After the 2020 Mountain West football season was first canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic before teams were eventually allowed to play a limited number of games last fall, Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl is excited to get the 2021 campaign started.
"It’s great to be back playing college football and doing a lot of things that are going to have some semblance of normality," Bohl said Wednesday during a Zoom call with local reporters from the MW Football Media Days in Las Vegas.
While admitting that this past offseason "wasn't completely normal," Bohl likened it to the 2019 season.
"We had 10 straight weeks of work (in winter conditioning) and that allowed our guys to get bigger, stronger and faster," he added. "I thought we had a good spring, the summer has been good and now we’re excited to get into this next year.
"One of the things we strive to do is have a program with a great deal of consistency and play a physical brand of football. That means there a lot of elements that come into play. What COVID did is it took all of those things and just shredded them.
"And so for our coaches to be able to have a normal spring, for our players to know what’s expected and be able to plant their feet, so to say, has certainly been encouraging and I think you’ll see an experienced football team when we open up against Montana State."
The Cowboys, who were picked Wednesday by the media to finish second in the Mountain Division behind Boise State this season, definitely have experience. UW returns 21 of 22 starters, including six seniors -- defensive end Garrett Crall, offensive linemen Logan Harris and Alonzo Velazques, running back Trey Smith and safeties Braden Smith and Esias Gandy -- who took advantage of the NCAA extending the eligibility of all fall-sport athletes.
"Every program has had to learn how to deal with these ‘super seniors,’" Bohl acknowledged. "And then you had the one-time transfer rule. But we just did not have a lot of changeover with our roster. To have a lot of our guys come back and play another year is really heartwarming, there’s a great look in their eye.
"Football is a game of numbers, so to have the number of guys that stayed and bought in for the Cowboys is encouraging. It gives us a great foundation as we move forward."
The Cowboys also welcome back three 2020 All-MW first-team selections in offensive lineman Keegan Cryder, running back Xazavian Valladay and linebacker Chad Muma.
Cryder, a 6-foot-4, 309-pound center, is a three-year starter and anchors an offensive line that returns all five starters as well as significant number of backups. Valladay (6-0, 198) is a two-time all-conference honoree who led the MW in rushing each of the past two years. Muma (6-3, 242) led the Cowboys in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks in his first season as a starter in the middle of the defense.
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Nevada coach Jay Norvell remembers being overcome by heartbreak last season on senior night, when each honored player was introduced with nobody but teammates, opponents and game officials to hear their names.
"I think (that was) one of the most disappointing things from last year, having no family or fans in the stands," Norvell said. "That was really hard. But I'm very grateful that we get this season. and that many of those kids can play this year and have another opportunity for their senior year."
The return of fans and in-person meetings were an overwhelmingly hot topic Wednesday as Mountain West coaches kicked off the conference's media days looking ahead to a more typical 2021 season after a pandemic-plagued 2020 campaign.
"I couldn't be more fired up for this city, our school, stadium," UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo said. "To have fans come in that stadium to see us, to have our guys come out to fans and their families — man we're fired up."
Norvell's Wolf Pack was chosen to win the conference's West Division, while perennial favorite Boise State was picked to win the Mountain Division for the eighth consecutive season.
Defending champion San Jose State was picked to finish second behind Nevada. The Spartans defeated Boise State in the conference championship last year after a tumultuous season during which they were displaced when their home county in California was locked down due to the pandemic.
They played a home game in Hawaii and two home contests in Las Vegas instead of San Jose and didn't get to spend Christmas with their families.
Nonetheless, San Jose coach Brent Brennan said players were told the team with the most stringent discipline in light of the coronavirus would win the league championship.
His Spartans answered every challenge.
"I think COVID, that time was really bad for everybody," Brennan said. "And I think the people that were impacted the worst were that high school- (and) college-aged kid. I have my own kids that struggled through that. I watched a bunch of guys on our team struggle through that. I think (mental health) is really challenging right now."
Mental health issues were another big topic Wednesday among the coaches, who have found themselves playing counselor while dealing with players struggling with the mental fallout of the pandemic.
"The No. 1 thing about being a coach is you're like a father," Norvell said. "You're like a father to your staff, you're like a father to your players, and it was a very difficult year for our kids last year. We have a whole class of players that have never been to campus. They've never been to class on campus."
Personal interaction is something the coaches said might have been undervalued prior to the pandemic and has been welcomed back with open arms.
San Diego State coach Brady Hoke said the biggest factor affecting the Aztecs' development was time lost with his players. There was a period during which his players were sent home and asked to do training on their own to stay in shape and keep their conditioning on track.
"I'd rather actual meet than virtual meet," Hoke said. "I think as much as you can be with them and they can be together, to me that's everything. I think our leadership, our guys who are coming back, it's kind of a really big senior class, they've done a really good job of leading and pushing guys. Half of that is being together, and that was real important."
Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said seven of the 12 football programs have reached at least an 88% vaccination threshold, while the league-wide cumulative threshold is at 73%. Thompson said the league won't have mandatory vaccinations requirements, but if teams do not have the numbers to play due to COVID-19, the conference will not postpone or reschedule games and it will go down as a forfeit.