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Cowboys appear set a defensive tackle

August 17, 2018

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Injuries hurt in the short term but can end up helping in the long term. Last year, Wyoming started five different players at the interior defensive line spots due to injuries, two of which were season-ending. Two of the linemen who ended up starting were true freshmen.

That was obviously less than ideal during the season itself. Now, though, many of those players are back and the group is deep and experienced.

“I notice that I’m not as tired,” senior nose tackle Sidney Malauulu said of practice.

Conner Cain was the first of the two interior linemen to suffer a season-ending injury, and it might have been the worst injury of the entire group. Cain, now a senior, broke his ankle in an injury that was similar to the gruesome one suffered by Boston Celtic Gordon Hayward.

Ravontae Holt, then a true freshman, stepped in for Cain but tore his ACL two games later.

“I think both what happened with me and then Ravontae, you can’t plan those kinds of things,” Cain said. “Those things just happen through the course of a season, through the course of a game. So, yeah, I would hope, I pray that we don’t have any injuries. But at the same time, there are some times when those things just happen.”

Both players were cleared for full participation during the summer.

“The toughest part of the recovery process is just trusting the strength of it,” Holt told the Casper Star-Tribune. “That’s probably the toughest part for me. ... Still having troubles trusting it, but over time it’s still getting better.”

While Holt got thrown into the fire last year, making his first career start at Boise State and finishing the game alongside Javaree Jackson, another true freshman, Cain is a seasoned vet. He appeared in double-digit games each of his first two seasons before being injured in the seventh game of 2017.

“Conner’s actually ahead of where he was last season just from what he did in the weight room,” defensive tackles coach Pete Kaligis said. “His mobility, his power, his speed has improved a lot from when he got hurt. He’s done a lot of work to get back. It’s been fun to watch him.”

Cain himself had been starting because he was stepping in for Malauulu, who is also a senior now. Malauulu suffered a knee injury early in the year and missed six games. He also missed spring camp after having herniated disc surgery.

Youhanna Ghaifan was the stalwart of the group last year, earning first-team all-conference honors, but even he missed the Boise State game with turf toe.

Now, though, four of those five linemen who started a year ago are back. The only player missing is Jackson, who is recovering from a bulged disc in his lower back.

“It’s just been kind of hard, because right now I’m not around the team as much as I want to be around them,” Jackson said. “So it’s just taking a little while for me to get used to before the season comes around.”

At one point, Jackson’s injury was expected to cost him the season, but it now looks like that might not be the case. He said he thinks he could return by the end of September or early October. A new rule allows players to appear in up to four games and still redshirt, but Jackson could potentially return to play even more than that.

Regardless of when Jackson returns, the defensive tackles group should have plenty to work with this season.

“Every one of those guys brings a different thing to the field,” Kaligis said. “They’re all going to get out. They’re all going to go. It’s one day at a time, and you don’t know when injuries are going to occur. You don’t know whose number is going to be called.”

How exactly they’ll all fit in remains to be seen. Ghaifain is the favorite to start, of course, but the group also includes two experienced seniors.

What isn’t uncertain is that if one of the linemen goes down with an injury this year, the next one won’t be hesitant to step in.

“Sky’s the limit,” Malauulu said. “Just speaking on the inside (line), it’s just good to have everyone back. We’re just trying to get back in the swing of things. ... Once (we’re all healthy), everything should be a breeze. Go in, go hard for a couple plays, come out, it should be reciprocated by the next person.”

Added Cain: “But at the same time, just because you have numbers doesn’t mean you can let up in any sense. So that’s what we’re really focusing on in this fall camp. We can’t take any days off just because we have a lot of people.”

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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