Wyoming Football: Can The Cowboys Survive Losing Nico Evans?
What does losing a great running back mean in the Mountain West? We look back to see what 2019 might hold for Wyoming football.
Here’s a brief history of losing great runners and what it might mean for the Cowboys.
It’s easy to forget that the Wyoming Cowboys ended 2018 by successfully defending their claim to the Bronze Boot and ripping off four straight wins. It’s also easy to overlook that, by S&P+, they also essentially ended the season where they began — starting 75th and ending 77th — because they enter spring ball with more questions than many other teams in the Mountain West. Chief among them: What will the Cowboys do now that Nico Evans has moved on?
Considering the conference’s recent history of excellent runners, Wyoming has hardly been alone in finding their own answer to this question. This isn’t even the first time the Cowboys have had to solve it themselves. Is there anything in that history, though, which can help fans frame their expectations for 2019?
In an attempt to answer this question, I put together a list of the Mountain West running backs who have averaged at least 100 yards per game since 2013. For additional context, I also included Rushing S&P+ and Adjusted Run Rate (defined by Football Outsiders as a way to “measure the intent of play-calling by looking at standard downs and passing downs run rates and calibrating so that every team has the same amount of each type of down”), as well as the Rushing S&P+ rank for the year after each runner’s individual performance.
What stands out here? There’s a few things to note:
- Among the 20 running backs for which we can account for “year after” Rushing S&P+, 12 teams saw a drop in rushing efficiency from one season to the next.
- Wyoming, in particular, fell off a cliff in 2017 after Brian Hill left for the NFL.
- The Cowboys’ reliance on the run last fall, and the effectiveness of their ground game, most closely resembles Donnel Pumphrey’s record-breaking 2016. Of course, San Diego State had Rashaad Penny ready to replace him.
Considering the whole picture, the worst-case scenario for Wyoming probably looks a lot like what befell San Jose State in the years after Ervin’s departure. The Spartans fell to 108th in 2016, 125th in 2017, and 130th last fall, but there’s reason to believe whatever regression is likely not to be too punishing.
For starters, a lot of young offensive linemen got plenty of playing time in 2018, meaning that the Cowboys could reasonably set a two-deep with zero upperclassmen in the starting five by the end of spring ball. Keegan Cryder and Rudy Stofer, both sophomores, are key returners for an offense that had a Rushing Success Rate which cleared 44% in three of Wyoming’s last four games (for comparison, the Cowboys had a season Success Rate of just 37% in 2018, 117th in the country).
The Cowboys also have just three running backs listed on their spring roster, but that isn’t a bad thing so long as the offense can avoid the offseason injury bug. Xazavian Valladay put an exclamation point on his 2018 campaign by running for 192 yards in the finale against New Mexico, but he matched Evans on a per-play basis throughout the year by averaging 6.71 Highlight Yards Per Opportunity (average number of yards after the first five yards, when an offensive line has done its job).
Jevon Bigelow, meanwhile, had a more workmanlike 4.2 yards per carry, but his 4.35 Highlight Yards/Opportunity was better than small sample peers like Marvin Kinsey, Devontae Lee and Charles Williams. He and Valladay are both sophomores, so while there might be some growing pains in taking on a larger role, the duo has flashed potential.
Craig Bohl could also take a page from Jay Norvell’s development playbook and give some run to a true freshman in the fall. Titus Swen and Alphonso Andrews Jr. were rated as three-star recruits by 247Sports in Wyoming’s 2019 recruiting class.
And though it may seem obvious, the real X-factor is how quarterback Sean Chambers bounces back from injury. He managed 100 yards rushing, a 40% Rushing Success Rate and a 50% Opportunity Rate in each of his three full games last year and, despite the recovery time, Bohl noted to the Casper Star-Tribune back in December that Chambers would have the inside track on the starting job when spring ball begins. Even with some baked-in regression to that sample size, as well, it’s likely that his wheels at 100% would still be a significant net positive for what the Cowboys want to do on offense.
So what does all of this mean for replacing Evans’ production? If 2016 San Jose State is the worst-case, then 2018 UNLV might be the ceiling. The Rebels improved on a per-play basis despite Lexington Thomas’s drop-off in production because the trio of Charles Williams, Xzaviar Campbell and Evan Owens averaged 5.57 YPC and Armani Rogers exploded as a running quarterback when healthy.
The middle ground, on the other hand? It might look something like Wyoming’s own 2010 campaign, when two sophomores (Austyn Carta-Samuels, Alvester Alexander) and a freshman (Robert Herron) averaged 4.76 YPG after adjusting for sacks and the Cowboys ranked 55th nationally in Rushing S&P+. Though they won just three games that fall, their progress set them up for a New Mexico Bowl berth the following year.
Whatever questions the Cowboys face, it seems likely that they’ll at least be better prepared to avoid the decline they faced two seasons ago. With at least three solid pieces in the backfield, and the potential for even more, optimists can build a good case that the ground game can carry the Pokes from one of their most successful graduating classes ever to the next.