Wyoming Cowboys Complete First Spring Scrimmage on Saturday, Running Back and Receivers Shine on Offense, Tackling and Defensive Front Also Stand Out

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Courtesy Wyoming Media Relations

Laramie, Wyo. (April 5, 2014) -- New Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl and his team took the field in War Memorial Stadium a little before 11 a.m. on Saturday in what was the first of three spring scrimmages for the Cowboys. The scrimmage concluded after about one hour and 15 minutes of action. Bohl spoke with media after Saturday’s practice about the areas of his team that stood out to him.

“I was real pleased with our first scrimmage,” said Bohl. “Obviously, we are a work in progress, but overall I thought our defense did a good job tackling. Our pursuit angles looked pretty good, and I thought we gang tackled well. I was particularly pleased with our defensive front. I thought they put a lot of pressure on the quarterback today, and established the line of scrimmage.

“It’s always dangerous to single out a couple guys from the scrimmage, but Mark Nzeocha (senior linebacker) I thought really ran well and made some nice plays out there on defense. D.J. May (redshirt sophomore running back) had a nice run at the beginning part of the scrimmage and showed some good speed.

“Some guys did not go through the scrimmage. Tanner Gentry (sophomore wide receiver), Malkaam Muhammad (junior linebacker), Jake Jones (junior offensive guard) and Keenan Montgomery (senior wide receiver) did not go through the scrimmage. I don’t think we had any significant injuries today. We’ll certainly know more come Monday, but right now there was nothing that was apparent.”

A few other Cowboys who didn’t play on Saturday included: senior safety Darrenn White, senior wide receiver Dominic Rufran and sophomore quarterback Tom Thornton.

The Cowboy defensive front that Bohl singled out helped the Cowboys record 9.0 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks on the day. Senior defensive tackle Patrick Mertens and sophomore nose tackle Uso Olive each had 1.0 TFL and 1.0 sack. Outside linebacker Nzeocha led the defense with nine tackles, including 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

On offense, May led the team in rushing, with 56 yards on five carries. His long run was a 46-yard scamper on the first series from scrimmage that placed the ball on the defense’s 10-yard line. But the Cowboy defense stiffened forcing a 23-yard field goal by senior place-kicker Stuart Williams. Sophomore Oscar Nevermann had seven carries for 55 yards, and scored the only touchdown of the day on a one-yard plunge on the final series of the scrimmage.

“It was a good start, but it was just that, a start,” said Bohl. “We have a ways to go, but I was pleased with the effort and the execution. The ball was on the ground from the quarterback snap standpoint too much. I thought our running backs and receivers did a nice job securing the football. I would like to see some more takeaways over on defense, but we need to credit our offense for taking care of the football.”

The offense had a couple fumbles on quarterback-center exchanges, and one on a missed exchange between a quarterback and running back. One fumble resulted in the only turnover of the game when linebacker Nzeocha came up with the recovery.

Bohl was asked to expound on what he saw in Nzeocha’s play on Saturday that made him stand out.

“Playing linebacker in the Tampa 2 is a complicated position,” said Bohl. “We always knew he had good ability -- he can cover a lot of ground. You can certainly see that he has the ability to close on a play very quickly. He has good range, and he did a nice job tackling today.”

The first-year Cowboy head coach was also asked to assess the three quarterbacks who competed in Saturday’s scrimmage.

“I would say from the naked eye, I thought Colby (Kirkegaard) did a little bit better job today,” said Bohl. “Certainly, he’s a veteran player. Aaron (Young) is new, and Sam (Stratton) did some good things. We’ll certainly evaluate the tape, but from my perspective I thought Colby did some good things today, and he got the ball downfield.”

Redshirt senior Kirkegaard completed 8 of 15 passes for 53 yards on the day. Fellow senior Stratton was 8 for 10 passing for 66 yards, and sophomore Young completed 5 of 9 passes for 25 yards. Neither of the three threw a touchdown pass nor an interception.

Leading the way for the receivers were seniors Jalen Claiborne and Trey Norman. Claiborne caught four passes for 19 yards. Norman had three receptions for 22 yards. Sophomore tight end Eric Nzeocha, the younger brother of Mark, had two catches for 44 yards, including the longest pass reception of the day on a 30-yard pass from Stratton. In all, 14 different players caught passes on Saturday.

The receiving corps was another area of the team that Bohl praised for their performance.

“I was really pleased with how our receivers caught the football,” said Bohl. “I know we’ve got quite a bit of depth and some pretty good playmakers at receiver, and I thought they did a nice job today.

“There was good performance all the way around. Coach (Kenni) Burns has done a nice job with that group. I thought their routes were precise. I thought they came out of their routes well. Overall, it was a good performance by our receiving corps.”

In response to a question about what areas of his team surprised him most on Saturday, he began by talking about how happy he was with the way his team tackled.

“I was pleased with our tackling, not to say that it all was perfect and not to say that we can’t improve, but the NCAA limits the days you can have live contact,” said Bohl. “We’ve been out their practicing, but we haven’t had a lot of opportunities to tackle, unlike the old days when I was playing, you tackled every day. I thought our defensive guys tackled fairly well. There weren’t a ton of missed tackles. A lot of it is their effort, guys being in position, and they’re being coached well fundamentally.

“The other portion (I was pleased with), there were not as many miscues offensively as what I thought there would be. We’re installing a new system, that is fairly complicated. So I thought we did well in that area.

“I thought for short to intermediate routes we threw the ball fairly well, particularly out of play action and on roll outs.”

The head coach was asked if he had seen any development in the depth on the defensive line through the first half of spring ball.

“I would say no, not right now. I would like to say yes,” said Bohl. “I think there is a little bit of depth at the end position. There’s not as much depth at the defensive tackle position as we’d like.

“Our front four are pretty physical. I think we still need to improve on our speed and explosion, but as far as establishing the line of scrimmage that front four did a nice job today. We’re going to need to supplement and develop that group a little bit more, cause typically being a defensive lineman is almost like sumo wrestling -- it’s tiring, you’ve got to play more than just four guys.”

Special teams was also incorporated into Saturday’s practice in the form of punting and field goal attempts. In addition to his 23-yard field goal on the opening drive of the scrimmage that concluded an eight-play, 70-yard drive, senior Williams also connected on a 29-yard attempt on the second-to-last possession of the game that capped off a five-play, 23-yard drive. Williams ended the day two of two in field-goal attempts. Sophomore punter Ethan Wood punted the ball five times for a 29.4-yard average.

“Our snaps, by and large, were good, and that is something you get concerned about with special teams,” said Bohl. “We had one high snap on a field goal, but Sam (Stratton) did a good job of getting it down. I thought our punter (Ethan Wood) did okay. Stu (Williams) did a nice job kicking the ball. We’re really working on the trajectory -- getting the ball up. The timing was good, so we’re pleased there.”

Bohl was asked if he thought the structure of practice heading into next week will be similar to what it has been through the first week, with all players getting a number of reps in practice, or if he and his staff will start giving more reps to fewer players.

“I don’t think we’ll depart a great deal on the number of repetitions,” said Bohl. “We’ve got to develop depth on this football team. It is a learning process, and there is no better place to learn than during spring football. For us to think that we’re going to establish only our 11 starters on offense and defense, then we’re not going to go far in the Mountain West Conference. You’re going to get guys injured. We’ve got to continue to coach them all, so our number of repetitions won’t change much.

“But we’ll start to solidify a depth chart, whether that comes out on Monday or not, I don’t know. It won’t be etched in stone. It will be fairly fluid. Today was an opportunity for guys to begin to separate in some places.”

Questioned about whether, after only one scrimmage, a coach was able to get a better feeling for his team, Bohl said, “You do, as a coach you take a pretty measured look at that. You start forming some assessment of where are the strengths on our football team, and how can we leverage those strengths. That is probably one of the biggest jobs I have as a head football coach. Beyond all the X’s and O’s, where are we strong and where are some of our deficiencies, and how are we going to cover up those deficiencies? How are we going to accentuate those things that are strengths?

“But the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. Once we have a chance to get in that film room, they’ll probably be a couple things that will sort out that maybe I have not mentioned. But I think I got a pretty good pulse after this scrimmage.”

Offensive coordinator Brent Vigen also addressed the media following Saturday’s scrimmage. Vigen was asked to give an overall assessment of the Cowboy offense.

“What I told our guys afterward is we set a benchmark today,” said Vigen. “Today was the first time they were out there on the field without a coach being right in their ear. How we grow this week is key. Next Saturday will be the true tell. There were good things today, but there were plenty of things -- like putting a couple snaps on the ground to going the wrong way on a couple plays -- that we still have to iron out.

“It was a pretty basic approach today, but it was also that first test for these guys -- for our whole offense. I thought generally speaking as I was walking off the field I felt we functioned okay. Our execution needs to improve, but that is a process. Our terminology is being learned. The players are starting to play faster. The kids are working hard, but now it’s about taking the next step where knowing what you’re doing and you’re able to do it at a faster pace.”

Asked if there were some specific positives that stood out to him after Saturday’s scrimmage Vigen said. “I think one of the good things was to see our running backs run. D.J. (May), to our expectations, popped off a couple runs that were very impressive. I don’t know that Shaun (Wick) got the same opportunities today. We haven’t been tackling those kids, so it is really hard to get a gauge on them until you can see them in a scrimmage setting.”

In regard to how the offensive line functioned, Vigen added, “That is a work in progress, and it generally is every spring. Whether you return four guys and are trying to replace one, or a situation like this where everyone is brand new to our system. The O-Line always seems like the last thing to come together. This will be valuable film for them to see.

“Similar to what I said earlier, this is a different setting. There isn’t a coach out there in their ear before every play and after every play giving feedback. The players are out there trying to function as a unit, and that takes time.

“Our goal on offense is to be ready to go and functioning at a high level the day we play Montana (2014 season opener on Aug. 30). That is a long way off, and we have a lot of work to do before now and then.”

Defensive coordinator Steve Stanard said that he and his defensive staff had emphasized hard work and effort to their defensive unit entering Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Our message going into this first scrimmage was we wanted to see our guys work hard and see a really good effort. We wanted to see guys do a great job of taking good angles to the ball, as we say ‘keep it in the cup’, and try to take the football away. I thought the effort was really good. I thought the angles improved, and we did a pretty good job of tackling as a unit. We didn’t take the ball away as much as I would have liked to see.

“The thing that was most encouraging to me was on the first series they had a long run down into the red zone, and I was really curious to see how we were going to respond. We held them to a field goal, which showed me that we might have something here. We’ve got a lot of maturity and a lot of seniors on defense. I thought that stand laid the ground work for a productive scrimmage.”

Stanard, who also coaches the Cowboy linebackers, was asked about the progress of that group this spring and in particular the progress of senior Mark Nzeocha.

“Mark (Nzeocha) is a smart player,” said Stanard. “He’s not real vocal, but he’s an intelligent player. I think he could be a real good leader for us. Mark is very athletic -- he has a great burst. I think he has done as good a job of anyone of picking up our concepts and learning what we want to try and do.

“Our linebackers learning curve should be flatter than some other areas on our team because we have quite a few fourth and fifth-year seniors there. The play of a linebacker in a 4-3 defense is a little more complex than say a linebacker in a 3-4.”

And what does he see as being key to the overall development of his defense?

“The key is going to be how do we develop depth at all of our defensive positions,” said Stanard. “I think we’re probably deepest at corner. We’ve got to develop depth at linebacker, and the interior defensive line. That is going to be the challenge, and then obviously with the young players that we signed this year, seeing how quickly we can bring them along.”

Following Saturday’s morning scrimmage, the Cowboy coaching staff hosted approximately 30 high school seniors to be with an informal luncheon and information session of Wyoming Football.

The Pokes are nearing the midpoint of spring practice, having completed seven practices with seven practices and the Spring Game remaining on the spring schedule.

The Spring Game on Saturday, April 19 at 2 p.m. will be open to the media and the general public.

2014 University of Wyoming Football Spring Practice Schedule

Wednesday, March 26 8:15 a.m. (No Pads, Practice #1)

Friday, March 28 8:15 a.m. (No Pads, Practice #2)

Saturday, March 29 10:00 a.m. (First Padded Practice/Non-Tackle, Practice #3)

Monday, March 31 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #4)

Wednesday, April 2 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #5)

Friday, April 4 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #6)

Saturday, April 5 11:00 a.m. (Scrimmage #1, Practice #7)

Monday, April 7 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #8)

Wednesday, April 9 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #9)

Friday, April 11 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #10)

Saturday, April 12 Time is TBA (Scrimmage #2, Practice #11)

Monday, April 14 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #12)

Wednesday, April 16 8:15 a.m. (Pads, Practice #13)

Friday, March 18 8:15 a.m. (No Pads, Practice #14)

Saturday, April 19 2:00 p.m. (Spring Game, Practice #15) Open to the Public

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