LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming's defense is already hearing the chatter.
The group has not only been one of the best in the Mountain West but also among the stingiest in the country lately, but many of the cornerstones that formed the foundation of a unit that has ranked in the top 30 nationally in points and yards allowed the last two seasons are no longer around. The prevailing thought from the outside looking in is the Cowboys are bound to take a step back on that side of the ball.
"I think everyone hears that," said Jake Dickert, who is entering his first season as defensive coordinator after spending the last two seasons coaching Wyoming's safeties. "We've talked about it a little bit, but at the end of the day, your play speaks louder than your words. But you get fueled. I think 18-to-23-year-old men get fueled by they can't, they can't, they can't. We use it a little bit as motivation."
There's no sugar-coating the significance of what the Cowboys lost. Andrew Wingard (MW's co-leader in career tackles) and Marcus Epps were two four-year starters at safety who are now in NFL training camps with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. All-league edge rusher Carl Granderson was widely viewed as Wyoming's top prospect for this year's NFL Draft before being charged with (and ultimately sentenced to jail for) sexual battery after last season, and defensive tackle Youhanna Ghaifan, another all-league performer, declared early for the draft after a legal issue of his own.
Yet with more than half of its starters back, Wyoming's defense isn't exactly green. In fact, all but one of the Cowboys' projected defensive starters are upperclassmen with six of them being seniors.
That includes a trio of fifth-year players in linebacker Logan Wilson, cornerback Antonio Hull and defensive end Josiah Hall. Wilson, who might have an NFL future of his own, is back to anchor the defense after leading the Cowboys in tackles each of the last two seasons. His 319 career stops rank second among active Football Bowl Subdivision players.
Wilson and Hull, the veteran in the secondary who started all 12 games last year after missing most of the 2017 season with an injury, have each played in 39 career games — the most of any players still on the roster. And while Hall is just now getting his first crack at being a full-time starter, he isn't far behind with 35 games under his belt.
Hull is part of what might be the deepest and most experienced position on the Cowboys' defense. Fellow senior Tyler Hall is back as the other starting corner after tying Hull for the team lead with 10 passes defended last season, and Wyoming is adding even more experience to the mix with Power Five transfer Azizi Hearn, who's immediately eligible after starting the final three games for Arizona last season.
"We definitely have depth, and that's going to help us a lot," Hull told the Casper Star-Tribune. "Our reps maybe come down a little bit, so maybe we get a little less reps and we'll be 100 percent and fresh every rep (in games). I definitely think our corners will be strong."
The same case can be made at linebacker, where Wilson will be lining up alongside fellow senior Cassh Maluia for the third straight year. Between the two of them, there's 453 career tackles and 36 tackles for loss.
Another senior, Alijah Halliburton, is taking over for Wingard at strong safety on a full-time basis after starting six games last season and finishing fourth on the team with 61 tackles. Even the frontrunner in the competition at free safety, fourth-year junior Braden Smith, has been around a while.
"He's played in our system a long time," Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said of Smith, who's appeared in 23 games during the last two seasons.
Juniors Ravontae Holt and Javaree Jackson find themselves at the top of the depth chart on the interior of the defensive line after being a part of the rotation last season. It's been a transition in the making for Holt, who started three games as a freshman before taking over for the suspended Ghaifan in the final four games last season.
They'll line up between Hall and junior Garrett Crall, who's set for his second season as a starter at defensive end after leading the Cowboys with 4.5 sacks last season. They all were part of a defense that limited opponents to 129.5 rushing yards per game last season, which ranked 25th in the FBS.
"The linebackers are definitely a huge part, and me and Logan have been playing together for three years already," Maluia said. "We have some returners at the defensive line, which is very helpful. And some returners at the DB position, too. We've still got some depth."
So despite the losses of some of its more high-profile faces, there's not a sense that Wyoming's defense is rebuilding. It's more of a passing of the baton for a group that's still got as much seasoning as any in the MW.
"Those guys set the bar of where we want to be," Dickert said. "But we don't talk about it and just say, 'Hey, too bad for us. Those guys are gone. Now we cannot be as good.' We've still got our goals, and we've still got places we want to hit."
Wyoming opens the 2019 season Aug. 31 at home against Missouri.