LARAMIE, Wyo. — As the 2023 season opener draws closer for the Wyoming Cowboy football team, the coaching staff is shifting the focus of practices to preparing players for in-game situations.
On Friday and Saturday, the Pokes’ practices included a Mountain West Conference officiating crew. Head coach Craig Bohl said Saturday’s scrimmage served as an important evaluation for his team.
“This scrimmage will be live bullets, as we say out west,” Bohl said. “There’ll be some positions that we’re going to stress a little bit more than others, but this will probably be the last final hard grade that we get. We’re constantly evaluating players, but this will show us when the lights are on who can make a play, who can break a tackle. Fur is going to fly in this one.”
Mountain West officials at Friday’s and Saturday’s practices
Bohl highlighted the importance of having Mountain West game officials for this weekend’s practices.
“We have a full Mountain West [officiating] crew here for two days. It’s an investment that all of us are making in the officials within the Mountain West,” he said. “We’ve got a new supervisor of officials, Mike DeFee, who is nationally recognized, to elevate our game. We’re looking for consistency and transparency, and Mike has assured us that is where we’re going to be. We appreciate this crew being here.
“We’re not the lone rangers. There are a lot of crews working [around the league], and I think it is an indication of [conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez’s] understanding on how to elevate our whole conference. Along with this, they’ll be doing collaborative replay this year.”
Friday’s practice ended with some special situational periods, including work on goal-line offense and defense as well as a few series practicing the team’s two-minute drill.
“We did some work on the kicking game,” Bohl said. “We had a live punt rush and then we had punt return practice. I thought Clayton [Stewart] punted the ball really well.”
One of the positions that the Pokes feel most comfortable in as the season looms is safety, where the team returns both starters from the prior season. Both junior free safety Wyett Ekeler from Windsor, Colorado, and junior strong safety Isaac White from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, return.
Ekeler made all of his 10 career starts last season. White has 17 career starts, including starting the last 16 consecutive games. The tandem started the last nine games of the 2022 season beside each other. Behind those two veterans is a battle for playing time among a number of young safeties. Entering 2023 fall camp, Cheyenne native Andrew Johnson was listed as the back-up to White at strong safety and sophomore Buck Coors from Loveland, Colorado, was projected as the No. 2 free safety behind Ekeler.
“We have some emerging guys, and we feel really good about the upper echelon guys,” Bohl said. “We’re trying to work with some of the back-up guys, and Coach [Jay] Sawvel is doing a nice job of integrating them into tough situations. We have to develop not only depth but competition. We do feel good about our starters, but to think you’re going to go through the whole year with those two starters is a little bit unrealistic. We’re not where we need to be, but we’re making progress.”
Sophomore defensive end Sabastian Harsh required follow-up surgery on an injured knee earlier in fall camp, but Bohl reaffirmed his comments from last week that he expects Harsh back before Wyoming’s season opener.
“We’re extremely excited [about Harsh],” Bohl said. “He’s a really polished player not only against the run but also against the pass. He’s smart. He’s got really good instincts. He’s making a good recovery. We anticipate him being able to play in our first ballgame.”
The defensive leader on the Cowboys is junior middle linebacker Easton Gibbs. However, who will be holding down the linebacker positions alongside Gibbs is not yet known.
The returning starter at weak-side linebacker is junior Shae Suiaunoa from Houston, Texas. Suiaunoa started all 13 games for Wyoming in the 2022 season. His 73 tackles ranked second on the Cowboy squad.
Another linebacker who had both a strong spring practice session and has played well throughout fall practice is Gibbs’s backup at middle linebacker, junior Connor Shay.
“We’re really pleased with Connor,” Bohl said. “He’s locked in at [middle linebacker]. Shae has been playing [weakside linebacker]. We’re trying to have some clarity there. Shae has improved his tackling. He’s always been a good blitzer, but had too many missed tackles last year. In the first scrimmage [of the fall], he really did a nice job of wrapping up.”
The Cowboys will conduct their 15th of 20 fall practices on Saturday morning in War Memorial Stadium. Practices are closed to the public.