Fortunately, they have the ground game to do so.
Despite the loss of Offensive Coordinator Dana Dimel, who left to take the head coaching job at UTEP, the Wildcats return all five offensive line starters who paved the way for 198.8 rushing yards a game, second in the conference and 32nd in the nation. Junior running back Alex Barnes led in rushing with 819 yards and seven touchdowns on an impressive 5.6 yards a carry. Backups Dalvin Warmack and Justin Silmon, a former walk-on, made the most of their combined 91 carries totaling 477 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback Alex Delton was the second leading rusher last season gaining 500 yards and eight touchdowns. He is pushed by sophomore Skylar Thompson who came on strong towards the end of last season completing 61.4 percent of his passes for 689 yards and five touchdowns while adding 267 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. Both were neck and neck after spring practice and don’t be surprised if both are used.
Whoever is throwing the ball is without the services of wide receiver Byron Pringle who declared for the NFL draft. Pringle was second in catches with 30 but made the most of them leading in yards with 724 and six touchdowns on a whopping 24.1 yards a catch. Junior Isaiah Zuber who led the team in receptions with 51 is the go-to receiver. He finished with 510 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Dalton Schoen also sees an increased role after catching 23 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns. The rest of the unit is unproven.
Defensive Coordinators Brian Norwood, formerly the defensive coordinator at Tulsa, and Blake Seller must find a replacement for three-time all-conference defensive tackle Will Geary, the teams sack leader with 4.5. 311lbs junior Trey Dishon assumes Geary’s spot in the middle after registering 18.5 tackles, four for loss, one sack and three pass breakups. He is joined by unproven sophomore Drew Wiley. Reggie Walker returns at one end spot after notching 30.5 tackles and two sacks a season ago. Look for sophomore Bronson Massie, who registered 8.5 tackles last season, to start at the other end spot.
Leading tacklers Jayd Kirby and Trent Tanking departs leaving an athletic group of linebackers. Junior Elijah Sullivan is the leading returning tackler of the group with 25. He is joined by junior Da’Quan Patton, who redshirted last season, and junior Justin Hughes who had four tackles in limited action.
Three of the four secondary starters return from a unit that finished 129th in the country in pass defense surrendering 309.1 yards a game. The lone departure, corner D.J. Reed led the team in interceptions and finished with 44 tackles. Senior corner Duke Shelley, who has had an up and down career, is the best on the roster. He is joined by junior Johnathan Durham who notched 11.5 tackles as a backup last season. Saftey Denzel Goolsby was third in tackles with 78 and added two interceptions and four pass breakups. He is joined by senior Kendall Adams who posted 57 tackles and three interceptions. Junior college transfer Darreyl Patterson has the size (6’1 185lbs) to push Durham in the fall.
Special Teams Coordinator Sean Snyder, Head Coach Bill’s son, has his work cut out for him having to replace the entire unit. Gone is kicker Matthew McCrane, the most accurate kicker in program history, who hit 21-of-26 field goals last season. Punter Nick Walsh departs after averaging 43.6 yards a punt including 18 inside the 20-yard line. Both return men depart as well as the long snapper. Look for Nick McLellan to take over at kicker and Devin Anctil at punter. Warmack and speedy sophomore receiver Isiah Harris take over as returners.
The schedule doesn’t do them any favors as they face Mississippi State, Texas and West Virginia in the first five weeks. The ending stretch of Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State might be must-win games as the Wildcats might have to overcome a slow start for a third straight season to reach a bowl.