This time last year, Wyoming’s running backs coach Jason Ray was asked how his team would divide carries among a deep backfield that featured the familiarity of Alvester Alexander, the power of Ghaali Muhammad and the promise of Brandon Miller.
“It’s hard to say,” Ray said at the time. “It’d be great to play all of them.”
Now Wyoming lacks two thirds of the combination.
Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft and went undrafted. As a result, Alexander, who finished his career with 2,127 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, was forced to forgo his senior season.
Muhammad returns after a season-ending knee injury, but the senior will make tackles instead of break them after switching back to his original linebacker position.
“Defense is where the heart is,” he said Monday. “I like hitting guys.”
Of the three featured running backs Wyoming had last year, Miller will join quarterback Brett Smith in this season’s backfield. The junior, a former walk-on, is listed as the team’s starter this fall thanks to his sophomore season [66 carries for 364 yards and 20 catches for 199 yards, three touchdowns].
But close behind Miller is a group of younger backs who are trying to use preseason fall practices to prove they also deserve the opportunity to become UW’s top back.
“Brandon Miller is the lead guy right now,” Wyoming offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon said. “After that, it’s pretty much a crapshoot. I think we have four or five kids that can all make a run for it.”
Ray, who is now coaching wide receivers instead of running backs, said the same. Pete Kaligis will coach the running backs this season, along with continuing his responsibilities with the offensive line.
“Right now, that’s where [Miller] is listed, but competition goes all the way up to that game, to that first week,” Ray said.
Closest to Miller is Kody Sutton, a sophomore who burned his redshirt late last season after Muhammad was injured. Sutton played in five games and rushed 30 times for 146 yards. He showed flashes of something special, Brandon said, but lack of consistency has held him back.
Sutton said he sees Alexander’s absence as an opportunity.
“It bumps everybody up one notch,” Sutton said. “Everbody’s role gets bigger.”
Also benefiting from this year’s shakeup at the position is redshirt sophomore Nehemie Kankolongo, a player who has been slowed with injuries. He is expected to play after missing last season and was listed behind Miller and Sutton on the depth chart after spring practices.
Freshmen D.J. May and Shaun Wick both looked fast during Monday’s practice. Multiple coaches, including head coach Dave Christensen and Brandon, praised the pair of newcomers while also making it clear freshmen get the opportunity to play at Wyoming.
“I’d rather be young with talent than old and experienced with no talent,” Christensen said.
The philosophy means the two newcomers will be competing against Kankolongo, Sutton and the current starter Miller. Whoever emerges as the go-to player will make the first step in filling the role Alexander’s draft decision opened up.