LARAMIE -- Deron Harrell has a message for his teammates ahead of the Cowboys' season opener Saturday at Illinois.

"There's talent everywhere."

The Denver product spent the first five years of his college career at Wisconsin, where he played in the Big Ten's West Division, the same side of the conference the Fighting Illini reside in.

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The 6-foot-2, 180-pound senior cornerback appeared in 22 games, racking up 26 tackles and batting down eight passes in the Badger's secondary. Harrell capped his career in Madison with a 3-1 mark against Illinois. The one loss was a painful one, though. Then ranked No. 6 in the nation, Wisconsin waltzed into Champaign with a perfect 6-0 record and coming off back-to-back shutout victories over Kent State and Michigan State.

They limped out of Memorial Stadium with a 24-23 loss.

Harrell can't deny it, playing in that league can only be described as a grind, but it's not quite the leap you might think it is.

"It's a hard conference to play in," Harrell said of the Big Ten. "... The Mountain West is a great conference. I feel like it's a lot faster. We have faster skill players in the Mountain West. So, that's a big difference to me. I feel like across the board, the skill is about even."

Illinois' wide receivers Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington, not to mention running back, Chase Brown, would like a word.

 

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Those two pass catchers hauled in a combined 68 throws for 819 yards and four touchdowns in 2021. Brown led the team with 1,005 rushing yards on just 170 attempts. That's an average of 5.9 yards per carry he also found the end zone five times.

Brown had an 80-yard run a year ago. Williams tacked on a 52-yard grab. Washington hauled in a 56 yarder.

Harrell said you have to respect everyone on the other side, that includes preparing for both potential quarterbacks, Tommy DeVito and Art Sitkowski. Illinois head coach Bret Bielema declined to name a starter during his press conference last Monday.

"Anybody's capable of anything," he said. "You know, especially at the Division-I level, across all conferences."

One thing he is certain of, though, ice bags will be required on the flight home.

"Oh, yeah, most definitely," Harrell said with a smile. "It's going to be a really physical game, man. But I feel like the guys we've got up front, the linebackers, O-line, D-line, you know, I feel like they're physically prepared for it.

"... I feel like we're ready."

A major hip injury in 2021 derailed Harrell's tenure in Madison. Wyoming defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel called after seeing his name in the NCAA Transfer Portal. Not only was Harrell interested in coming to Laramie, he wanted to, adding that being closer to home and the brand of football made the decision an easy one.

Ever since he was medically cleared to resume football activities, Harrell has been impressing in camp.

"I think the one that's maybe got us going a little bit, just from an excitement standpoint, Deron Harrell had a great summer," Sawvel said. "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.'"

Craig Bohl agrees.

"Boy, he's been a bright guy," Wyoming's ninth-year head coach said. "... I think the hip slowed him down a little bit at the beginning of the year -- just the number of repetitions that we were doing and the workload -- but he's adapted well. I thought he really played well in the scrimmage and he tackled well."

Harrell, who technically has two seasons of eligibility remaining, has shared some of his experiences playing in Big Ten stadiums. While Illinois isn't viewed as one of the more daunting venues in the conference like Penn State's Happy Valley, Ohio State's Horseshoe or Michigan's Big House, 60,000-plus could be on hand to greet a Wyoming team that is the third-youngest in all of the FBS.

"There's going to be a lot of fans there. It's going to be rowdy. It's a Big Ten environment," he said. "That's how they all are, places like Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, stuff like that. You know, once the game gets going and your adrenaline is going, you don't really realize it."

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