LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Back in fall camp, there were four running backs whom Xazavian Valladay could have expected to see on the field before him.
Trey Woods was the team’s leading returning rusher. Kellen Overstreet had been the team’s most effective rusher down the stretch in 2017. Nico Evans was the senior who ultimately earned the starting spot during the offseason. Jevon Bigelow was the true freshman generating hype during his first few weeks on campus.
None of them played Saturday, as Valladay got his first career start in Wyoming’s 17-14 win over Wofford.
“Well, with those guys, we did have a lot of running back depth in fall camp,” said Valladay, a redshirt freshman. “But it’s just guys that go out there and make plays. No matter what happens throughout the season or fall camp.”
Woods moved to defensive end in camp. Overstreet retired due to yet another injury. Evans suffered a rib injury that has kept him out each of the last two games, though he did dress as emergency depth Saturday, with Bigelow out because of a concussion.
“And I start to look,” head coach Craig Bohl said. “Is this not an emergency here?”
Valladay helped prevent it from getting to that point — even though the Cowboys were calling on a former safety and a wide receiver to fill their Nos. 2 and 3 running back positions. Valladay had 80 total yards of offense in his first start with 15 rushes and three receptions. He had five rushes of 5 or more yards, including an 18-yarder.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Valladay told the Casper Star-Tribune. “Throughout the practice week, I just had to keep striving to make the plays. With Nico down, with our running backs, they just kept me up on our toes. I just had to believe in the plan that we have for this game.”
The Illinois native found out at the start of game week that he’d be starting when Wyoming’s first-year running backs coach Gordie Haug sent him a text.
“He just told me to be ready and just play fast and just always react, because that’s what running backs do,” Valladay said. “Just react and don’t think about anything. Just play.”
Valladay’s biggest play was a 10-yard catch that saved Wyoming from an upset to the Football Championship Subdivision Terriers. Faced with fourth-and-4 on a last-chance drive in Wofford territory, Valladay snagged Tyler Vander Waal’s low pass and gave the Cowboys another set of downs.
“I’m the third read,” Valladay said. “… I just saw the ball. I had to catch it and make the play. Because Coach Bohl always talked about, ‘Who’s going to be that guy to make that play and put the team on their back?'”
The Cowboys wound up taking the final lead two plays later.
“Well, I think that’s a big, big step, whether you’re a young guy or even an old guy,” Bohl said of Valladay’s catch. “A lot of people were on pins and needles. Tyler put the ball there, and X came up with a great catch and turned the field over.”
Said Vander Waal: “I think (Valladay) was in the locker room at halftime, too, so we were both getting taped up. And I told him, ‘It’s going to be on us. We’re going to have to go out there and get the job done.’ He ran hard, and I ultimately don’t know how he caught that fourth down.
“I underthrew him, he made a heck of a catch, and I think he bobbled it. He did all he could to get the first down. So I’m at a loss for words right now.”
No other Wyoming running back took a carry Saturday. But Bohl was also impressed with Valladay’s play when he wasn’t touching the ball.
“He did some good things in the running game, but I thought where he really did a great job was his pass protection,” Bohl said. “He’s not very big, and he hung in there a couple times. Some linebackers came blitzing and they tried to bull-rush him, and he dropped anchor and did a good job. So we’re pleased with him.”
Valladay’s role could change once again when the Cowboys host Boise State on Sept. 29 to begin Mountain West play. The team has a bye before then, which might give Evans enough time to return, and the team rarely leans on the pass as much as it did Saturday.
Either way, Valladay doesn’t seem to mind adjusting.
“Who’s going to make that next play?” he said of his approach. “Who’s going to be that next man up? Just a mental mentality.
“You’ve just got to have heart every time you go out there on the football field, because this is the Cowboys. We always have to play Cowboy tough. It’s just a mentality we have to have throughout the season.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com
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