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March 4, 2011

Quarterback battle key to Wyoming's spring

Wyoming took a step back in its second season under Dave Christensen after the program surprised many by reaching the postseason in 2009, his debut season.

Improving the offense is the key. Christensen hired former Bowling Green coach Gregg Brandon to coordinate the attack. Brandon was the Falcons' coach from 2003-08, forging a 44-30 record with three bowl appearances. He also was a Wyoming assistant from 1987-90. Brandon should be a big asset for an attack that needs to be juiced up.

Brandon's first task is to find a quarterback after the surprise transfer of Austyn Carta-Samuels. The Cowboys will sort through a trio of freshmen. Emory Miller Jr., a redshirt freshman, is the only returning scholarship quarterback. Brett Smith, a true freshman who was the Gatorade player of the year in Oregon, already has enrolled and will go through spring drills. Adam Pittser, a dual-threat guy with a strong arm, arrives in the fall.

It promises to be an interesting spring for a program that has 16 returning starters and is trying to reach just its fifth bowl since 1990.

Here's a look at the Cowboys as they prepare to open spring drills.

WYOMING AT-A-GLANCE
Led by Alvester Alexander, Wyoming is loaded at running back.
THE BASICS
Coach: Dave Christensen
Last season: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in Mountain West
Spring dates: March 5-April 9.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): RB Alvester Alexander, C Nick Carlson, G John Hutchins, T Clayton Kirven, T Josh Leonard, WR Chris McNeill, FB Bryson Studnicka.
Defense (7): E Josh Biezuns, CB Tashaun Gipson, OLB Devyn Harris, MLB Brian Hendricks, E Gabe Knapton, T Patrick Mertens, T Mike Purcell.
Special teams (1): P Austin McCoy.
Positions of strength

Led by Alvester Alexander, the Cowboys are loaded at running back. Nehemie Kankolongo and Ghaali Muhammad, who was a starter at outside linebacker last season, provide depth. And incoming freshman Kody Sutton could play, too. On defense, the line took its lumps last season playing young players, but look for T Patrick Mertens to emerge as a star. Junior college DE Miraldo Michel is in for spring and could emerge as a playmaker. Linebacker looks good, even with Muhammad moving to offense. Brian Hendricks has a chance to be an All-Mountain West performer. JC transfer Korey Jones should get into the mix at linebacker.

Help is needed

The unexpected transfer of QB Austyn Carta-Samuels after his sophomore campaign makes quarterback a question. The starter will be a freshman. Redshirt Emory Miller Jr., might be first in line, and true freshman Brett Smith already has enrolled and is on campus. Adam Pittser arrives over the summer. The offensive line returns four starters, but the unit has struggled to pick up the scheme and pass protect consistently. The staff has four redshirt freshmen it likes in T Justin DiRe, G Skyler Hinton, C Travis Bogard and T Daniel Fleischman. C Nick Carlson will have to be an anchor for the developing unit. The secondary needs three new starters. And is WR T.J. Smith finally ready to blossom for a receiving corps that needs playmakers?

3 guys to watch

WR Robert Herron: He played as a true freshman last season, at receiver and running back. Herron will focus on receiver, where he is dangerous in the open field and provides a much-needed big-play threat for a squad that needs a go-to receiver.

CB Marqueston Huff: Considered a diamond-in-the-rough recruit in 2010, Huff played as a true freshman and showed athletic ability. With the graduation of Marcell Gipson, Huff has a great chance to start.

S Luke Ruff: With FS Chris Prosinski having graduated and SS Shamiel Gary transferring to Oklahoma State, Ruff should emerge after showing flashes as a reserve in a secondary that is being overhauled because of the loss of three starters.

The pressure is on

WR Mazi Ogbonna: He was signed out of junior college to inject speed and athletic ability into the wideout corps. But he struggled to learn the Cowboys' complex spread scheme and never got on track in 2010. With a year under his belt, Ogbonna could emerge as Wyoming's top receiver.

The buzz

After confounding the experts in 2009 by earning a bowl bid, Wyoming plummeted in 2010. The offense struggled, averaging 19.2 points to rank 107th in the nation. The defense wasn't much better, allowing 30.3 points per game to rank 86th in the country. But don't count out third-year coach Dave Christensen, one of the game's best offensive minds. He'll begin trying to answer questions at quarterback, on the offensive line and in the secondary while continuing to augment team strong spots at running back, linebacker and on the defensive line. It's a key spring for Christensen, the former Missouri offensive coordinator, to show he has this program back on track.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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