It’s Thursday, which means two things this week. 1. We are just a couple days away from the start of the 2014 football season and 2. It is time check out a few key players to watch in the 2014 season opener. The Cowboys are taking on FCS powerhouse Montana on Saturday which marks the beginning a new era under head coach Craig Bohl. Bohl’s FCS success has been well documented in the off-season and is fresh off 3 straight national championships at North Dakota State. Montana should serve as a nice test for his Cowboy debut. The Grizzlies are coming off a 10-3 2013 campaign, where they bowed out of the FCS playoffs in the first round and come into 2014 ranked fifth in the preseason FCS polls. Wyoming is coming off a disappointing 5-7 season, which lead to Dave Christensen’s departure shortly after the season ended. They bring back a lot of experience and seem to have a newfound energy under Bohl. Now, let’s a look at a few players to watch for both teams this Saturday.
Wyoming Cowboys’ Key Players
#11 Colby Kirkegaard, QB- It is no secret that much of Wyoming’s offensive success could depend on the play of 5th year senior QB Colby Kirkegaard. Most Cowboy fans remember Kirkegaard from his only career start in a forgettable loss to Cal Poly in 2012. It isn’t fair to judge Kirkegaard based off that one game. The 6’3” quarterback is 2 years removed and seems more confident. Craig Bohl’s west coast system seems to fit Kirkegaard’s playing style better than Christensen’s spread did and the QB seems to be getting more comfortable. Bohl has praised Kirkegaard’s improvement since spring camp and it appears Wyoming’s quarterback situation isn’t as shaky as many thought it would be. If Kirkegaard can find his rhythm early against Grizzlies and play relatively mistake free the Cowboy offense should enjoy a fair amount of success. Wyoming has a stable of talented running backs led by junior Shaun Wick and sophomore DJ May as well as a very experienced group of receivers headlined by seniors Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran that should help take some pressure off Kirkegaard and make his job much easier. However, if he struggles the Cowboys might struggle and in return find themselves in trouble on Saturday.
#55 Eddie Yarbrough, DE- There is no question Yarbrough is “the guy” on Wyoming’s defense. The junior to be was selected as 1st team all MWC last fall and was voted on the preseason all MWC team as well. Yarbrough is coming off a successful year where he recorded 89 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 12 TFL, as well as two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He was one of the few bright spots on a defense that struggled for much of the 2013 season. Under the Bohl the Pokes will switch to a Tampa 2 defense, something that seems to have the defensive players excited. Yarbrough anchors a very talented and experienced DL that also features 6’3” 250 lb. senior DE Sonny Puletasi (35 GP) and 6’5” 285 lb. DT Patrick Mertens (36 GP), both of whom could be poised for big games. Behind them is a very experienced group of linebackers and defensive backs. Yarbrough will surely lead the charge against a Montana line that is very inexperienced. If Yarbrough and Co. can get after Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson early and often, they should be able to create some turnovers and make it difficult for the Griz offense to score.
#20 Blair Burns, CB- Burns, a senior is one of the most experienced players on the Cowboys roster. He has played in 37 games and has tallied 169 total career tackles, 1 FF, 3 FR, and 6 career INTs. Burns has been up and down in the last 2 seasons after a very successful freshman season, when he earned honorable mention all MWC. There is no question that Burns has the talent to be very good and Bohl has been very high on Burns’ spring and fall camps. If Yarbrough and Co. pressure the Grizzlies up front Burns could be positioned for an opportunity to make some game changing plays in the defense backfield. He has made big plays in the past; including a 99-yard touchdown against CSU in 2012, and an interception last season @ Nebraska.
Montana Grizzlies’ Key Players
#10 Jordan Johnson, QB- 2014 will be Johnson’s 3rd year as the Grizzlies starting quarterback and he is coming off a decorated 2013 campaign, throwing for 3,387 yards, 32 TDs, and only 5 interceptions. He is also a threat to run and has run for 668 yards and 4 TDs in his career. The senior to be leads an offense that lost 5 starters on the offensive line, three to graduation, one to injury, and another due to academic issues and a receiving corps that has been hit by the injury bug. Johnson’s experience and leadership will be as important as anything in what expects to be a large crowd at War Memorial Stadium on Saturday. He is a playmaker, and will need to be on Saturday for the Griz to score points. His number one target, Ellis Henderson, has been ill during fall camp and may play sparingly on Saturday, according to Griz coach Mick Delaney. If Henderson is able to go, that will give Johnson a big play target, if not he will have a fairly inexperienced group of receivers, like Billings Central product Ryan Burke, among others. Joining Johnson in the backfield will be running back Jordan Canada. Canada ran for 1,062 yards and 16 TDs last season and will help relieve the pressure from Johnson, as will senior RB Travon Van (523 yards and 6 TDs). If Johnson has time to make plays he could make the Cowboys pay.
#37 Zach Wagenmann, DE- Wagenmann is a two time All Big Sky pick and was chosen as the Big Sky Conference’s preseason defensive MVP. Wagenmann, who has played in 38 career games (24 starts), has 20 career sacks, 127 career tackles (29.5 TFL), and 5 FF. He leads a very talented and experienced Griz DL and will be a handful for the inexperienced Cowboy OL. The Missoula product is poised for a big season and will be the guy that will set the tone for the Griz defensive front 7. Craig Bohl has praised Wagenmann in his press conference, making it known that they recognize that he is a force. The Cowboy OL will hope to contain him and if they can’t early, he and his fellow defensive linemen might be in for their fair share of big plays.
Offensive Line – The Montana OL is inexperienced, for lack of a better term. As I mentioned earlier they lost all 5 starters from 2013, three to graduation, one to injury, and another due to academic reasons. Between their projected starting five they have three combined starts, all of which come from senior Jordan Hines. Joining Hines with some experience is his twin, Logan who is also a senior. The other three projected starters are all sophomores and have little to no experience. They will be in for a tough test against Wyoming on Saturday who boasts a talented and experienced DL. The Grizzlies have a talented backfield, which features 3 seniors in Johnson, Canada, and Van but their success will likely depend on the play of their young OL.