third downs because of his blocking abilities a year ago, showed improved strength and speed in the off-season sessions, and will open the season No. 1 on the depth chart.

Xazavian Valladay, a redshirt freshman, is No. 2, and true freshman Jevon Bigelow is No. 3.

The offensive line also has a different -- and youthful -- look. True freshmen and redshirt freshmen fill six of the 10 spots on the two deep. 

Redshirt freshman Patrick Arnold is the starting center. Redshirt freshmen Keegan Cryder and Eric Abojei are 1-2 at left guards. True freshman Zach Watts is No. 2 at right guard. Redshirt freshman Rudy Stofer and true freshman Frank Crum from Laramie are 1-2 at right tackle.

It was the defense that was the strength of the team a year ago, and with eight returning starters, including All-America candidates Andrew Wingard at strong safety and Carl Granderson at defensive end, first-team All-MW defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, and second team All-MW linebacker Logan Wilson.

Ghaifan and Wilson are both juniors.

The defensive formula a year ago helped the Cowboys enjoy back-to-back eight-win seasons and to receive back-to-back bowl trips, including a 37-14 win over Central Michigan in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl last December.

They will be counting on that -- along with the emergence of Vander Waal -- to be the foundation this time around.