Notebook: Running back Nico Evans excels in Wyoming’s spring game
LARAMIE — Wyoming barely had enough running backs to put on a spring game. Only two running backs, Nico Evans and Mike Green II, took carries in Saturday’s exhibition, which the Gold team won 10-8. They made the most of it.
“I don’t know what the stat sheet showed,” head coach Craig Bohl said, “but I thought we were moving the ball on the ground, and we created a lot of second down, and then a lot of third down and makeables. So that’s a significant difference from where we’ve been. I think, first of all, that starts at the point of attack, but I thought the running backs ran hard, and I thought Nico ran particularly hard.”
Evans ran for 111 yards on 18 carries (6.2 average), including two rushes of 18 or more yards in his first seven tries.
“I feel like I’m moving better,” Evans said. “I’m making the right cuts, but most of all, I’m running angry. You’ve got to run with that chip on your shoulder, and running angry’s the way to do it.”
At 108.8 yards per game, the Cowboys had the worst rushing offense in the Mountain West last season.
“Last year wasn’t our year,” Evans said, “and we had to make a lot of improvements, and every day we had to get better and better, and we had to just grow up as a group and kind of go back to those guys on the team being the main focus of this offense.”
That was tough for most of the group to accomplish this spring, though. The Cowboys lost their two leading rushers last year, Trey Woods and Kellen Overstreet, to shoulder injuries during the five-week camp. Xazavian Valladay, Garrett Gardner and Jerard Swan were also sidelined with injuries, and Milo Hall moved to wide receiver.
“However the season plays out, whoever plays, just preparing us three,” Green said. “(Valladay) was there for a minute. So kind of just preparing us for the workload, taking all the reps.”
Evans said earlier in camp he wanted to prove that he was capable of being an every-down back. Last year, he was mostly relegated to a third-down role. He said Saturday he feels he “definitely” proved that this spring.
“I put my all on this field every day,” he said, “and I just tried to get better and better every practice, and I feel like I did that.”
Green added: “I’m glad to have that guy back. He looked nice out there.”
Plenty of Evans’ 111 yards came after contact on Saturday.
“It’s all about driving your knees,” he said. “Once you get hit, a lot of backs like to stop moving their feet, and that’s how you go down. If you keep driving those knees, you’re going to get a lot of yards after contact.”
Green rushed 11 times for 43 yards (3.9) and had a reception on a 2-point conversion that gave the Brown team the lead with less than 2 minutes to play.
“Rushing, I don’t think I did so hot, but I made a play,” Green said. “That’s what we look forward to.”
The exhibition wasn’t a scripted scrimmage, but it was drawn up just as well as the Cowboys could have hoped. Both quarterbacks got to run late-game drives, with Nick Smith leading the Brown to a touchdown and Green’s two-point conversion and Tyler Vander Waal taking the Gold back down the field for the game-winning field goal.
“There’s no thing you can do to replicate those 2-minute drives,” Bohl said. “Even though it’s a spring game, those guys feel like it’s a game. So I thought it was a really good evaluation.”
Cooper Rothe’s 25-yard field goal as time expired sent the Gold team running on the field in celebration.
“Even though we lost, it warmed me to see how everyone interacted with each other,” Green said. “It was a lot of emotions out there.”
Bohl said a starting quarterback will be named sometime in the coming week, but it’s not necessarily a permanent appointment.
“It’s not like when we had Josh coming back and everybody knew we had a starter,” Bohl said. “But I think it’s important for us to go (into the summer with a starter). We don’t believe, (offensive coordinator) Brent (Vigen) and I have had some long conversations, we don’t believe in playing two different guys and alternating quarters and things like that. However, I think it is important for us to good competition.”
Receiver Dontae Crow’s first big moment of the spring game was a tough one. Quarterback Nick Szpor lobbed a perfectly placed ball to the former Sheridan receiver that hit off his hands and fell to the ground instead of producing a 37-yard touchdown.
“(Receivers coach Mike) Grant was giving me crap about it,” Crow said, “and all the receivers were. So I definitely needed (to make up for it).”
He got his chance on two more deep balls. One from Vander Waal produced a 37-yard gain.
“So I saw a man press, and we were running a fade, so I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to get the ball,’” Crow said. “He threw it really good. That’s one of the best balls I’ve probably got this spring. So, I can’t complain.”
Crow then caught a 38-yard pass from Smith on the go-ahead drive.
“I was pumped,” Crow said. “It was a great ball, and I was more excited to see my family after, because I knew they’d be excited for me, and I could hear my grandma yelling right after. It was sweet. It was awesome.”
He finished the day with a game-high 85 yards on three catches.
“We’re missing a couple guys, C.J. (Johnson) and also John Okwoli,” Bohl said of the receivers group, “so it’s an opportunity for some of those younger guys to get some playing time.”
Rothe ends funk
Rothe’s game-winning field goal was an exciting moment for obvious reasons, but it was also special for Rothe for other reasons. He was 0-for-3 in spring game attempts, dating back to a 50-yard try last year.
“The streak’s over,” Rothe said. “Going to last year, it’s over. ... We’re even.”
Rothe’s 2017 kick would have tied the game’s only points in what turned out to be a 3-0 Gold victory. Saturday’s 25-yarder produced a happier ending.
“On this type of day, nothing’s really a given,” Rothe said, “teammates saying to miss it, saying they’ll give you stuff if you make it, either way. Just credit to (snapper) Jesse (Hooper), Nick (Szpor), always having good snaps, a good hold, and I just had to put it through.”
Rothe missed attempts from 47 and 43 yards earlier in the game, one for each team. (Special teams units rotated between the squads.) Even those misses had plenty of leg behind them, though. Rothe said he hit a kick as long as 55 yards this spring.
“I think that’s just the new facility and the new strength staff has done a good job,” Rothe said. “It’s just helping legs and more specific stuff to the kickers rather than the same workout for the whole team. I think it’s shown, and hopefully I can just control it now. That’s the goal for the summer.”
Bohl noted that Saturday was important for special teams because Wyoming’s closed scrimmages had been indoors, limiting the work special teams could get in.
“We would always practice outside or do pre-practice, but at that point it’s so windy, you’re playing the wind, kicking it right to go left,” Rothe said. “... That might have been why (I missed), just playing the wind a little bit. But at the end of the day you’ve just got to kick a straight ball and that’s what this summer I’m going to keep on working (on).”
After the scrimmage Bohl pointed out that Rothe’s game-winning kick came at the end of a drive that began in good field position because of a Rothe kickoff that went out of bounds.
“The kicking game needs to get shored up a little bit,” Bohl said.