Q&A with Wyoming defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel
LARAMIE -- Wyoming will field a young football team in 2022.
The Cowboys feature the third-youngest roster in all of college football, according to ESPN. Only Mountain West foes, Hawaii and Nevada, have less returning experience.
On the defensive side of the ball, UW returns just three starters from last year's 7-6 squad that won the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl over Kent State. Nose tackle Cole Godbout is back. So is tackle Jordan Bertagnole and linebacker Easton Gibbs, who is making the move from the weakside to the middle.
It's no secret that the NCAA Transfer Portal has plenty to do with this youth movement. The Cowboys lost both starting corners, Azizi Hearn (UCLA) and CJ Coldon (Oklahoma). On the defensive front, Solomon Byrd is now at USC. Victor Jones moved to Akron. So did Ravontae Holt. Defensive end Jaylen Pate now suits up for Northwestern.
On the back end, UW lost Rome Weber (Western Kentucky) and Cam Murray (Northern Colorado).
The biggest loss came via graduation. Middle linebacker Chad Muma, along with his team-best 142 tackles, was selected in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. UW also lost safeties Esaias Gandy and Braden Smith to graduation. Same goes for defensive end Garrett Crall.
That portal, turns out, swings both ways.
Wyoming added linebacker Cole DeMarzo (Michigan State), along with cornerbacks Jakorey Hawkins (Ole Miss) and Deron Harrell (Wisconsin). TJ Urban, a safety transfer from Air Force, was injured during the Pokes' first practice of the spring.
MORE UW FOOTBALL NEWS:
Coaches are excited about names like Sabastian Harsh, Oluwaseyi Omotosho, Cam Stone, DeVonne Harris, Wyett Ekeler, Isaac White and many others.
Statistically, Wyoming ranked No. 55 in the nation in total defense a season ago, allowing 370.4 yards and nearly 24 points per game. With so many new faces dotting that side of the ball, what can we expect in 2022?
7220sports.com sat down with third-year Wyoming defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel at this fall's media day in Laramie. Here's what his thoughts are as we rapidly approach opening day Aug. 27 in Champaign, Ill.
Q: A lot of new guys on your side of the ball, how are you feeling compared to this time last year?
A: You know, I'm optimistic. I love the work that we do every day. The work ethic of the people, the attitude of the people, the demeanor of the people -- It's been very, very good. I look at it and think, we've got basically the same two inside starters (Cole Godbout and Jordan Bertagnole) we had last year. I think some other guys have come along a little bit better and that we should be better inside than what we were a year ago. I think athletically at defensive end, the play of these guys now has started to match their athleticism. I'm looking at that position going, 'OK, people are going to look at that, like, well, they lost that guy, they lost that guy, they lost that guy.' I'm looking at it like, yeah, but we may have this guy and we may have that guy. We didn't have a guy as explosive as him pass-rush wise. I'm excited about that.
Q: What do you think when Craig Bohl steps behind the podium every day and brings up the ends, especially Sabastian Harsh? Do you like that pressure on these kids?
A: I agree with him. I mean, my pressure is to make sure that I don't do something call-wise ... we just want to let them play. These guys have done really, really well, so I'm excited about that. I think, yeah, we lost Chad Muma. That's a big loss. You can't replace that. I think the thing that we've had to do, and we talked about on defense in the spring before we even started was, we lost Chad Muma and it'll be hard to replace him. What we've got to do is be collectively better in other positions around where we lost Chad Muma, and then plug in Easton (Gibbs) to where he can be effectively good at that position. That's the big thing."
Q: Obviously, three safeties are gone -- Rome Weber, Esaias Gandy and Braden Smith. Wyett Ekeler is back. He says he is really comfortable and ready to roll. Do you feel good about him, and also Isaac White is back. How do you feel about where you are as far as the safety spots go?
A: Isaac White was our best safety last year. So, you can say we lost whatever, we lost whoever, Isaac White was our best safety and it really wasn't all that close. Once he started playing and once he started going, clearly each week it became, 'OK, that's the best one. He's doing well. Miles Williams had a great spring and has had a really good fall. And Wyett -- all three of them are going to play. I think we are going to be improved at that position. You know, I'm not sitting here saying we have the next Ronnie Lott or anything like that, but I think that we're going to be improved at that position. So, I'm excited about what I see there."
Q: You had two corners that played a hell of a lot of football (Azizi Hearn and CJ Coldon) that are no longer with this team. You added a couple from bigger schools (Deron Harrell-Wisconsin and Jakorey Hawkins-Ole Miss) so people, I think, automatically think they came from bigger schools, they have got to be great. How have they looked so far?
A: They've been good. Jakorey has been doing solid. I think the one that's maybe got us going a little bit, just from an excitement standpoint, Deron Harrell had a great summer. He's fully comfortable and healed from his hip injury last year at Wisconsin. You see right now -- day to day -- you're like, 'OK, I see why you started at Wisconsin.' All of a sudden now you're starting to see a guy that's like, 'OK, this is a really good player.'
Q: Cornerbacks coach Benny Boyd also brought up Cam Stone ...
A: Cam is doing well. We've got work to do there. We have progress to make, but I can close my eyes and view many of these scenarios and just envision being as good or better at all these positions. As long as we continue to develop and progress. With their attitude, their demeanor and the way that they handle things in the summer and the way they handle things in practice, there's no reason for me to think that we won't do that.
Q: Is it safe to say Keonte Glinton was one of your better defenders last year and you're comfortable starting him at the nickel spot?
A: Yes. With KG, he had to play some corner in the first game after Azizi Hearn got thrown out. He got injured against Northern Illinois, so then he missed pretty much all the next week. You know, he played just sparingly against Ball State. Then, all of a sudden, you start to play more. He starts against CSU and has a really good game, the whole deal. After that, he's ill the entire week before we play Utah State. So he just kind of had that weird, uneven year. When he played, he's a good player. We need him to be a really good player. He's improved at everything from last year until now. So for us to think that he won't be improved, he absolutely will be."
Q: Bohl really talked up Malique Singleton at Mountain West Media Days, saying he's a guy who could potentially play the nickel spot as a true freshman. How do you feel about his performance so far?
A: He's doing a nice job. I think there you can see and know Malique's demeanor and who he is and you see a lot of Keonte Glinton in him. So, for them to be in the same meeting room, the same position, doing all the same things, it's a great thing for Malique and his long-term future. It also helped him early on. Antoine Winfield Jr, I think, is one of the best safeties in the NFL. OK, he started for me as a true freshman my last year in Minnesota, but he didn't start until the fourth game. So, sometimes it takes guys a couple games, a few extra weeks to get fully into that moment. When you play DB in college, you know, there's a lot that goes into it. It's not just, well, you can run fast and that works. You know, there's a lot of things that go into it, like how you have to make all this transition work.
Q: Nic Talich has to be a joy to coach. You can just throw him in anywhere and see what he can do.
A: Yeah, he's fun. Nic's a great kid. Last year, I don't know what he weighed when he first got here, but they said he was going to be a walk-on safety. He didn't want to play safety at all. So, he tells me, 'coach, I went back to my room every night and was pounding burgers, so I can get out of your meeting room.' So, he wants to be a linebacker. Nic's a great kid. He's come a long way as a player from one year to the next. So it's good to see what his progress can be and will be going forward, because, you know, one thing about him is he's going to give every single thing that he's got. So it's a great thing."
Q: I don't get the sense too many people are overly worried about the defense.
A: I'm more optimistic maybe than what I should be, I don't know. We'll see. I just look at it and know kind of what we have running around and I don't feel bad about it.
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