With the game against Wyoming on Saturday night now less than three days away, it's time to start looking at the Cowboys and what they will be bringing to town. Actually, it's probably well past that time, so apologies.
Head coach: Dave Christensen
2011 record: 8-5 (5-2 Mountain West, 3rd)
2011 bowl: 37-15 loss to Temple in New Mexico Bowl
Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense
Key losses: Brian Hendricks (linebacker), Tashaun Gipson (safety), Gabe Knapton (defensive end), three starting linemen, Alvester Alexander (running back)
S&P+ ratings (overall): 178.7 (100), offense 92.2 (88), defense 86.5 (100)
Offensive overview: The key player to known with the Wyoming offense is sophomore quarterback Brett Smith, who was quite excellent last year as a true freshman, amassing 3,140 total yards, a MWC freshman record. Enrolling early benefited the former two-star recruit by Rivals, who held offers from New Mexico State, Eastern Washington, and San Jose State when he pledged to the Pokes. The leading rusher on the team with just over 700 yards, Smith average 5.1 yards per pop, so he's a serious dual threat both in the designed running game and scrambling to extend plays. With 11 interceptions on the season, he also did a solid job of protecting the football, with the game against Temple a notable exception, as he threw three picks in that contest.
A major loss for the Pokes is running back Alvester Alexander, who bolted for the NFL a year early. He had a relatively mediocre year as a junior, but he leaves former walk-on Brandon Miller as the starter. A guy who has spent some time at receiver, Miller looks more like a wide receiver than a running back and didn't have a particularly productive spring game. Against the Longhorns, he will probably be most dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. Other than that, the Cowboys don't appear to have much, and that doesn't bode well for Smith being able to find running lanes.
Senior Chris McNeill is the best wide receiver on the team and will return after missing the final three games of the season with an injury. He's also the punt returner and threw a touchdown pass to Smith during one game, so the wide receiver pass may be in the playbook on Saturday.
The offensive line was actually a solid group last season, allowing only 12 sacks after defenders found the quarterback 31 times in 2010. No doubt that the ability of Smith to move around in the pocket helped that group, but on film, the unit was actually pretty impressive, particularly in getting the athletic linemen in space pulling tackles and guards in the running game.
In that regard, the loss of three starters is significant, as well as the loss of the guy who was supposed to be the starting right tackle, Daniel Fleischman, who left the team following the spring. Still, they have a starting senior center in Nick Carlson who is experienced and solid, and the left guard Tyler Strong could be in the mix as an All-Conference type this season. Right tackle may be a bit of an issue.
The head coach should be a familiar name to Longhorn fans, as Christensen spearheaded the Missouri offense under Gary Pinkel for years before heading to Laramie in 2009. Schematically, they look quite similar, with an emphasis on the quarterback run game with the zone read and speed option, as well as a short passing game that offers Smith easy opportunities for completions. The wide receiver screen game is also a significant part of the offense. This is a high-powered spread attack, and if Wyoming finds some creases, they could break of a couple significant gains against the Texas defense.
Defensive overview: The discussion here has to start with the running game. The Wyoming defense was not good, giving up over 230 yards per game at over five yards per carry, good for 115th in the country. Besides the fact that the back seven struggled tackling at times, the defensive line often had issues beating blocks. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, no?
The advanced stats weren't any more kind. Overall, the unit ranked right around 100 in passing S&P+, rushing S&P+, standard downs S&P+, and passing downs S&P+. Really, it was just bad across the board, giving up nearly 28 points per game and over six yards per play. There's a reason there's a new defensive coordinator in town.
The other bad news (for Wyoming) is that there were some significant losses. Three of the top four tacklers graduated, including perhaps the team's best players on each level -- defensive end Gabe Knapton, linebacker Brian Hendricks, and safety Tashaun Gipson, the younger brother of Marcell, two players from Texas that Longhorn fans may remember for strong performances against the Longhorns in 2009 and 2010.
The hope is probably for addition by subtraction given how bad the defense was, but that seems unlikely.
There are some Texas connections in the secondary, as half of the two deep hail from the Lone Star State. They'll come to town with a chip on their collective shoulders, but the odds of those players matching past performances by the Gipson brothers seem slim. Senior Luke Ruff is the anchor in the secondary and made plenty of tackles last season, but is steady rather than spectacular.
There's a new starter at the strongside spot, redshirt freshman Zack Berg, who played safety in high school and is supposedly strong in coverage. In the middle, German-born linebacker Oliver Shober missed last season due to injury and coaches surely hope he's an upgrade. Fun fact -- there are five Germans on the team this year for Wyoming. The group tackled poorly last season and were significant culprits in the poor rush defense.
Along the line, Knapton and the other starting defensive end are gone, but the two tackles return and apparently make up one of the better units in the Mountain West, for whatever that's worth. Overall, Wyoming managed only 22 sacks last season, 75th in the country, and, again, struggled against the run, so it's hard to really feel worried about their potential for destruction against the 'Horns.
The wild card here is new defensive coordinator Chris Tormey, who spent some time working with the good Washington defenses back in the day and was the head coach at Nevada before Chris Ault. He's known for running somewhat exotic defenses that include a lot of pre-snap movement and a variety of blitzes, which paid off during the spring, when the group performed well against the offense and forced some turnovers in scrimmages.
The big question, though? Can the unit tackle better and are players in the right spots. Many new coordinators often simplify systems when attempting to turn around bad defenses, but Tormey is doing the opposite. And that makes resurrecting the Wyoming defense an even tougher job than it would have been anyway.