The Wyoming Cowboys opened 2010 spring drills with a two and one half hour practice Saturday morning. The practice was the first of two non-contact practices to begin the spring.
UW head coach Dave Christensen was excited to have his team back on the practice field, and was pleased with what he saw from his second Cowboy squad.
“We had a good practice today," said Christensen. “We’re a faster football team, and I had been looking forward to seeing that speed in practice for the first time. I thought we practiced with a good tempo. With this being our second year, I believe our players understand what we expect in practice but we still have to continue to work on our practice habits as we begin spring. I know that we are much further ahead having a year behind us. I was very encouraged by what I saw today, and I believe the kids were excited to get out here and get going.”
A return to fundamentals was the focus on Saturday, as it will be throughout the 15 spring practices.
“We will be doing a lot of fundamental work throughout spring -- going through the install of our playbook, doing a lot of individual work, group work and teaching,” said Christensen. “A lot of that fundamental work will be teaching technique, footwork, alignments, position assignments, those types of things. Then when we get through these first two practices, we can start working on the physical part of the game and the offensive and defensive team work.”
The biggest change this year will be Wyoming’s switch to a 4-3 base defense from a 3-4 the previous three seasons. The goal of the switch is to increase the speed on the defensive side of the ball for the Pokes, and was made possible by the existing personnel on the Cowboy roster.
“We had some guys who were bigger linebackers, and we’ve put some more size on them and moved them down on the defensive line. Gabe Knapton is about 250 pounds now. Josh Biezuns is 245, and Ben Durbin is 250. Moving those guys down will give us good speed up front. We will probably try to platoon more up front next year and play seven or eight guys at the four defensive line positions. But I think our speed and athleticism up front will be very good, and we’ll get the experience as time goes on. Next Thursday, we’ll put our pads on for the first time and get a better look at how it works.”
Also adding speed to that defense is made possible by some young linebackers on the outside like Ghaali Muhammad and Devyn Harris, as well as veteran middle linebacker Brian Hendricks. Harris intercepted a pass on the first day of practice during one-on-one passing drills.
Saturday’s practice consisted of 17 periods, which lasted from two to 20 minutes each. Five of those periods focused on fundamentals, five group periods and three team periods.
The final group period of the day featured seven on seven passing drills for 20 minutes, with the Cowboy backs and receivers pitted against the linebackers and defensive backs. During that 20-minute period, sophomore quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels completed 16 of 19 pass attempts (84.2 percent). The leading receivers were seniors Travis Burkhalter, with five catches, and David Leonard, with four. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Rodney Jaynes had three receptions, while senior Zach Bolger and junior-college transfer Mazi Ogbonna had two each. One of Ogbonna’s catches was a tough juggling catch across the middle.
The defense also had its moments during the seven-on-seven passing drill. Junior free safety Eric Mitchell intercepted a deep pass down the sideline. Sophomore strong safety Luke Ruff forced a fumble, and linebackers Jeff Roueche, Reece Hall and Muhammad each had one pass breakup apiece.
When asked what the New Mexico Bowl victory last December meant to his team as they began preparations for a new season, Christensen said it gave the players a better understanding of what was out there for them and what they could achieve.
"It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get back to that position, but I think getting a taste of a bowl game got these young men excited about working hard in the offseason," he said. "They have put in that hard work during the five weeks of our player development program, and have made great strides.”
The Cowboys began spring practice 18 days earlier this season, having begun 2009 spring drills on March 24. Christensen had a couple of reasons for moving up the schedule.
“First, I like to use as much time during spring as we are allowed,” said Christensen. “I think it helps if you have someone injured. We’ll have three practices and then 10 days off for spring break, so anyone who may get bumped or bruised early can have time to heal. We also have spread our practices out so that we’re not practicing on back-to-back days. I think our players keep fresher that way and are less likely to be injured due to fatigue.
“Second, it allows us a lot of teaching and meeting time in between practices by starting earlier and spreading out our practices over a longer period.”
Where does the second-year head coach see his football team compared to a year ago?
“I believe we’re a much-better conditioned football team, a much more physical football team with better speed,” said Christensen. “We still have a lot of work to do to develop into a good football team, but I like the direction we’re going.”
T-shirts worn by the coaching staff with the team’s motto for this season were also evident on Saturday.
“Our seniors decided that our team slogan for this year would be Bring the Wood. That is something I let the senior class decide each year. A year ago it was Break the Rock.”