Rocket ready launch for Cowboys

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His first season with the University of Wyoming football team wasn’t bad for wide receiver Raghib Ismail Jr., known as “Rocket.”

The junior college transfer, who began his career at TCU, caught 24 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Now a senior, Ismail is UW’s leading returning wide receiver in terms of yards and touchdowns, and second in catches (senior Austin Conway had 32).

But last season also was a struggle for Ismail.

“With knowledge comes comfort. That was my downfall last year was the lack of knowledge of the playbook. This year that has been my main focus,” he said.

“My personal goal is to remain focused and even keel throughout. Don’t get too high on the highs or too lows on the lows so I can be more consistent. Football for me last year was more of an outlet instead of something I love to do. There was a lot of life stuff that distracted me. My focus this year is to compartmentalize everything and approach the game as a professional so i can be reliable.”

On paper, Ismail is UW’s best big-play threat at wide receiver. His 11.1 yards per catch last season is the highest among the Cowboys’ returning receivers. A lot of things need to improve for UW in its passing game, and the wide receiving corps is one of them. Whether it is making more big plays, making the routine ones, getting open, catching the ball or blocking downfield, all need to be better.

It is fair to say that UW’s wide receivers have come under their fair share of scrutiny from fans and the media heading into this season. Ismail said that hasn’t effected him or his teammates.

“We live together, we die together,” he said. “With all the criticism and all the scrutiny, we never point fingers at each other. We keep each other’s heads up. We motivate each other. If one brother is down, the others pick him up. I’m excited to see what’s going to happen this year.”

Ismail’s nickname comes from his dad, Raghib Ismail Sr., who earned it when he starred at Notre Dame as a wide receiver and return specialist. Asked if he liked that nickname, Junior was quick with his response.

“I love it and wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “It is more than just a nickname. It is a family thing. It has opened a lot of doors, and provides a certain level of respect I have to live up to.”

UW’s final practice of fall camp is Saturday, but it has been working on its Aug. 31 opener against Missouri the last few days. Be sure to check out the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang Sunday as WyoSports’ 68-page UW football preview section comes out. It should be posted online at wyosports.net as well. Also in Sunday’s papers and at wyosports.net, I give you my five biggest takes from fall camp, as well as my top 20 players in the Mountain West this season. Two UW players made my list. Can you guess which two?


Cowboys reach halfway point of fall camp

Ten down, ten to go.

The University of Wyoming is halfway through fall camp. Tuesday’s practice was its 10th practice. The Cowboys have 10 more practices before camp breaks, and then it is game week in preparation for their season-opening game against Missouri Aug. 31 at Jonah Field at War Memorial Stadium.

Here are some thoughts and observations midway through camp.

— UW got some bad news Tuesday with junior defensive tackle Ravontae Holt being out for the season with a torn ACL. Holt was a projected starter, and based off the daily comments from sixth-year coach Craig Bohl, was having a really good camp. An already thin group of interior defensive linemen in terms of depth got a lot thinner. As of now, UW plans to go with a three man rotation at its two interior line spots with junior Javaree Jackson, sophomore Victor Jones and redshirt freshman Mario Mora. When asked if any other names have started to emerge, Bohl said: “As we go, they’re still unnamed. That’s as clear as I can be.” There is time for others to develop, but one thing is certain, UW will need more than three to get through an entire season.

— Holt’s injury magnifies this issue, but even before that it was evident that if the Cowboys are to be successful defensively this season, they are going to have to do it differently than the last couple of years, which consisted of good play along the defensive line and at safety — especially last season. This isn’t to say those groups can’t or won’t play well in 2019, but depth and proven commodities are simply not there. UW will need to be good at cornerback, especially in passing situations where more man-to-man coverage could be used, and also at linebacker.

— I got a laugh from this quote from Bohl when asked to follow up on a statement he made about the wide receivers needing to be more consistent in practice. He’s talking about their ability to make contested catches. “I always say there’s two hungry dogs and one piece of meat. One dog is getting the meat. We need to get the meat.” That’s the quote of fall camp so far, but a valid point. Bohl said UW’s receivers were decent last season in catching the ball with no one around them. But we all know football isn’t always like that. For an offense that averaged 131.3 passing yards per games, and no returning wide receiver averaging more than 11.1 yards per catch, this area has to improve.

— The battle for the starting job at left guard is still ongoing with sophomores Patrick Arnold and Eric Abojei. Arnold is still working some at center, his natural position. That spot, and perhaps others, should get cleared up more when UW scrimmages on Saturday. That will be its first and likely only major scrimmage during camp. Unfortunately, it is closed to the public and media. We also should have a better idea on who will play at free safety, and the pecking order among UW’s young running backs and wide receivers will be after the scrimmage.

— Been hearing a lot of positive comments about junior right guard Logan Harris of Torrington, who seems to have that starting job locked down. First-year offensive line coach Bart Miller said Harris has made good strides since the spring with his footwork.

— Thank goodness for the new redshirt rule. Last season, freshman defensive end Solomon Byrd saw time in three games and recorded five tackles. Because Byrd played four games or fewer, UW could redshirt him. Now, the 6-foot-4, 243-pounder has emerged to be in the rotation for playing time this season along with senior Josiah Hall and junior Garrett Crall. Now, defensive ends coach AJ Cooper needs to see who will step up behind that trio. There are about five guys in the picture now, including sophomore Davon Wells-Ross, redshirt freshmen Levi Lafaele, Teagan Liufau and Jack Boyer, along with true freshman DeVonne Harris. Liufau and Boyer are walk-ons.

— This is what redshirt freshman starting quarterback Sean Chambers had to say earlier this week about how camp has gone for him: “I think camp has been okay. We’ve done some good things out there. We’ve made some mistakes, but that’s going to happen through the course of camp. I’d say I’m pleased with my performance so far, but there are are lot of things I need to do better. We still have some time, so that’s a positive. I need to be more consistent, not turn the ball over, be accurate and right with the protections. At times it gets frustrating, but I have to remember that this is camp and we’re going against our own team. I can’t take the previous play to the next play — good or bad.”

This likely will be my last post here this week. I am taking some time off to spend some time with my dad. His health isn’t great, and this opportunity to spend this time and do what we have planned is something I can’t pass up. But don’t worry, stories have been planned and written to run through the rest of the week in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and online at wyosports.net, so check them out.

Cowboys get through first full week of fall camp

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The first full week of fall camp is in the books for the University of Wyoming football team. The Cowboys have practiced eight times going back to Friday, Aug. 2.

Here are some observations and thoughts through the first eight practices.

— UW’s quarterbacks, and in particular redshirt freshman starter Sean Chambers, continue to progress. Chambers is still fully entrenched as the starter. This is what sixth-year coach Craig Bohl said about Chambers’ progress so far in camp.

“He’s not where we want him to be, but we’re much further along than last year and Sean is much further along,” Bohl said. “(Sophomore) Tyler Vander Waal is also doing some good things.”

— If there is a concern at this point in camp, it could be with the interior defensive line. UW has a lot of holes to fill with the loss of some seniors, along with defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, who would have been a senior this season. Juniors Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson have had good camps, especially Holt. However, Bohl said Friday Holt has a sore knee and was to have an MRI. That’s not good news. When asked if any others have started to emerge as options to play, Bohl basically said not yet. He mentioned that UW could move senior defensive end Josiah Hall inside, which UW has done in the past. Not that Hall wouldn’t give UW everything he has inside, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

— There seems to be a good competition going at free safety between junior Braden Smith and redshirt freshmen Rome Weber and Cameron Murray. Bohl said Murray has made a lot of progress from the spring to now. Smith didn’t finish Friday’s practice with a hamstring strain.

— UW is looking for someone to play nickel other than sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker, and it appears true freshman Allen Smith has the edge right now. Smith played nickel in high school in California, and was recruited to UW to play nickel. Smith is still learning, and isn’t the most imposing presence at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, but the coaches have liked what they’ve seen from him so far in camp.

— Gunner Gentry didn’t catch a pass as a true freshman wide receiver last season, but he played in 11 of 12 games and played on all four of the Cowboys’ special teams units. Gentry said he enjoyed playing special teams, and that helped him become a more well-rounded player. Gentry, the younger brother of former UW wide receiver Tanner Gentry who plays for the Chicago Bears now, is looking to have more of an impact at wide receiver this season. It helps that he is healthy. He missed most of the spring with a stress fracture in his foot. However, Gentry also hopes to still be involved on special teams.

— It is always interesting to see which newcomers emerge during camp. Bohl has been somewhat guarded in mentioning specific names, as have some of the assistants. But some of the players mentioned with Smith have true freshmen wide receivers Alex Brown and Isaiah Neyor — both from Texas and 6-4 and 6-3, respectively. True freshman tight end Treyton Welch, a wide receiver in high school, has been mentioned by Bohl a couple of times. True freshman Easton Gibbs at weak-side outside linebacker and redshirt freshman Chuck Hicks at middle linebacker have emerged to possibly give UW some depth. One other player to keep an eye on is true freshman offensive tackle Carlos Harrison.

For more UW football coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net. Also, check back to this blog.

Some new faces to watch for the Cowboys in 2019

Wednesday marked the one-quarter mark of fall camp for the University of Wyoming football team. However, a lot of work needs to be done before the Cowboys open the season Aug. 31 at home against Missouri.

Wednesday also was the first practice in full pads, which is a time when coaches get the best chances to evaluate all players in action.

While nothing is set in stone, a few names among new and younger players are starting to emerge in terms of who fans could be seeing in games this season.

Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Jake Dickert said Wednesday redshirt freshman Charles Hicks has made a lot of progress from the spring, and is in the mix to be in the linebacker rotation this season. Hicks is a middle linebacker, and UW is set there with senior starter Logan Wilson of Casper. Senior Ben Wisdorf of Cheyenne and sophomore Chad Muma get reps in practice at both the middle and outside linebacker spots (also known as the WILL).

If UW was to play a game right now, Wilson and senior Cassh Maluia would be the starters in the middle and at WILL, respectively. Muma is probably the No. 3 linebacker and top backup at both spots, followed by Wisdorf and with Hicks making big strides. Dickert also said true freshman Easton Gibbs is doing some good things early in camp at WILL.

Dickert also said at nickel, UW’s hybrid outside linebacker/defensive back position, that true freshman Allen Smith is getting a strong look behind sophomore Keyon Blankenbaker.

UW fullbacks/tight ends coach Shannon Moore said the top three fullbacks at this point in camp — in no particular order — are junior Skyler Miller of Torrington, senior Jaylon Watson and junior Jeff Burroughs of Yoder.

For more UW football coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, log on to wyosports.net and check back to this blog.

Early fall camp observations for Wyoming football

Hello all,

It has been a while since I posted anything here. Maintaining or posting to this blog is not a high priority for my bosses, but I figure if we have it, we better utilize it.

With that said, I wanted to drop a few observations from the first couple of practices I’ve seen from fall camp for the University of Wyoming football team. Granted, I’ve only seen two of the first four practices (the other two didn’t have media access). II only see the first 30 minutes of practice, and frankly, the team doesn’t do a whole lot worth mentioning during that time.

But here are some early thoughts:

— This goes back to the spring, but I am impressed with new offensive line coach Bart Miller. Every offensive lineman I’ve talked to (and it has been a lot) love this guy. He’s tough, tough-minded and wants his guys to have that same mindset. Nothing against former offensive line coach Scott Fuchs, who I also liked and thought was a good coach, but there just seems to be a different mentality with this group. Would like to see them stay healthy, and tackle depth is a huge concern. But I get a sense Miller will have this group play at a different level consistently than we’ve seen the last five years.

— Sixth-year coach Craig Bohl has said a few different times about how redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers is throwing the ball with more confidence and is better fundamentally. That should be a natural progression for him after the brief time we saw Chambers last season. From what I’ve seen, I agree with Bohl. But it is one thing to do it in drills, it is another thing when the games begin. I still think UW has a luxury having sophomore Tyler Vander Waal at quarterback. Yes, he had his ups and downs last year, but what he did to rally the Cowboys to a win at home over Air Force in the snow showed what this kid is capable of. Vander Waal also has looked good early in camp. Few college teams have two competent quarterbacks they can turn to who have won games at this level. UW does, and that could benefit them this season.

— Bohl has given a lot of hype and praise to his two young tight ends in redshirt freshman Jackson Marcotte (6-7, 250) and sophomore Nate Weinman (6-7, 267). Maybe hype isn’t the best word, but Bohl has high expectations for them — along with senior Josh Harshman of Casper, the “runt” of the group at 6-3, 240. For UW to be good on offense, a lot of things need to happen, and being good at tight end — both in the run and pass game — is one of them.

— So far the injuries have been minimal in camp. Bohl said Tuesday redshirt freshman defensive tackle Mario Mora hurt his back and didn’t finish practice. Not sure of the severity of the injury, but it doesn’t appear to be season-ending. Fans will like Mora. He’s a bit small at 6-3, 264, but he’s quick and knows the defense and its concepts well for a young player.

For more UW football coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net. Also, check back to this blog. I welcome your feedback and questions, in fact, I encourage it. You can leave comments/questions here on this blog, email me at [email protected] or hit me up on Twitter: @rpgagliardi.

UW spring football notes & quotes entering week No. 3

Wyoming spring football practice has hit about the midway point.

No final decisions on who will play and start in the 2019 opener against Missouri Aug. 31 have been decided, but even though the coaches won’t say as much, they likely have a good idea at some positions.

One concern this spring has been along the offensive line. UW lost junior guard Gavin Rush for the season with a torn ACL. That was a big blow to this group. Junior guard Logan Harris missed some time last week with a back injury, but is back at practice. Redshirt freshman Zach Watts has moved around between guard and tackle. Sophomore Keegan Cryder, who earned Freshman All-America honors last season as a center for the Cowboys, has been getting some reps at tackle. Cryder wasn’t supposed to do much this spring due to off-season knee surgery.

Not sure UW will have a lot of definite answers there coming out of spring, and it better hope junior tackle Alonzo Velasquez (knee) returns healthy for fall camp.

Because of the issues along the offensive line, UW hasn’t been able to double-rep much — if at all — this spring, meaning having two groups of offense vs. defense getting snaps.

“We’re a little bit behind where we normally would have been, but some springs are like this,” sixth-year coach Craig Bohl said.

— Last week I did a story on UW’s two most experienced interior defensive linemen in juniors Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson. When I asked UW defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis about who else is developing this spring behind Holt and Jackson, he mentioned a kid who may not see the field for the Cowboys, but had glowing things to say about — junior walk-on Justice Borton of Wheatland.

“Justice is so selfless, and that’s why he is a leader. He may not get on the field, and he knows that, but he will do anything for this team. The most important thing to him is we win on Saturdays. The team is more important to him than playing time. I can’t say enough about him. I am blessed to coaches all of these guys, but I love that kid. He is a rock in the locker room, and he’s going to pick people up.”

Borton has never played in a game for UW. He is listed at 6-foot-2, 272 pounds. He has practiced along both the offensive and defensive lines. Hard not to root for a kid like him, but any successful team needs guys like Borton.

— Another story I did last week was on senior wide receiver Austin Conway and his experience as a high school basketball official in Wyoming the last couple of years. Here is a link to that story in case you missed it.

Conway has been one of UW’s most productive and consistent receivers the last three years. This is what he said after I asked him his goals for his final season of playing college football.

“Trying to win a Mountain West championship and as many games as I can to leave a foundation for guys to continue on how coach Bohl wants to run this football team. Since I have been where we almost were MW champs, a bowl winner and not going to a bowl. I’ve seen it all. Stat-wise, I don’t care. I just wnat to win games. I want to come out with another couple of rings on my hand with a MW championship and a bowl win.”

— One last thing: I want to give a huge thank to you to Bohl. After practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays so far he has provided the media with dinner as we do interviews after practice. One night there was pizza, followed by sliders and fried oysters and then some barbecue. Bohl said it was for his appreciation to the media. As a media member for more than 25 years, it is very much appreciated.

For more UW sports coverage, see the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and log on to wyosports.net.

Notable gains for Cowboys as spring drills begin

Wyoming concluded its first week of spring football practice this week — three practices in all.

Due to WNIT duties for the Cowgirls basketball team and no media access to Saturday practices, I didn’t get to see a whole lot or talk to a lot of players/coaches.

However, I did talk to UW’s top two strength coaches for football — Ben Iannacchione and Eric Donoval. I talked to them mostly about a cool feature that will run in Sunday’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and online at wyosports.net.

But I did ask them if they could point to any specific players who did well during UW’s seven weeks of winter conditioning. Iannacchione worked with the linemen, and said junior defensive tackle Ravonte Holt had one of the best winters. He played at the high 250s-low 260s in terms of his weight last season. Iannacchione said he challenged Holt to get to 275 at the start of spring practice, and he did.

Ravonte Holt

“He’s gotten really strong and put weight on in good areas — butt, hips and quads,” Iannacchione said.

Donoval worked with the skilled guys, and said sophomore running back Xazavian Valladay weighed in at or over 200 pounds, and so far has done a good job of maintaining that weight. Valladay played at around 190 last year, and Valladay said he’s added about 15 pounds of muscle over the winter.

Xazavian Valladay

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” Valladay said of putting on the weight. “It was just hard work, dedication and trusting the process. It doesn’t feel too bad. I’m starting to get the hang of it.”

Valladay was second in rushing for UW last season with 396 yards on 71 carries (5.6 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

Valladay is the only scholarship running back participating in spring drills right now. Sixth-year UW coach Craig Bohl said sophomore Jevon Bigelow is dealing with an illness. Bohl expects Bigelow to return, but isn’t sure when. Bigelow ran for 292 yards and two touchdowns in nine games last season.

Iannacchione said it was good to get junior offensive guard Gavin Rush back in the weight room over the winter. Rush missed last season after he tore his right bicep early in fall camp. I wrote about Rush this week, and I hope I didn’t put the Gagliardi jinx on him because after I interviewed him after UW’s first spring practice, he injured a knee in the second. The severity of that injury isn’t known.

Here is the link to that story.

UW will practice in full pads next week. On Saturday, April 13, it will practice in Casper at Natrona County High which is open and free to the public. The spring game is scheduled for Saturday, April 27 at 2 p.m. at War Memorial Stadium.

Cowgirls update

UW plays at Arizona at 3 p.m. MT Sunday in the quarterfinals of the WNIT. This is the Cowgirls’ 10th appearance in the WNIT, and its first road game in this event since 2003.

The game isn’t on regular television, but here is a link to watch it online from pac-12.com.

I also will have a cool feature on UW senior Bailee Cotton and how she’s playing her best basketball in her final year after dealing with two different injuries to the same knee early in her career. Be sure to check out the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and Laramie Boomerang, and at wyosports.net or that story.

MW football power rankings – Nov. 25

Here are my Mountain West football power rankings at the end of the regular season.

1. No. 19 Boise State (10-2 overall, 7-1 MW): This may not be the best team in Boise State history, but it is tough, gritty and Mountain Division champs. The Broncos also defeated Fresno State and Utah State, and get Fresno State on the blue turf for the Mountain West championship.

2. No. 25 Fresno State (10-2, 7-1): The Bulldogs took care of San Jose State to set up its rematch of last year’s MW championship game with Boise State. Can the Bulldogs break through on the road? 

3. Utah State (10-2, 7-1): The Aggies are still very good, but not playing at the same level it did a few weeks ago. Maybe that’s because they are playing tougher teams.

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UW at New Mexico – pregame reading

Happy post-Thanksgiving all. Hope you are having a wonderful holiday weekend.

Here is some pregame reading prior to Wyoming’s regular-season finale at New Mexico Saturday. Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. MT, and the game will be televised on AT&T SportsNet.

First, my No. 1 key for the Cowboys:

Good start: Wyoming needs to play well from start to finish, but a good start for the team, and in particular redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Vander Waal, is important. Especially for Vander Waal to get his confidence going and into the flow of the game. We’ve seen this season (last week against Air Force and in the opener at New Mexico State) that when Vander Waal starts well, he plays well through the course of games.

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Thanksgiving thoughts and favorites from Wyoming football

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope each and every one of you have a wonderful day and weekend with family and friends.

I’ve done this before on this holiday, and for others, but I asked some Wyoming football players and coaches what they were most thankful for and their favorite part of the Thanksgiving meal.

Would love to hear yours.

Senior free safety Marcus Epps

Thankful for: My family, to be a part of this team and the University of Wyoming.

Food: Yams

Senior wide receiver James Price

Thankful for: My family, friends and the support system I have.

Food: Mom’s sweet potato pie.

Senior defensive lineman Conner Cain

Thankful for: This team this year.

Food: Cranberry sauce.

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