Wyoming coach Dave Christensen won Mountain West Coach of the Year honors after leading the Cowboys to an 8-5 record in 2011, finishing third in the league with a 5-2 mark. Longhorn fans will be familiar with him from his time as Missouri's offensive coordinator, and his Cowboy offense operates at a similar rate: a spread that relies on pace and quick-hit throws, with the quarterback run game thrown in. And Christensen may have his ideal triggerman in sophomore star Brett Smith.
Just how good was Smith in his freshman season? His 3,332 total yards was the third-best mark in Wyoming school history, putting up five games of 300 or more total yards. And while Smith was effective as a passer, throwing for 2,622 yards and 20 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, his game really took off late in the season as a runner.
Over the last six games, Smith rushed 70 times for 475 yards (almost 80 yards per game), and scored four touchdowns. That's 7.7 yards per carry, an incredibly high number, especially for a quarterback. If he had a weakness, it was throwing the ball down the field. Two of his projected starting receivers averaged 9.1 yards per catch or less.
Some of that coincided with the loss of top receiver and downfield threat Chris McNeill (6-1 180), who missed the final four games of the season with an injury. Even so, he led the Cowboys in receiving yards with 504, and finished second in touchdown catches (4) and third in receptions (42). Dominic Rufran (6-0 185) wound up leading the team in receptions, snagging 44 passes, though he averaged just 9.1 yards per catch. When you add in Robert Herron (5-10 187), the Cowboys return three receivers who had at least 40 catches a year ago. Herron caught 43 passes for 379 yards. Trey Norman (6-1 170) didn't see a ton of time last year, but played in all 13 games. Wyoming doesn't use a traditional tight end, but Riley Lange (6-3 247) will play H-back when one's in the ball game.
Smith's running ability helped open things up for other runners, with the Cowboys having three backs who rushed for more than 350 yards, and all of whom averaged more than 4.6 yards per carry. But the top two of those guys are gone, leaving behind Brandon Miller, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry in rushing 66 times for 364 yards and two touchdowns. Keep an eye on backup Shaun Wick (5-10 190), who is an emerging freshman talent.
Rimington watch list center Nick Carlson (6-4 292) leads the Cowboys with 33 career starts, and he's taken those at both center and guard, as needed. He, along with an all-conference candidate at guard Tyler Strong (6-3 292), a former defensive tackle, will try to replicate last season's success that saw the Cowboys give up just 12 sacks in 13 games. The two projected starting tackles — Josh Leonard (6-4 296) and Kyle Magnuson (6-6 300) — are seniors with 16 games starting experience between them. Leonard is the second-most experienced lineman with 13 starts, while Magnuson has started three career games at guard. Jake Jones (6-3 295) will get his first career start at right guard.
Defensively, what Wyoming runs could largely be a surprise in the opener. The defensive coordinator, Chris Tormey, is new, and has a reputation for trying to create confusion by using a number of different looks. It would help if he could replicate last year's success in forcing turnovers. Wyoming forced 31 turnovers in 2011, 10th best in the country. That was aided by recovering a whopping 18 fumbles, fifth-best in the country.
Wyoming needs defensive ends Sonny Puletasi (6-3 241) and Miraldo Michel (6-3 265) to step up and fill the void left by departed All-Mountain West performers Josh Biezuns and Gabe Knapton. Biezuns and Knapton combined to make 19.5 stops in the backfield and 11.5 sacks in 2011. Puletasi and Michel made two tackles for loss and no sacks between them. It helps that the defensive tackle group is solid. Mike Purcell (6-3 303) is a Mountain West honors candidate who made 48 tackles a year ago. Kurt Taufa'asau (6-2 284) made 27 stops of his own.
Linebacker has the potential to be a really strong group for the Cowboys. Korey Jones (6-2 233) showed off some playmaking ability a year ago with six tackles for loss and four sacks among his 59 tackles. Middle linebacker Devyn Harris returns after making 65 tackles, and redshirt freshman Zack Berg (6-2 226) could be the unit's next star.
Brett Smith wasn't the only Freshman All-America candidate a year ago, as cornerback Blair Burns (5-10 180) made several all-freshman teams after picking off four passes in 2011. Fellow corner Marqueston Huff (6-0 195) wasn't far behind, picking off three passes and recovering a team high three fumbles. Free safety Luke Ruff (5-11 200) may be the defense's best player, a tackling machine who made 102 stops last year. Sophomore Mark Nzeocha (6-3 220), a native of Neusitz, Germany, moves into the starting strong safety role after seeing some time as a freshman and intercepting a pass.
Both the kicker, Stuart Williams, and the punter, Tim Gleeson, are new. Gleeson is a true freshman from Melbourne, Australia. Herron and Wick will return punts, and neither returned one a year ago. Burns is the punt returner and averaged 13 yards per return last year.