Tight-knit freshman group exceeding expectations this season for Wyoming football
LARAMIE — Making the leap from high school to college isn’t easy. There’s the adjustment to being away from home for the first time. There’s the reality of leaving the top of the high school totem pole for the dregs of freshman status. There’s a new campus to navigate. There’s laundry.
It can be a lot for an 18-year-old to handle. Throw in the commitment of playing Division I football and it becomes all the more demanding.
But you wouldn’t know it from Wyoming football’s 2017 recruiting class.
Head coach Craig Bohl said at the beginning of fall camp he expected three or four true freshmen to contribute this year. Eleven have seen the field.
Despite all the on-field challenges that accompany the move from high school to college — increased level of competition, tougher workouts and practices, a more challenging playbook to memorize — the class already has made a mark on Wyoming’s program.
Athleticism and maturity go a long way to explaining the group’s early success at the collegiate level. But so do two skills that just about every college freshman possesses in the year 2017: Twitter and Snapchat.
When the recruiting class arrived to Laramie in the summer, the only unfamiliar thing about each other’s faces was the fact that they didn’t have any filters on top of them.
The freshmen have a running group message on Snapchat that has remained active even after the players arrived in Wyoming.
“The filters are everywhere,” freshman receiver Avante’ Cox said. “We just use every filter that Snapchat adds on there. We just play around with them.”
A Twitter direct message group was the initial means of communication for Wyoming’s 2017 commits. Later, Snapchat became the favorite when it increased the number of people that could be in a group chat.
“We got to know each other more and more every day,” freshman defensive tackle Javaree Jackson said. “So when we got here, we were actually pretty close. So it really wasn’t any brand new faces that we hadn’t seen. I think that helped a lot.”
The class of 25 signees ranged as far north as Washington (defensive tackle Gavin Dunayski), as far south as Southern California (receiver Erik Spurlin-Renfroe), as far east as Ohio (tight end Nate Weinman), and as far west as Oregon (running back Trey Woods).
When they all met in Laramie, no ice breakers or introductions were needed.
“First day we met everybody, everybody was just cool with each other,” linebacker Ryan Gatoloai-Faupula said. “It was crazy. Especially being from different places and coming from different backgrounds. It was pretty cool.”
Said defensive tackle Ravontae Holt: “We’re already feeling like a brotherhood in this class.”
Cox said the Twitter chat dated back to Wyoming’s appearance in the Mountain West Football Championship Game.
“We had a group chat from then, and whoever committed, you’d just throw them in the group chat,” Cox said. “And if they decommitted or went somewhere else, you’d just toss them out of it. So we’ve been talking to each other for months now, before we came in. ... When we first came in, we all knew each other’s names, knew how we acted and knew who would get mad at jokes.”
He declined to name names.
“There’s a couple of them,” he said. “You just find them in their moods, and you just don’t mess with them.”
Esaias Gandy was the first member of Wyoming’s 2017 class to commit, though it wouldn’t become public until months later.
“It was a crazy process to see who’s committing,” the safety said. “I didn’t really know who was committing or not until I got in the group chat, and then I was like, ‘I didn’t know this many people were coming.’ ... We were all talking, laughing. It was fun.”
Center Logan Harris, a Torrington graduate, was the first to publicly make his verbal commitment.
“It definitely was (cool), just seeing who it was and getting in touch with those kids as they commit, starting to bond with them early,” Harris said. “Because when we all got here in the summer, we already felt like we knew each other.”
Expectations were higher for this freshman class than any other in Bohl’s time at Wyoming. The success the Cowboys had in 2016 allowed the staff to get into homes of recruits who previously might not have given Wyoming any consideration.
So, naturally, the talent level led to some of the recruits playing right away.
“We kind of expected ... for some freshmen to get some time out there,” Cox said. “We hear from a lot of upperclassmen that this is the most athletic recruiting class that’s come through Wyoming, probably.”
But Bohl’s initial estimate showed that the staff didn’t believe the team was filled with holes that needed to be filled by newcomers.
“I think what’s an indication is our recruiting is continuing to improve,” Bohl said. “I think you’re also seeing freshmen, they’re maturing faster than what they used to, so the lay of the land of college football is changing.
″... There’s a couple criteria we look at: Number one, do we have a positional need? Number two, do they have the physical ability? And then the third factor is their emotional maturity. And so if all those three are a yes, we’re in it to win it. Our thought process is if they can help us win right now, we’re going to play them.”
In 2016, eight true freshmen played for Wyoming. That number had dropped from 16 the year before. But as the 2017 season opener against Iowa neared, the tally of true freshmen in the mix grew and grew.
Six true freshmen — Harris, Gandy, Cox, Holt, right tackle Alonzo Velazquez and punter Tim Zaleski — made their debut in Week One. Four more played in Week Two: Jackson, Gatoloai-Faupula, Woods and long snapper Caleb Cantrell. One more debuted in Week Three: receiver Jared Scott.
Seven of those freshmen have been starters at some point this season. Harris was named the starting center out of fall camp, filling the space left by Chase Roullier, who was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the spring and has already made an NFL start at center. Velazquez impressed so much in fall camp that the Cowboys shifted their only senior starter on the offensive line, Ryan Cummings, in order to make room for Velazquez at right tackle.
Woods practiced at linebacker in fall camp but was moved to running back early in the season. A 135-yard performance against Hawaii, which included runs of 59 and 34 yards, earned him the title of starter, and he has held it ever since. Woods is Wyoming’s leading rusher this season, with 369 yards.
A rash of injuries at defensive tackle forced Holt into a starting role and Jackson into an increased one. After Holt tore his ACL against Colorado State, Jackson became a starter himself. The two have combined for 22 tackles, 2.5 for loss, and a sack.
Zaleski has started every game at punter, as expected. And Cantrell filled in temporarily as the starting long snapper when graduate transfer Kolton Donovan, the only member of Wyoming’s 2017 recruiting class who was not a high school senior, tore his ACL in the season opener. Cantrell is the only true freshman walk-on to play for Wyoming this season.
“Great recruiting class and kudos to our coaching staff for getting the guys that they wanted,” Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen said of the group’s contributions. “They’ve stepped into our locker room and they felt like brothers since Day One. I love this team. I love every guy on this team. And the true freshmen are included in that.”
At this point in the year, the Cowboys would prefer that the number of active true freshmen stay at 11; cornerback C.J. Coldon dresses and warms up for each game, but Wyoming only plans to use him if injury necessitates it.
But the freshmen view the large pile of burned redshirts as a positive.
“I think we’re definitely proud of it, especially because coming in we knew that no one expected us to make such an impact this year,” Scott said. “But I think each of our mindset, even if we didn’t know that we would exactly play this year, we knew we would come in and make an impact.
“They’ve praised our class in that we’ve just come in and not only do we have talent, but we had the mindset and the work ethic to put it into play. So we’re proud of that.”
Part of the process of accruing a successful recruiting class in the first place involves social media savvy. Wyoming has been cutting edge in the Photoshop edits it gives recruits to share on their personal Twitter accounts. The sleeker the edit, the better the chance of impressing the recruit. And the free advertising doesn’t hurt.
Social media can also add to the criticism that athletes receive once they start playing for their new teams. Few college football players this season have received a more pointed reminder of that than Zaleski. In Wyoming’s loss at Iowa, he became the first member of the Cowboys’ 2017 recruiting class to make a name for himself on the national level — and not in the way he had hoped.
Zaleski dropped a punt past the reach of his foot and the goof went viral before the whistle had signaled for halftime. His fellow freshmen, only 12 of whom made the trip, weren’t above the ribbing, either.
“After that, he already knew that it was going to be everywhere,” Cox said. “We all joked about it in our group chat and stuff, and he takes it (well).”
Twitter was also a way for Zaleski to move on. He retweeted a Barstool Sports GIF highlighting his gaffe, and later made a photo of the missed punt his Twitter avatar.
“After the game when we were in the locker room, you could tell he was still kind of mad,” Cox said. “Then once we got on the plane and he started seeing stuff (online), that’s when he started to loosen up and accept that we all mess up and we’re all human.”
Zaleski hasn’t landed on any other blooper reels this season. He has downed 19 punts inside the 20-yard line. In Wyoming’s last two games, he has three punts of 50-plus yards.
“They had my back,” he said of his teammates.
All but one member of Wyoming’s most recent 25-man recruiting class remains on the team. (Running back Trey Dorfner was dismissed from the Cowboys.) By comparison, just 15 members of Wyoming’s 2016 class are on the roster this season.
“I think we have a great class, great leaders and great people who are hungry to be in and step up and play,” Gandy said. “So as long as our hunger still goes, our class will just keep getting better and better.”
A group chat on Twitter only has so much to do with that.
But the link between them has Wyoming trending in the right direction.