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August 13, 2008 2:28 pm

Getting defensive

Written by Tribune Staff

UW's defense expecting another strong season
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Linebacker Ward Dobbs is one of several returning starters expected to help anchor the Cowboys' defense in 2008. Courtesy photo/University of Wyoming
A year ago, the University of Wyoming's defense was among the top units in the country. By season's end, the Cowboys were ranked 22nd in both total defense and sacks, 27th against the run and 30th in pass defense. With seven starters returning from that group, it's no surprise that UW head coach Joe Glenn is expecting an encore performance in 2008.
“We're going to be more physical,” said UW head coach Joe Glenn. “I don't think there is any question about that. “(Defensive coordinator) Mike Breske has a great nucleus there.”
Among the anchors for that unit with be the players along the defensive front, including junior defensive tackle John Fletcher (6-6, 280). Fletcher had an outstanding sophomore campaign and earned Second Team All-Mountain West Conference honors. He recorded 10.5 sacks last season and ranked 11th nationally. He also had 14 tackles for losses to rank 52nd in the nation, and his total of 60 tackles for the season placed him sixth on the team.
Joining Fletcher on the defensive line will be fellow junior Mitch Unrein (6-4, 270). Unrein, from his end position, also enjoyed a solid sophomore season and earned an All-MWC honorable mention. He finished with 55 tackles, which placed him seventh on the team. He ranked eighth in the MWC in tackles for losses with 11 and was 10th in sacks with five. Complementing the duo of Fletcher and Unrein last season was Fred Givens (6-0, 301). Givens, now a junior, tallied 45 stops from his noseguard spot.
“A year ago, we went into the season starting three relatively inexperienced sophomores in Fletcher, Givens and Unrein,” Glenn said. “Now they're all back and the defensive line is one of our most experienced positions. Fletcher and Unrein had outstanding years last season. Teams couldn't get outside of (Fletcher), and when they ran away from him, he would run them down. He's a tough dude.
“Unrein didn't receive all the accolades, nor did he have quite as good of stats as Fletcher did last year, but there isn't much difference between the two. Throw Givens into that mix in the middle and you have three guys who proved right away last season that they could play with anyone.”
According to Glenn, the strength of the defensive front doesn't end with Fletcher, Unrein and Givens. Defensive tackles Danny Dutmer (Sr., 6-3, 248) and Anthony Wilson (Sr., 6-3, 274) along with noseguard Rob Hollway (Sr., 6-4, 267) and defensive end Mike Neuhaus (Jr., 6-3, 259) all return after making significant contributions last year. Also looking to break into the playing mix will be redshirt freshmen Marcus Felker ( DE, 6-1, 310), Alex Hays (DE, 6-3 249) and Alex Stover (DT, 6-3, 267).
The Cowboys also expect to be strong at the linebacker positions again this season. Leading the way for that group will be 6-0, 230-pound senior Ward Dobbs. He returns at one of the inside linebacker spots in UW's 3-4 defense.
Dobbs will enter the season with 242 career stops and needs only 17 more tackles to earn a spot among UW's top 10 career tackle leaders. He led the Cowboys in tackles last year with 98.
Mike Juergens, a 6-4, 230-pound senior, also returns after a strong season at outside linebacker in 2008. He registered 46 tackles a year ago and led UW in forced fumbles with two.
Gabe Knapton, a 6-3, 227-pound redshirt freshman, had an outstanding spring and figures to be in the playing rotation at inside linebacker, and Weston Johnson, a 6-3, 226-pound junior, according to Glenn, brings plenty of talent to the outside linebacker position. Johnson, though not a starter last year, is the heir apparent at the strongside-linebacker position and brings a wealth of experience into his junior season.
“We've got a good group at linebacker again,” Glenn said. “To have redshirt freshman Gabe Knapton step in at MIKE linebacker and play the way he did in the spring was something to see. Weston Johnson and Mike Juergens both give us excellent size and speed at the two outside positions. All three are tall, physical players who can run. Put those three together with one of the best linebackers we've had at Wyoming in Ward Dobbs and you have the makings of a special group.”
Glenn also spoke highly of a number of other linebackers who are expected to make contributions in the upcoming season.
“Zeb Whipp (Jr., ILB, 6-1, 235) is an individual who had a good spring. He will backup Dobbs. Redshirt freshman Bryson Studnicka (OLB, 6-3, 236) showed that he can play here. Another redshirt freshman, Brian Hendricks (OLB, 6-1, 221), also showed great athleticism. A guy who was a pleasant surprise was former running back Jimmy DeAndrea (Jr., ILB, 6-0, 211), who we moved to defense. He showed us some positive things.
“Senior Jake Edmunds (6-2, 221) is one of the smartest players on our team and will play at MIKE along with Knapton and DeAndrea. We've recruited well at linebacker, and we feel very good about our group.”
Matt Barella, a 6-2, 233-pound junior, also has experience, Glenn said, and is expected to help solidify the linebacking corps. He is listed as an outside linebacker. Glenn also noted redshirt freshman Mark Oliver (6-1, 245) and sophomore Alex Toney (6-1, 208), who will give the Cowboys added depth at inside linebacker. Toney formerly was a safety.
At the safety position, Glenn said he had six players who can contribute.
Three experienced safeties return for the Cowboys in 2008. Seniors Michael Ray (SS, 6-1, 210) and Quincy Rogers (FS, 6-1, 211) are returning starters. They are joined by versatile sophomore Chris Prosinski, who can play at both free safety and strong safety.
Rogers had an outstanding year in 2007, his first year as a starter. He ranked second on the team in interceptions and passes broken up with two and six, respectively. He also was third on the team in tackles with 85.
Like Rogers, Ray started all 12 games for the Cowboys in 2007. He recorded 53 tackles to rank eighth on the team in that category, and finished with one interception and broke up four passes from his strong safety spot.
Prosinski, a Buffalo native, had a solid season as a redshirt freshman in 2007. He played in all 12 games and finished with 37 tackles and broke up one pass. Prosinski also was a contributor on special teams.
“Rogers and Ray are both seniors and are good football players,” Glenn said. “Both are smart players, and it will be good to have their experience in the secondary this year as we break in new starting corners.
“The individual who may have made the most improvement this past spring was sophomore Chris Prosinski. He's bigger, he's smarter, he's faster. Another guy I am really happy with and who has made great strides since last season is Derrick McMahen (Sr., SS, 5-10, 175). Derrick has improved his play considerably since coming in as a junior-college transfer last year.”
Two redshirt freshmen, Eric Mitchell (FS, 6-0, 186) and Brian Kuhtz (SS, 6-3, 215) will have to work their way into the playing rotation, but Glenn said he was optimistic those two could contribute in 2008. Glenn also noted junior-college transfer Jamichael Hall from Mesa Community College in Arizona. Hall (Jr., S, 6-2, 190) signed with UW late in late spring.
At cornerback, UW lost both starters to graduation. Gone are senior Julius Stinson and Michael Medina, who started for the Cowboys throughout the past two seasons. Stinson was First Team All-MWC selection in 2007 and was one of 12 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award honoring the nation's top college defensive back. Also gone is backup Troy Lewis, who made significant contributions last season.
Replacing those players will be a talented group, Glenn said, led by Marcell Gipson (Soph., 5-10, 172) and T.J. Atwater (Jr., 5-9, 185).
“Probably the surprise of spring ball to me were the corners,” Glenn said. “Marcell Gipson is a talent. He can hit like a Mack truck, and he can cover. He ran a 40-yard dash for the pro scouts on grass in a swirling wind at 4.42, so he has some speed. Another nice surprise was T.J.
Atwater. T.J. really worked on getting himself in excellent shape in the offseason. Coach Brian Herzog helped him improve both his conditioning and his quickness, and I think T.J. will have a real special last couple of seasons.”
Atwater is the projected starter at field corner, and Gipson is expected to start at boundary corner.
Keith Lewis (Soph., 5-11, 190) is slated to backup Gipson, and redshirt junior Tramaine Brown is the likely backup for Atwater. Lewis, who played nickel back for the Cowboys as a true freshman in 2007, has much-needed experience. Brown redshirted last season after transferring from Santa Ana Community College in California.
A freshman and 2007 grayshirt, Ryan Handford (5-9, 175), is expected to contribute. Freshmen Tashaun Gipson (6-0, 180) and David James (5-11, 175) also will attempt to gain playing time during the upcoming season.
For a preview of UW's offense for 2008, see the Tuesday, Aug. 19 edition of the Powell Tribune.