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2008 Wyoming Preview - Defense
Wyoming LB Ward Dobbs
Wyoming LB Ward Dobbs
Posted May 20, 2008 2008 Preview - Wyoming Cowboy Defense

Wyoming Cowboys

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Wyoming Preview | 2008 Wyoming Offense
- 2008 Wyoming Defense | 2008 Wyoming Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Wyoming Preview | 2006 CFN Wyoming Preview 

What you need to know:
For the third straight year, the Cowboy defense started strong and died at the end, no thanks to the offense. There are excellent pieces to work with this season starting up front with a fantastic threesome for the 3-4. John Fletcher and Mitch Unrein are tackle-sized ends who should be among the most disruptive in the Mountain West, and each has next level potential. The secondary should be great with corner Marcell Gipson back after missing all of last year due to personal reasons. Big tackling Ward Dobbs leads a decent group of linebackers that'll make or break the defense.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Ward Dobbs, 98
Sacks: John Fletcher, 10.5
Interceptions: Quincy Rogers, 2

Star of the defense: Junior DT John Fletcher
Player who has to step up and become a star: Redshirt freshman LB Gabe Knapton
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore CB Marcell Gipson
Best pro prospect: Fletcher
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fletcher, 2) DE Mitch Unrein, 3) LB Ward Dobbs
Strength of the defense: Line, defensive backs
Weakness of the defense:
Linebackers other than Dobbs, takeaways

Defensive Line

Projected Starters
The young line found its star last season in John Fletcher, a 6-6, 280-pound tackle who plays like an end. Not only did the junior clog up the inside making 60 tackles, but he was an unstoppable pass rushing force with 10.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss on his way to second team All-Mountain West honors. He's the perfect fit for the 3-4 defense as he plays like a tweener end/tackle, and he should blossom on a national stage as the pro scouts start to take notice of his quickness and non-stop motor.

Also shining on the inside is 6-0, 301-pound junior Fred Givens after anchoring the defense with 45 tackles, a sack, and four tackles for loss. He's a textbook nose tackle with a great base and excellent leverage, and he's too quick for most offensive linemen. He doesn't get much in the way of attention with all the talent around him, but he's the one everyone works around.

More of a tackle than an end, 6-4, 270-pound junior Mitch Unrein is coming off a good season making 55 tackles and five sacks with 11 tackles for loss. Now he's about to go nuclear. The star of the last two spring sessions, he turned out to be more than just a practice player as he earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors as he cleaned up on the other side of Fletcher. While Fletcher's better, Unrein isn't a second fiddle; he's a burgeoning star on his own.

Projected Top Reserves: While he'll have a hard time seeing much of the field playing behind Fletcher, 6-3, 248-pound senior Danny Dutmer is a good, quick reserve who can fill in where needed anywhere on the line. He only made nine tackles last season, but he's a reliable veteran.

Working in the middle along with Givens is the combination of senior Rob Hollway and redshirt freshman Marcus Felker. The 6-4, 267-pound Hollway made three tackles and a tackle for loss in a limited role, and while he's only 6-4 and 267 pounds, he's quick on the nose. The 6-1, 310-pound Felker provides the bulk and the potential. A quick, big body who might be too good to keep off the field for long, he'll be a part of the rotation early on.

6-3, 259-pound junior Mike Neuhaus was a key backup making 16 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He played his biggest role in the win over UNLV with two sacks and three tackles, and now he's going to get more work playing behind Unrein.

Watch Out For ... the hype machine to start. Unrein and Fletcher are well-known commodities by the Mountain West coaches, but are complete strangers to the rest of the world. If these two can build on their great sophomore seasons, the publicity will come.
Experience. This was the problem last season, but the weakness has become a strength as the front three goes from promising sophomores to tough, reliable juniors.
Backup experience. The starting three was so good that the backups never saw much in the way of action. The coaching staff likes the depth, but it's going to take a while for all the young prospects to jell and there's no one at Fletcher or Unrein's level.
Outlook: The front three will be really, really good, and it could be the strength of the team by a long shot. Fletcher and Unrein could be the Mountain West's best pair, while Givens is a nice 301-pound body in the middle. In the past, Wyoming got by with smallish, quick linemen who tried hard. Not anymore. This group is big and tough and very good.
Rating: 7.5


Projected Starters
Senior Ward Dobbs has led the team in tackles for the last two years and has come up with 242 stops and 16 tackles for loss in his three seasons. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, he's a big weakside defender with fantastic range and sure-tackling ability coming up with 98 tackles last year and doing even more to get into the backfield. He has had a problem with a banged up shoulder for the last few years, but has still produced. He has been an all-star, but he hasn't grown into a big-time star and he hasn't done enough against the pass. He might finally get his due this year.

Also returning is 6-4, 230-pound senior Mike Juergens at the Buck position on the outside after making 46 tackles and three sacks as a spot starter. With good size and huge hitting ability, he's great at providing a big pop forcing two fumbles and serving as the intimidating force in the linebacking corps.

Coming in this off-season was 6-3, 227-pound redshirt freshman Gabe Knapton, a slightly undersized presence in the middle with excellent upside. He was a nice recruit for UW, but was overlooked because of his safety size and lack of defensive back speed. He was all over the place in spring ball and should be a nice stat-filler in the middle.

Junior Weston Johnson will go from being a reliable backup to the starter on the strongside after making 26 tackles and two tackles for loss as a regular in the rotation. The 6-3, 226-pounder is a fantastic athlete who has the range and ability to become a factor against the pass and be sent into the backfield on a regular basis. He's an ideal weakside linebacker, but Dobbs isn't going anywhere.

Projected Top Reserves: Senior Jake Edmunds' career hasn't taken off. A middle linebacker who made four tackles as a limited reserve as he tried to return from a torn ACL, he'll see more time this year behind Knapton, but he could see time on the strongside if absolutely needed. At 6-2 and 221 pounds, he's not big, but he can handle himself on the inside.

Mostly a special teamer, 6-1, 235-pound junior Zeb Whipp will spend the year trying to show he deserves the weakside job in 2009 when Dobbs is gone. Whipp played in six games making seven tackles, but he has yet to do anything big on defense. 

One of the more interesting prospects in the corps is 6-1, 221-pound redshirt freshman Brian Hendricks, who'll push Weston Johnson for time on the strongside. Hendricks was a top running back for Burlington High in Colorado rushing for 2-132 yards and 29 touchdowns, averaging nine yards a pop, in his senior season. Not just a great football player, he was a star wrestler, getting offers from Oklahoma State and Nebraska, and a state champion-level sprinter. If that wasn't enough, he had a good enough academic career to get Stanford interested.

Watch Out For ... this group to put up huge stats. The front three is so good that it'll keep things relatively clean for the UW linebackers to roam free and make plays. The tackle numbers will be huge all across the board.
Tackles. Dobbs doesn't miss, Juergens and Johnson can hit, and Knapton should be solid. Once these linebackers get to a ball-carrier, it's over.
Pass coverage. They're good, but not fantastic. Because some of the players are out of position, Dobbs is more of a strongside linebacker than a weakside defender, there aren't quite enough big plays when the ball is in the air.
Outlook: If UW ran a typical 4-3, it would be perfect for the personnel. There are good linebackers across the board, but the unit would be a killer if it only needed to use three instead of four. There isn't much in the way of depth, and there aren't any starts outside of Dobbs, but this group will produce.
Rating: 5.5

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters
The big question this spring was at the field corner spot where 5-9, 185-pound junior T.J. Atwater takes over for Michael Medina. While Medina was decent, Atwater, who only played half of last year and made five tackles, should turn out to be an upgrade. Mostly a special teamer so far, he's a very quick, very athletic defender who stepped up his play this off-season and should quickly grow into a playmaker.

Returning on the boundary side will be sophomore Marcell Gipson, an All-Mountain West star in the making after missing all of last season with family issues. He was supposed to be the team's top corner going into last year and showed tremendous talent this spring as a clamp-down defender who can hit. At 5-10 and 172 pounds, he might not be all that big, but he can cover.

The safeties are set with the combination of seniors Quincy Rogers and Michael Ray returning. Ray, the 6-1, 210-pound strong safety, made 53 tackles with an interception and four broken up passes as he stepped in and did a respectable job in place of John Wendling. While he has good all-around skills, he needs to do more against the run.

The 6-1, 211-pound Rogers has been a regular in the rotation for a few years finishing third on the team with 85 tackles along with two interceptions and six broken up passes. He's big for a free safety with nice range and good hitting ability, and while he's steady, he'll have to be great to hold off some strong young prospects.

Projected Top Reserves: Pushing hard for the free safety job will be sophomore Chris Prosinski, a 6-1, 204-pound star in the making who has the versatility to play just about anywhere in the secondary and was a top special teamer finishing with 37 tackles and a broken up pass. With phenomenal speed and good size, he has limitless upside.

Sophomore Keith Lewis and junior Tramaine Brown are good enough corners to start if needed, but will start out the year as key reserves. The 5-11, 190-pound Lewis doesn't have elite speed or athleticism, but he has decent skills and a little bit of experience making ten tackles, The 5-9, 175-pound Brown is a former JUCO transfer who redshirted last year and now will push Atwater on the field side. He's a sure tackler who'll be ready to step in and produce.

Watch Out For ... Gipson. While he'll be an unknown commodity and isn't likely to make any preseason noise on the all-star teams, he could become an All-Mountain West performer at either corner spot. He could quickly grow into the team's best player.
Potential. If Gipson is the real deal and the corner prospects are as good as expected, this should be one of the Mountain West's better secondaries. The safety tandem of Ray and Rogers should be fantastic.
Interceptions. The defense has to come up with more big plays, and it'll start with the DBs. Rogers picked off two passes last year, Ray came up with another. That's it as far as the picks from returning defensive backs. Even with five from Julius Stinson, the Cowboys weren't ball hawks.
Outlook: The secondary was decent at times throughout last year, and it should be excellent at times this season with the return of Gipson and the expected emergence of Atwater. There's good potential among the reserves, especially at corner, while the safety tandem of Rogers and Ray will be sneaky good.
Rating: 6

Special Teams

Projected Starters
It'll take at least two players to replace Billy Vinnedge, who hit 13 of 18 field goals and averaged a solid 42.7 yards per punt and put 26 inside the 20. Junior Jake Scott is being given the first look as the new placekicker, and he has a little bit of experience making two of four kicks in 2006, but he was inconsistent throughout the off-season and will have to fight off true freshman Austin McCoy this summer.

Sophomore Nick Landess is a promising punter who has been used mostly on onside kicks so far. The former walk-on might not have a huge leg, but all he has to be is consistent.

Devin Moore was fantastic when he had the chance to return kicks averaging 27.1 yards on ten tries. He'll get the full-time duty now, while redshirt freshman Brandon Stewart will take over the punt return duties from Hoost Marsh, who averaged a mere 6.7 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... a battle for the kicking duties. Scott has the experience, but the team needs McCoy to produce. Scott isn't the answer.
The return game. Moore will be an all-conference performer and will take at least one kickoff back for a score, while Stewart will be a big upgrade.
Coverage teams. The Cowboys were abysmal, beyond abysmal, on kickoff coverage allowing a whopping 27.8 yards per return. The punt return team wasn't much better allowing 10.7 yards per attempt.
Outlook: The kicking game will be a work in progress throughout the summer and possibly way too deep into the fall. While the coverage teams need work, the return game should be among the best in the Mountain West.
Rating: 6