LARAMIE, Wyo. -
The Wyoming Cowboys opened 2016 spring football practice Tuesday with a late afternoon practice -- the first of 15 spring practices. The Cowboys return a more veteran team in 2016, including: 18 returning starters, 50 returning letterwinners, five national honors candidates from 2015 and five individuals who received all-conference recognition a year ago.
Two of those veteran returning players who looked particularly sharp in Tuesday's opening practice were running backs Brian Hill and Shaun Wick. Hill set a Wyoming single-season rushing record of 1,631 yards last season as a sophomore. He ranked No. 8 in the nation in rushing in 2015 (135.9 yards per game). He enters this season ranked No. 5 in school history in career rushing yards (2,427). Hill was one of 11 semifinalists for the 2015 Doak Walker Award and earned First Team All-Conference honors from Phil Steele publications and Second Team All-Conference recognition from Mountain West head coaches and media. Wick began the year on the 2015 Doak Walker Award Watch List and ranks No. 9 in school history in career rushing yards, with 2,179 career yards. He missed the final eight games of 2015 due to suffering a concussion.
"It was great to be back out there today," said head coach Craig Bohl. "Our guys have had a great offseason this winter. The first practice always includes good and bad, but there was more good today than there has been our last couple of spring opening practices, and we're excited about that.
"I was really pleased with how our running back situation looked today. While we were just in jerseys, Brian (Hill) is up to over 220 pounds and looks really lean and is running well. I think he could probably even add some more lean muscle mass. And it was great to have Shaun Wick out there today. It's been a long time since he's been out there.
"Our two quarterbacks got a lot of reps today. Both Josh (Allen) and Nick (Smith) have good ability, but we have to refine that ability. All the reps are going to help their development. You can be in the film room just so long. You can throw 7-on-7 just so much, but until you get into 11-on-11 work, where you have to change pass protections and make the right calls, you can't really simulate game-like situations until you get that 11-on-11 work in."
On the defensive side of the ball, Bohl commented about the positive play he saw from the Cowboy secondary.
"I think our secondary moved around well today," said the third-year Cowboy head coach. "Davion Freeman had a really good pick, which was encouraging to see him coming off a redshirt freshman season. I thought Andrew Wingard also looked really good."
Wingard is another of the returning national honor recipients from last season. He was named a First Team Freshman All-American as selected by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and earned Second Team All-Mountain West honors from conference head coaches and media and from Phil Steele publications.
In addition to the play of Freeman and Wingard in Tuesday's practice, junior cornerback Robert Priester also intercepted a pass on a pass batted at the line of scrimmage by senior defensive end Trevor Meader.
Media asked Bohl after Monday's practice if he felt the Cowboys' season-ending victory over UNLV helped spark the team's work ethic entering winter workouts this season.
"I really like the resolve of this team to want to be better," said Bohl. "Last year was unacceptable. It was unacceptable for me. It was unacceptable for our players and coaches. It was good to win that last game of the season last fall, and it showed our guys willingness to stay in the fight. As I mentioned, our offseason workouts have been outstanding and that also carried over into today's first practice."
On the offensive line, Bohl was asked about the decision to flip returning starters at offensive tackle Ryan Cummings and Zach Wallace to start spring practice. Bohl explained the reasons for moving junior Cummings from left tackle to right tackle and sophomore Wallace from right tackle to left tackle.
"There is a lot of reasoning behind those moves," said Bohl. "When we look at how we run our offense, we like to have a certain type of player pulling and we like the way another guy is able to move on the other side. I think there are some things that Zach does really well -- for example he is a really good pass blocker and that is something you are looking for on the left side, the blind side, of a right-handed quarterback. I also think there are things that Ryan does really well. We took a look at it today, and we'll look at it on film. But from my eyes, I like what I saw."
Another question asked of Bohl was at the center spot where returning starter, junior Charlie Renfree is going to be limited this spring with a back injury and senior Du'Ryan Ebbesen from Cheyenne Central High School is getting an opportunity to play more this spring.
"We're going to take a hard look at Du'Ryan," said Bohl. "We'll see how Charlie comes around, but Du'Ryan has always been a guy who loves football. He's always done whatever it takes. He's been on the scout team, but this is what special stories are made of sometimes are guys making the most of their opportunities."
At wide receiver, senior Tanner Gentry was forced to miss the final five games of the season after suffering a shoulder injury in Wyoming's home victory over Nevada. He was leading the Mountain West in receiving yards at the time of the injury and was named to the 2015 Biletnikoff Award Watch List for the first time in his career.
"Beyond the excitement of having Tanner and his talent back out there is having his experience back out there," said Bohl. "He's played a lot of football, and he's played at a very high level.
"Also to have Mike Grant out there coaching our receivers this season is exciting. Mike and I worked together back in 1995 at the University of Nebraska. Having an experienced receiver coach provides a lot of stability and is going to serve us well."
Gentry is joined by fellow senior wide receiver Jake Maulhardt, who had an outstanding junior campaign. Maulhardt earned Third Team All-MW from Phil Steele publications after ranking No. 2 in the MW in receiving TDs (8) and No. 6 in the conference in receptions (4.75 per game).
One of the newest additions to the Cowboy roster is UCLA transfer Jalen Ortiz, who joined the Cowboy Football program last fall and sat out the 2015 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. A cornerback at UCLA, Ortiz is projected as a safety or nickel back for the Pokes and has two years of eligibility remaining.
"I think Jalen is going to play more along the lines of safety and nickel," commented Bohl. "He's a smart guy. He runs well and is physical. In our league, having experienced, talented defensive backs is at a premium. D.J. May is an excellent nickel, but we'll need a couple guys there and so we will likely cross train Jalen at both safety and nickel."
May is another returning Cowboy who earned Third Team All-Conference honors from Phil Steele publications in 2015, while playing strong-side linebacker and nickel after moving over from running back.
Tuesday's practice saw Casper, Wyo., native Josh Harshman shine with several catches in the first practice of spring.
"Josh Harshman did play well today," said Bohl. "Josh is a guy who we played last year as a true freshman. He's still a little bit light, but he plays big and he plays hard. He's smart, he's a coach's kid and it was great to see him go out there and make some plays last season and today."
In addition to the effort he has seen from his team during winter workouts, Bohl also commented on the leadership he has seen develop in his players during the offseason.
"This offseason has really been exceptional in terms of developing leadership on our team," said Bohl. "I think on defense Lucas Wacha has really come around as a leader. Offensively, Brian Hill is a vocal guy who has played a lot of football, has a high level of commitment and is very competitive. Chase Roullier has also done a great job there.
"Our leadership in our locker room is something I really see developing, and that is all part of being in year three of our program, changing a culture and having guys being committed to success.
"Where that also is becoming evident is during workouts in the weight room where someone may not be giving their full effort. You don't see the coaches having to be the ones who say something, you see the older players speak up to encourage their teammates. Those are steps that I've seen before in my career when a program really starts to develop success, so I'm very happy to see that."
Roullier, enters his senior season having started 28 of 34 career games at left guard, including starting the last 27 consecutive games for the Pokes. He was named Second Team All-Mountain West by conference head coaches and media in 2015, and was a Third Team selection by Phil Steele publications.
The other national honors candidate returning for Wyoming in 2016 is senior punter Ethan Wood, who was named to the Ray Guy Award Watch List last season.
The Cowboy coaching staff blended a mixture of individual, fundamental drills; 7-on-7 passing drills and a series of team periods into Tuesday's opening practice.
Wyoming will return to the practice field on Thursday, March 24 for an afternoon practice. The first full-padded practice for the Pokes this spring is scheduled for Saturday, March 26. Saturday's practice time has yet to be determined.
"We get into full pads in our third practice of spring on Saturday," said Bohl. "What is next is to continue to install elements of our offense, defense and kicking game. We were pretty basic on defense today. We had a zone and a man coverage in, but we'll continue to add more there.
"We didn't have a lot of different formations in today on offense, but we'll continue to feed those guys more and more each practice. That is going to be important for our quarterbacks. Nick (Smith) played quite a bit last year, but he's still young. Josh hardly played at all before he got hurt, so this spring is going to be important for both of them."
The first 30 minutes of practices are open to the media and public and closed after the first 30 minutes.
2016 University of Wyoming Football Spring Practice Schedule
Tuesday, March 22 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #1)
Thursday, March 24 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #2)
Saturday, March 26 - TBA (Practice #3)
Tuesday, March 29 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #4)
Thursday, March 31 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #5)
Saturday, April 2 - TBA (Practice #6)
Tuesday, April 5 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #7)
Thursday, April 7 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #8)
Saturday, April 9 - TBA (Practice #9)
Tuesday, April 12 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #10)
Thursday, April 14 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #11)
Saturday, April 16 - TBA (Practice #12)
Tuesday, April 19 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #13)
Thursday, April 21 - 4 or 4:30 p.m. (Practice #14)
Saturday, April 23 - 2 p.m. (Spring Game, Practice #15)