Wyoming prepares to name starting running back as spring comes to close
LARAMIE, Wyo. — Running backs coach Mike Bath said he had “a little bit of anxiety” headed into this year’s spring camp.
Losing your program’s all-time and single-season leading rusher will do that to you.
“I think there probably was some apprehension on my behalf of the unknown, I guess,” Bath said. “You had one guy coming off 17 months of being out because of two injuries. You had one guy who had not shown to be consistently performing throughout his career, which is the reality of it, showing flashes. And then you had one guy who had been somewhat of a journeyman for three years.”
In December, Brian Hill decided he would try to spend his 2017 season with an NFL team instead of the Cowboys. Hill left Wyoming after three years with 4,287 career yards and 1,860 yards last season, both program records. His backup, Shaun Wick, was lost to graduation after racking up the sixth-most rushing yards in Wyoming history (2,533).
In their place, Wyoming will likely turn to the trio of running backs mentioned by Bath: Kellen Overstreet is the back who has been out for more than a year with knee and shoulder injuries. Milo Hall is the back who has yet to display consistency at Wyoming. Nico Evans is the most experienced of the three but has yet to be the main man.
With spring camp coming to a close Saturday in Wyoming’s Spring Game, Bath is a little less anxious.
“I was always hoping that all three would perform, and they’ve done that,” Bath said. “They’ve been great. They’ve probably performed up to their abilities and have gotten progressively better and been better with that.”
Coach Craig Bohl expects to name a starter after the Spring Game, though Bath anticipates distributing the carries more evenly than in 2016, when Hill dominated the workload.
Each of the three backs have had strong springs, Bath said, albeit by different standards.
Hall is perhaps the back whose progress has been most surprising. He came to Wyoming as a highly touted prospect, being named the Colorado High School Activities Association’s Class 5A player of the year as a senior. But that hadn’t translated to the collegiate game before this spring.
“The jury was out a little bit,” Bohl said. “I think sometimes in the last year, playing behind Brian and Shaun, there can be an attitude of, ‘Hey, those two guys, I’m not going to beat them out.’”
That attitude seems to have changed. Bath said that in Wyoming’s first 14 spring practices, Hall has had “his 14 most consistent, best football days that he’s had here, period.”
“There’d be a time over the last two years where he’d flash something, a play here or play there,” Bath said. “He hasn’t been this consistent. And that’s been fun.”
Hall didn’t have a single carry last year as a redshirt freshman.
“At times you want to get in, but at the same time, you’re like, ‘I want to learn, still,’” said Hall, a rising sophomore. “I feel like that’s what I was able to do, just watching Brian and Shaun. I’ve learned a lot from them guys and it hopefully helps moving forward.”
As for Evans, while his experience is still limited, he was the least of the unknowns headed into this spring. He is the only returning Wyoming running back who carried the ball last season (11 times for 33 yards).
Fellow running back Garrett “Goo” Gardner said the backs call Evans “The O.G.” because of his experience.
“No more thinking, just reacting,” Evans said of his spring. “I know what I need to do, so I can take that aspect of, ‘Where do I go? What am I doing?’ out of it and just really go out there and play football.”
While it was apparent last season that losing both Hill and Wick for 2017 was a real possibility, Evans’ participation in the offense was limited — if only because the Cowboys found themselves in a number of close games en route to hosting the Mountain West football championship game.
“I was always wanting to go out there and show what I can do, but I’m happy that we were out there winning games,” said Evans, who will be a junior in the fall. ”... I know there were some games out there that if we would’ve kept the lead, I probably would’ve gotten some more carries. But it’s a lot better than going 2-10, though.”
Bath also complimented Evans on his consistency, saying he has been more energetic and explosive than ever this spring.
Overstreet had a different challenge in camp. The rising sophomore tore the ACL in his right knee in Wyoming’s 2015 season finale and has since had surgery on his left shoulder as well.
Being away from football so long, Overstreet’s challenge this spring was getting back in the swing of things. Bath said he saw Overstreet take a big step forward between Wyoming’s first and second spring scrimmages.
“Now he needs to stack a great offseason on top of that,” Bath said. “Because he could run, but we were kind of slow with it and deliberate with it in the offseason. So he probably didn’t come into spring ball in the best of shape. Now he’s got to stack a great offseason on top of that.”
Together, the three could make for a sort of three-headed monster in the fall.
“I think it’s pretty exciting to have three guys that can go out and break a big play at any time,” Overstreet said.
Said Bath: “I’m comfortable with any three of those guys taking the opening snap against Iowa (in the season opener), and I’m comfortable with any three of them finishing out a 4-minute drive to win the game at Iowa.”
Down the depth chart
Also battling for depth are Mike Green II and Gardner.
Green earned praise from Bohl earlier in spring but has been out since April 6, when he and four other Cowboys were suspended.
“I’m not the fastest, I’m not the biggest, I’m not the strongest, but I always tell myself, ‘Get the job done,’” Green said before his suspension. “I’m always just going to get the job done.”
Gardner, meanwhile missed the first three weeks of camp as he recovered from a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He isn’t sure when he initially injured the shoulder but an MRI after the season showed that he needed surgery, which he had Jan. 12.
“I mean, I know the plays and all that, so I’m just knocking the rust off all that,” said Gardner, who will be a redshirt sophomore in the fall. “By the Spring Game, I should be all good and tuned up, ready to go.”