LARAMIE — Wyoming’s spring game is back.
For the first time since 2019, the Cowboys will cap a spring with their usual Brown and Gold game Saturday at War Memorial Stadium. The coronavirus pandemic wiped out the spring for UW all together last year, but this year’s event will be as close to a normal gameday weekend as the program has had in more than a year with no restrictions on attendance, tailgating and even concessions allowed at the stadium.
UW coach Craig Bohl said he wants his players to enjoy the environment.
“They’ve worked hard this spring. And you play the game because it’s not work, it’s play,” Bohl said. “So to have our players be enthusiastic (is something I want).”
There’s still some evaluating that needs to be done before UW finalizes a post-spring depth chart, so Bohl said he also wants to see execution from his players. Other than the players who haven’t participated this spring because of injuries, Bohl said no one is expected to be held out of the four-quarter scrimmage.
Here are some things to watch for during Saturday’s game.
Coaches and players have been tight-lipped all spring about exactly what UW’s offense might look like under first-year coordinator Tim Polasek. So much so that when senior safety Braden Smith was asked to elaborate earlier in the week on his comments that the offense was showing some “different things” in practice, Smith said he’d already revealed too much.
But the game will give fans and media their first look at it. The question is exactly how much will the Cowboys be willing to show?
Spring games are notorious for being vanilla with teams not wanting to put too much on tape for their future opponents. But with players spending the last five weeks working to get comfortable with a new offense, coaches are likely to want to see how well they can execute certain facets in a game-like environment. Bohl even said he’s given his assistants the OK to call one trick play if they want.
So perhaps the offense won’t be all that bland. Everyone will find out together Saturday.
Speaking of offense, of all the position battles going on, none will draw more eyes Saturday than the one at quarterback.
Bohl and Polasek have insisted throughout the spring that the competition between Sean Chambers and Levi Williams has been neck and neck. Chambers, who’s coming off another season-ending injury, has been UW’s starter for the better part of three seasons when healthy, but Williams started all but one game during UW’s pandemic-shortened season last fall in Chambers’ absence.
The emphasis for both this spring isn’t a secret. With UW having gone three straight seasons completing less than 50% of its passes, Chambers and Williams have been working heavily on their throwing mechanics and building a rapport with their receivers.
Their accuracy and efficiency has been praised at times this spring. Other times, Bohl said, it’s left a lot to be desired.
Both are mobile signal callers whose legs will still be used at times in Polasek’s offense, but it certainly sounds like consistency in the passing game could ultimately decide the winner here. Williams said he feels like both quarterbacks have gotten a fair shot at the starting job throughout the spring.
“I really do,” Williams said. “I feel like Coach P is a really honest guy. He’s going to play the best guy and play the hot hand.”
Opt-outs back in
UW has a handful of players who will be getting their first game-like reps in more than a year after opting out last season.
Defensive linemen Solomon Byrd, Mario Mora, Davon Wells-Ross and Claude Cole, safety Rome Weber and running back Titus Swen are all back in the fold after skipping out on last season because of health concerns related to the pandemic. To hear Bohl and his coaching staff tell it, some have gotten reacclimated faster than others.
Bohl said Swen, UW’s third-leading rusher in 2019 as a true freshman, has impressed in scrimmages and is even the leading candidate to take over as the primary kickoff returner. Weber started 12 games at free safety two seasons ago but is trailing Smith in the competition there. After leading UW in sacks during that ‘19 season, Byrd has performed “OK” this spring, Bohl said.
Bohl added Byrd, a freshman All-American two seasons ago, isn’t likely to come out of the spring atop the depth chart at the end spot opposite Garrett Crall unless something changes. That may be the case for the rest of the opt-outs, too, but it’s worth keeping an eye on how they perform Saturday.
Hicks and Gibbs still duking it out
With both of UW’s starting linebackers returning this year, the prevailing thought entering the spring was that Chad Muma and Charles Hicks were entrenched atop the depth chart.
That’s certainly the case for Muma in the middle. But if Hicks wants to hold onto his starting job on the outside, he’ll have to fend off a surge from redshirt freshman Easton Gibbs.
Could the spring game be the deciding factor? After revealing earlier in the spring that Hicks and Gibbs were locked in a tight battle, Bohl said this week the status of their competition hasn’t changed much.
“I think Chuck’s got a little bit of an advantage on him, but Easton has closed the gap,” Bohl said.
Hicks’ experience — he’s a year older and started all but one game last season — may ultimately win out here, but Bohl said the pecking order at the position won’t matter much given both are going to play significant snaps this fall. The duo combined for 69 tackles last season. Gibbs, UW’s third linebacker a season ago, accounted for 42 of those.
Aggressive special teams?
The Cowboys are breaking in a new punter (Ralph Fawaz), punt returner (Ayden Eberhardt) and kick returner (Swen, though Bohl said this week UW is still weighing all of its options there), but they’re not the only specialists that will be evaluated this weekend.
UW has been working extensively in other areas of its special-teams units on creating more impact plays, specially punt blocks, Bohl said. It’s paid off as receiver Isaiah Neyor blocked a punt during a scrimmage earlier this spring, though Bohl admitted selling out in an attempt to block kicks doesn’t come without risk.
“You think if we rough (the punter), almost invariably it happens that the team goes down and scores,” he said.
But UW hasn’t blocked a punt in a game in years. Bohl said he feels like UW has been too passive in that facet of the game in years past and wants the Cowboys to be more aggressive going forward.
That may or may not be something UW shows in Saturday’s scrimmage, but it’s worth monitoring.