How Much Should Wyoming Protect Brett Smith?
Those who have scouted Wyoming are in harmony about who is the team's most valuable player. It's quarterback Brett Smith and there probably isn't a close second. Not only does any hope of beating Nebraska rest on Smith, but so do the hopes for a bowl season. Cowboy head coach Dave Christensen is on the hot seat after a 4-win campaign in 2012. A win over the Huskers in the 2013 season opener would greatly improve his chances of returning in 2014. By contrast, losing Smith in the opener would seem like certain doom for the coach. Given those realities, how aggressive can Christensen afford to be with Smith against NU?
Dual run-pass threat quarterbacks are a nightmare to defend. Smith rushed for 710 yards and 10 scores as a freshman, though injuries reduced his rushing numbers considerably a year ago. Given that running quarterbacks have been an Achilles heel for Bo Pelini, Wyoming's best chance to pull an upset in Lincoln would probably include a number of designed runs by the quarterback.
One of the hotly debated topics for the NFL this offseason is how sensible it is to run read option plays. Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick were explosive dual threat players. Still people wonder whether they can take the punishment over a long season. If coaches get greedy about calling run plays, the logic goes that they'll lose their quarterback to injury.
The same issue applies for Smith. In particular, he's got three new starters in front of him on the offensive line and a new tight end. So the protection is likely to be suspect in the opener already. The team did not run the ball well a year ago, particularly with their running backs. So Smith was already going to take his share of hits and good running lanes may be hard to find. Should Christensen really put his player at risk for what appears to be a small chance at an upset? I guess that's why coaches get the big bucks.
Some might ask why the same argument shouldn't be made for Taylor Martinez. If NU can win the game without any designed runs or read options by Martinez, shouldn't they seek to preserve him? In part, they probably will. The hope will be that he watches the end of the game from the sideline. There are also a number of hungry receivers to feed (against what's been a bad pass defense), not to mention a bunch of quality running backs to hand the ball to. Martinez opened last season with 6 carries or really just 5 if you throw out a sack. That's probably about the right number for Martinez this time too.
Smith had just 3 carries (or 2 if you take out the sack) against Nebraska in 2011. The Cowboys went on to win 8 games that year. It would probably be wise to approach the game similarly this time around, but that will be Christensen's call. It may be tantalizing to have Smith carry it 15 or 25 times. Losing him so early in the year just doesn't seem worth the risk.