No Wyoming wide receiver caught as many touchdowns as C.J. Johnson last year. Johnson’s seven touchdown receptions matched the rest of the wide receiver group combined. Johnson averaged 17.7 yards per catch, 10th in the Mountain West.
The Cowboys will need to make up for that production this year, as Johnson is still sidelined with the knee injury he suffered in Wyoming’s Potato Bowl win.
“When that first happened, obviously I can’t tell without an MRI, but they thought I maybe just sprained it,” said Johnson, a redshirt junior. “And then I got the MRI, and I had a microfracture as well as a torn ACL and a torn meniscus. So if I just had the torn ACL and torn meniscus, I would have probably been back just in time for the first game, but with the microfracture, it makes it a nine month to a year recovery.”
At the moment, Johnson said he expects to be back in mid-October. Head coach Craig Bohl said last month that Johnson wouldn’t be able to return until December.
Johnson was a member of Wyoming’s 2015 class, meaning that those players he came in with are entering their senior seasons, if they didn’t redshirt.
“It’s tough to have to watch and not be out there playing with them,” Johnson said. “Especially all my roommates like Dewey (Wingard) and Kaden (Jackson) and (Josh) Harshman, this is all their last year, and that’s the hardest part is just not being able to be out there with them. But I’ll be the biggest cheerleader on the sideline when I am there.”
So, who will fill Johnson’s shoes as a downfield threat?
“I think we’re all just going to have to be that person,” said junior Austin Conway, who led Wyoming in catches last year. “I can’t really name a guy, because we’re all capable of doing that.”
Conway and senior James Price are obvious candidates, and sophomore Avante’ Cox earned a starting spot in camp. Another possibility is sophomore Jared Scott, whose 6-foot-6 height doesn’t hurt. Scott followed the Austin Fort career path in his freshman year. Like the senior tight end, Scott’s first two touches of his career produced touchdowns. They remain his only two catches.
“He always jokes around with me that he’s the reason I scored, because he won his route, he took the eyes of the safeties, and it just kind of opened up for me,” Scott said of Fort, who actually scored on his first four touches. “I will give him his credit.”
John Okwoli would be an appropriate player to step in for Johnson, considering that he also had to recover from an ACL injury this offseason. The junior was fully cleared a few weeks into summer workouts, though he was limited for much of fall camp with a wrist injury. While Okwoli was recovering this summer, he worked on things like balance that he hadn’t worked on much when healthy.
“Just things like that and also just working on my speed and my strength and how I lift, whether it’s squats or that sort of thing,” said Okwoli, who returned to full participation earlier this week. “I’m just a better lifter all-around. I know the technique now and stuff like that, stuff that I didn’t know before I got hurt. I feel like it’s a blessing in disguise, looking back on it.”
Counting to four
The question of which true freshmen will play this year is a complicated one. Four true freshmen appeared on Wyoming’s depth chart Monday: Jalani Ellison (backup cornerback), Frank Crum (backup right tackle), Jevon Bigelow (co-backup running back) and Gunner Gentry (third-string X receiver). Eleven freshmen wound up forgoing their redshirt seasons in 2017, but there is now an NCAA rule that allows players to appear in up to four games and still redshirt.
That could come into play Saturday at New Mexico State, if only because of the August heat.
“There’s certain guys that we’re going to travel where we normally wouldn’t travel them,” Bohl said. “There’s kind of a whole grouping of guys, and some of it’s going to be contingent upon the heat. We’re concerned about the heat. I’d anticipate it’ll probably be about 130-140 degrees on the turf, even though it’s 8 o’clock at night, and so sometimes you have some guys cramped, and we’re concerned about that. So, we’re taking extra guys. We’re taking extra freshmen.”
If you’re trying to figure out which freshmen are going to play all season versus just the four games, here’s a tip: watch special teams.
“If a guy’s playing teams, he’s going to be integrated and play all the time,” Bohl said during fall camp. “It won’t be a four-game deal.”
Bohl had indicated during camp that Bigelow, Ellison and Gentry would likely play as true freshmen. Crum could just be providing emergency depth, considering Wyoming is already thin at tackle and starting right tackle Alonzo Velazquez is still out with a knee injury.
Ellison appears to be Wyoming’s fourth cornerback, and Gentry will probably have to battle more veteran receivers for playing time. But Bigelow should be a player to watch from the jump. Senior Nico Evans earned the starting spot, but Bigelow appeared to have a strong camp. He and redshirt freshman Xazavian Valladay are listed as either/or backups to Evans.
“I’m super excited,” Bigelow said. “So, any chance I get, I’m just going to try to make the best of it to help my team out and help push us.”
Bigelow did have to battle a slight hamstring injury and a stomach virus during camp, but he said late in camp that he had been regaining the weight he lost from the illness and that his movement was improving.
Jones at tackle
In spring, the Cowboys tried redshirt freshman Victor Jones out at defensive tackle. Jones, a three-start recruit, came to Wyoming as a defensive end. The Cowboys decided this fall to keep Jones inside.
“It’s different,” he said. “A little bit more physical. Everything’s a little bit quicker inside. In the trenches, it’s a little bit different.”
Jones is one of three players from the last two recruiting classes who have signed with Wyoming out of Inderkum (California) High School, along with sophomore linebacker Ryan Gatoloai-Faupula and true freshman Leevi Lafaele, who came in as a linebacker but has moved to defensive end.