Breaking Down the ‘Boys: Running backs
LARAMIE -- Craig Bohl and the Wyoming football team are starting spring football a tad late this season.
Last year, COVID-19 put a halt to it all together. So, better late than never, right?
There's a method to Bohl's madness. 1) He wants more time to pass so the virus will hopefully be well under control. 2) He wants to see quarterback Sean Chambers at full strength.
There's arguably never been a more important training camp than this one in Bohl's eight seasons in Laramie. He is "re-engineering" his offense and has a pair of new coaches on that side of the ball, including Tim Polasek, who replaces longtime offensive coordinator Brent Vigen.
April 6 is when it all starts, culminating with the annual spring game May 8. So, what better time to break down this roster position by position?
We've already touched on the Cowboys' defense. You can find those right here:
Who are they: Alphonzo Andrews Jr. (R-Fr. 5-10, 185, St. Louis, Mo.), Joseph Braasch (Fr. 6-1, 210, Columbus, Neb.), Jeremy Hollingsworth (R-Fr. 5-9, 205, Longmont, Colo.), DQ James (Fr. 5-7, 180, Lancaster, Texas), Dawaiian McNeely (R-Fr. 6-2, 190, Ceres, Calif.), Trey Smith (Grad-Sr. 6-0, 213, Madison, Miss.), Titus Swen (Soph. 5-11, 202, Fort Worth, Texas), Xazavian Valladay (Jr. 6-0, 198, Matteson, Ill.), Jordon Vaughn (Fr. 6-2, 200, Manvel, Texas)
How they fared in 2020: Xazavian Valladay showed once again that he is one of the top rushers in the Mountain West, churning out 550 yards on 99 carries in just five games. That's an average of nearly six yards per carry. The junior also found the end zone four times on the ground.
Valladay was also UW's third-leading receiver, hauling in 13 passes for 105 yards. It was a pass that got him injured at UNLV and cost him one game against New Mexico.
Valladay, who was the league's top rusher in 2019, was named First-Team All-Mountain West for the second consecutive season. He was also added to the Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch lists. Those honors are given to the nation's most outstanding player and top tailback, respectively.
Valladay wasn't the only Cowboy back racking up yards in 2020.
Trey Smith, the graduate transfer from Louisville, amassed 488 yards on 88 carries. Smith averaged 5.5 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns in Wyoming's COVID-19-shortened six-game season.
Dawaiian McNeely, the redshirt freshman from California, saw his first collegiate action in '20. He carried the ball 14 times for 55 yards in a limited role. Brett Brenton also rushed for 41 yards on just three carries. The Casper product busted a 19-yard run at UNLV and scored his one and only touchdown at UW. Brenton will not return this fall despite the NCAA granting a waiver that allows all players an additional season of eligibility.
Titus Swen was the only offensive player to opt out of the 2020 season because of the virus. In 2019, the then-freshman carried the ball 67 times for 337 yards and a score.
Wyoming ranked No. 14 in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 219 yards per outing.
Analysis: Craig Bohl wants to run the ball. So does Valladay, Smith and the rest of a running back room that is loaded with youth and talent.
Though the Cowboys now have a new leader on the offensive head sets, don't expect that to change anytime soon. The hope is the run will now simply set up the pass. That was not the case last fall.
The defense, its coordinator, fans at home and even the limited fans in attendance knew what Wyoming's plan was on offense. That hasn't been a secret since Josh Allen strolled off campus and into the Buffalo Bills starting lineup.
They knew what was coming -- yet, most times -- they still couldn't stop it.
Valladay is a special runner.
You might not realize this, but the Illinois product is already on the school's Top-10 list in that category with 2,211 yards on the ground. That's already more than Derek Armah, Kevin Lowe, Walt Goffigan and Alvester Alexander. The craziest part -- Valladay has done all that damage in just 26 games. In seven of those, he has carried the ball just five times or less. If Wyoming plays all 12 games in 2020, Valladay was on pace for 1,320 yards. If he did reach that mark, right now, he would be the Cowboys' No. 2 all-time rusher behind only Brian Hill, who finished his three seasons in Laramie with 4,287 yards.
Smith had his best season as a college player in 2020. For one, he remained healthy. Secondly, he ran with a purpose behind Wyoming's experienced line. He busted big runs and picked up tough yards, rarely going down on first contact. He is the change-of-pace back Bohl and Co. had hoped he would be when they brought him over as a graduate transfer before the 2019 season.
McNeely showed glimpses of his power and explosiveness in the hole, too. He is the biggest back of this trio and showed it at times. Though it was only a sample size, McNeely's one-cut, downhill running could make him very dangerous in this scheme.
Swen excited fans with a few nice outings as a true freshman. Like McNeely, his toughness was on display early in the season. He doesn't look fun to tackle. Just asked UNLV, who watched Swen rumble for a career-high 136 yards on just 14 carries in a 53-17 victory in 2019.
Questions: Can Valladay stay healthy?
Now, there's no questioning this guy's toughness. He isn't a large man, standing just 6-foot, 190 pounds, but he makes his living between the tackles, which as we've seen can take its toll. Valladay played the majority of the 2019 season much less than 100%. In fact, he didn't practice all week leading up to the Colorado State game. He didn't think he would play. Bohl lit a fire under his then sophomore, who limped on to the field and hammered the Rams to the tune of 154 yards on 27 carries.
That season, Valladay missed the Idaho game, a majority of the Tulsa contest the following week and carried the ball just 13 times against UNLV. Last fall, as mentioned above, Valladay suffered a leg injury after snagging a Levi Williams pass in Las Vegas. He missed the following week's return trip to Sin City when the Pokes faced the Lobos.
Valladay is the team's bell cow in the backfield. The ball is going in his belly. He will answer the call, too -- if he can.
We all know what Valladay and Smith are capable of. We think we know what Swen can do and we saw McNeely get his feet wet. We have also seen running backs go down at what seems like a rapid pace. Valladay, Smith and Swen were all injured for portions of 2019.
So, who steps up if they go down?
Can someone impress in spring and fall camp and force themselves into the lineup?
Alphonzo Andrews Jr and Jeremy Hollingsworth have never carried the ball, but they have been in the system for two seasons. Jordon Vaughn, a bruiser from the Houston area, looks like he is physically ready to compete at this level. Bohl has also raved about the speed of incoming freshman DQ James, who stands just 5-foot-7 and weighs in at 180. Talk about changing the pace. You can already imagine him on the sweep, right?
I'm not sure this is plug-and-play at this point like the Denver Broncos under Mike Shanahan, though with a plethora of returning linemen and tight ends, you'd have to think most running backs would be successful behind this unit.
Who will pick up Tim Polasek's offense the quickest? Most importantly, who can guarantee no oncoming rushers will touch quarterbacks Sean Chambers or Williams? That's always key for a young group.
Valladay and Smith might very well end up the top tandem in the league if not the nation when the dust settles. They are that talented and the players around them possess plenty of experience.