Kevin’s Commentary: Opening Day Quarterbacks

Sept. 2, 2015

LARAMIE, Wyo. - Cameron Coffman’s road to Laramie has been a little different than most Cowboy quarterbacks whose very first start in the Brown and Gold came on the opening day of the season.

His story has been well-documented. A Missouri native from an impressive football-playing family, Coffman began his career at a junior college, then signed, and played in 14 games at Indiana University. He had a sensational sophomore season for the Hoosiers finishing in the Top Five in six Big Ten Conference passing statistics.

But playing time, and thus statistical production, dropped appreciably during Coffman’s junior year, and he decided to play elsewhere. Wyoming is the beneficiary. After sitting out the 2014 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules, he won the quarterbacking job for the Cowboys with an outstanding spring, and carried that level of play through this Fall Camp.

Which brings him to Saturday, his first Wyoming start as a Cowboy against North Dakota in the 2 p.m. season and War Memorial Stadium opener.

Since I’ve been around the University, there have been a lot of quarterbacks whose season-opening start was their very first game for Pokes. Some experienced baptisms of fire. Others were outstanding. We’ll soon find out where Cam fits in Cowboy quarterbacking lore. I have an idea he will be a very positive influence on this 2015 team.

Visiting with him the other day got me to reminiscing about some of those season-opening QB’s during my time here whose names grace the Cowboy record books.

In my mind the two most interesting were Paul Toscano and Randy Welniak. Each started at the position just one year, yet parlayed that season into two of the most special in Wyoming history.

Toscano was one of the best safeties in the Western Athletic Conference for the Cowboy defense during its Lloyd Eaton heydays of the mid-to-late 1960’s. He was a highly respected defender. With his senior season on the horizon, however, Eaton asked him to take one for the team and move to the offense. But not just any move to the offense, he was asked to quarterback the team!

His first start as a quarterback was not only on the road—at Arizona—but it was against a conference opponent. All he did was throw two touchdown passes in the Pokes’ 36-17 win. He then went on to direct the team to 10 consecutive wins and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. An amazing Cinderella story.

The other interesting story involves an individual I enjoy interacting with every day here at UW, Randy Welniak. His is a slightly different story, but with the same result. Injuries precluded Welniak from playing until his senior year. He earned the starting role for opening day of 1988. It wasn’t just any opener, it was the most spectacular opener in War Memorial Stadium history. Not only were the Cowboys playing with an unproven quarterback, but were opening with a huge conference game against old rival Brigham Young in the very first night game ever played in the stadium. No pressure there for a quarterback playing his first game.

Randy threw a pair of touchdown passes, and rushed for another as the Cowboys beat BYU 24-14 in one of the most memorable games in Wyoming football history. Welniak led his team to 10 consecutive wins that season as the Pokes put together a magical 11-win year and a Holiday Bowl appearance.

Ironically Paul Roach coached both of those quarterbacks, as an assistant during Toscano’s time, and as head coach for Welniak.

A year prior to Welniak’s heroics, another one-year guy, Craig Burnett, produced an outstanding opening game and an eventual great season. A northern California transfer, Burnett’s very first game for the colors came against Air Force in War Memorial Stadium as Wyoming opened the season with the Falcons. In Roach’s first year as head coach he chose the unproven Burnett and the two made history by directing Wyoming to a 10-win season. Burnett threw for a touchdown and completed passes to eight different receivers in a 27-13 victory over the Cadets in that opener.

During his first spring at Laramie, junior college transfer Joe Hughes was locked in a pitch battle with John Gustin for the starting job. In an 11th-hour decision by head Coach Joe Tiller, Hughes earned the nod in the 1992 opener against Nevada in War Memorial. Playing his first game as a Cowboy, Joe rushed for two touchdowns in that game leading the Pokes to a 25-6 victory. While Wyoming experienced a rocky ’92 campaign in Hughes’ first year, he came back for his senior campaign and directed the Pokes to eight wins and a Copper Bowl appearance.

Another transfer who quickly made a name for himself was Josh Wallwork who posted a sensational opener albeit in a loss at Air Force. He would become one of Wyoming’s all-time most productive quarterbacks in just two years. Wallwork, was one of four candidates for the starting QB job prior to that 1995 Air Force opener, but won the job during Fall Camp. He threw for over 300 yards and a touchdown in his Poke debut against Air Force. The Cowboys were 6-5 in his first year, but went 10-2 in his senior year of ’96, including that famous “The Drive” against Colorado State.

Brett Smith was a freshman when he got the nod from Dave Christensen to start at quarterback in the Pokes’ 2011 opener against Weber State. All Brett did was complete 27 of 41 passes for 294 yards and three touchdowns. His final scoring toss of the day went to Robert Herron with 22 seconds remaining in the game to give his team a come-from-behind 35-32 victory over Weber State. Smith directed the Cowboys to eight wins and a New Mexico Bowl berth that season.

Which brings us back to Coffman. Success runs in his family. His Dad, Paul, was an outstanding NFL tight end with the Packers and Chiefs. A brother, Chase, is currently playing for the Atlanta Falcons. Football is in his blood!

What is it going to be like sitting in the Cowboy locker room before his first start? “I’m sure there will be some nerves involved,” he says with a smile. “I’ll be going through game situations in my mind. But I know I’m prepared, and I know I’m ready to help us win. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

I have a good feeling we’ll be counting Cam Coffman among those quarterbacks who made a big mark in a short time for the Brown and Gold.

Have fun at the opener everyone!