LARAMIE — Leading up to the 2019 season, Braden Smith and Rome Weber were locked in a battle to be UW’s starting free safety. Weber eventually won that competition.
Two years later, the two are duking it out again. This time, Smith is in the lead.
“There’s a battle, but I think Braden has separated himself,” UW coach Craig Bohl said.
Weber is back in the fold this spring after opting out last season, which left Smith to fill in as the starter last fall. Bohl and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel have said it’s taking Weber some time to get back up to speed with the defense after a lengthy layoff.
“If a defensive back misses time, that’s not a position where you go, ‘OK, let’s go. Let’s just plug and play,’” Sawvel said. “From footwork to vision to everything else … there’s been progress, but it takes some time.”
Meanwhile, Smith, who had 23 tackles and an interception last season, has seemingly picked up where he left off. Bohl said Smith has had “a couple of really good scrimmages” this spring.
“Rome has done OK,” Bohl said. “He’s certainly improved, but right now I think there’s a separation between the two.”
Smith was a senior last season but took advantage of the NCAA’s eligibility relief amid the pandemic by returning to UW for one last season of competition. Weber, a sophomore, started all but one of UW’s 13 games in 2019, so the Cowboys have a couple of experienced options regardless of who ultimately wins out this time.
“I’d rather call it a friendly competition and stuff like that,” Smith said. “I love Rome. I’ve got a lot of respect for Rome, and I know he has respect for me too. Right now, it’s just whoever is going to help the team more in that aspect (as a starter).”
Walk-on pushing for QB3
While Sean Chambers and Levi Williams continue to compete for the starting quarterback job, freshman Hank Gibbs is starting to separate himself for the third spot on the depth chart.
Gibbs, a walk-on from Fayetteville, Arkansas, has continued to impress with his play this spring, Bohl said. The 6-foot-5, 226-pounder has pulled ahead of fellow freshman Gavin Beerup, who was the Cowboys’ No. 3 signal caller last fall, and another walk-on, Utah transfer Jayden Clemons.
Third-string quarterbacks don’t usually get much attention, but it’s a spot on the depth chart UW has had to go to the last two seasons because of injuries and ineffectiveness at the position. Williams played in a handful of games late in the 2019 season as UW’s No. 3 signal caller at the time, and Beerup made two appearances last fall with Chambers and Williams sidelined.
Gibbs is also a UW legacy. His father, Chris, played for the Cowboys in the 1980s.
Bohl said senior receiver Ayden Eberhardt will likely double as the Cowboys’ punt returner next season. It’s a role Eberhardt will take over from Dontae Crow, who transferred to Campbell University this offseason.
As for who will return kickoffs, Bohl said the coaching staff is still evaluating that. But Bohl mentioned running back Titus Swen as the leader in the race. Swen, UW’s third-leading rusher as a freshman in 2019, is another player coming off an opt-out last season, but Bohl praised Swen’s performance this spring, particularly in the two scrimmages the Cowboys have held to this point.
“Titus really had a good scrimmage on Saturday,” Bohl said. “Did some very productive things. We purposefully cut the reps down on X (Valladay) and Trey (Smith), and Titus has really stepped up.”