Players come and go in college football. Some exhaust their eligibility and graduate, some elect to transfer, and some — especially recently at the University of Wyoming — leave early to chase NFL dreams.

Wyoming’s defense has to replace a bunch of key contributors in the fall. But all of those holes on defense pale in comparison to the one that needs addressing on the sidelines. Defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton left Laramie Monday to take a similar position at Kansas State under their new coaching regime. He leaves some big shoes to fill.

Cowboy tough football, which has been missing in Wyoming since the mid-2000s, has returned to the high plains. Much of that credit goes to Hazelton.

Even when Wyoming won the Mountain Division in 2016, behind the dazzling arm of Josh Allen, the Pokes did so with offense. They couldn’t stop a soul on defense, quite literally, as they ranked last in the Mountain West Conference and 122nd nationally in total defense.

Under Steve Stanard — the defensive coordinator that accompanied head coach Craig Bohl to Laramie from Fargo — the defense didn’t improve and even worsened. In Stanard’s first three seasons, Wyoming ranked 89th, 86th and 122nd in total defense, not allowing fewer than 32 points per game in any one season.

Now, some of that can be attributed to the transition from head coach Dave Christensen — who most definitely didn’t put much emphasis on defense. In Christensen’s five years as head man, the Pokes never ranked better than 79th nationally in total defense. Those years the defense was under the direction of Marty English and Chris Tormey.

But quite honesty that defense was defensible, as Christensen’s crew piled up the offensive yardage en route to two bowl games and an eight-win season in 2011. At the end of that day, it was simply about outscoring the opponent even if that meant winning games 56-49.

But when Bohl entered the fray, he made a concerted effort to embody the state of Wyoming and get back to that tough, hard-nosed mentality. A three-yards-in-a-cloud-of-dust mentality. A we-are-going-to-beat-the-snot-out-of-you-and-the-final-score-will-read-10-7 mentality.

Stanard just couldn’t get that done, and if it weren’t for offensive juggernauts like Allen, Tanner Gentry and Brian Hill, the Pokes wouldn’t have won the division in Stanard’s final season as D coordinator.

When Bohl let Stanard go he brought in Hazelton who carried with him a distinguished background that included stops at power-five schools and the NFL. And Wyoming’s defense flipped the switch.

In just one season, Hazelton’s first, the Pokes went from the 122nd-ranked defense in the nation to the 21st-best defense in the county and second-best in the conference. The Pokes also created an astounding 38 turnovers, won eight games, which included a bowl victory, just how Bohl envisioned it when he first took the job.

This last season, Wyoming’s defense improved yet again, ascending to the 15th-best defense nationally — allowing just 326 yards per game — which marked its highest ranking since 2006.

Hazelton worked wonders for the Wyoming defense, and he will certainly be hard to replace. Whether Bohl elects to hire from within or choose an outside hire — what I assume he’ll do — the new defensive coordinator has a tough act to follow.


Pokes Notes

The University of Wyoming wrestling team eased past Air Force 33-3 last week and will look to win its eighth straight dual — something it hasn’t done since 2012 — Sunday against West Virginia.

UW’s men’s basketball team beat San Jose State 59-46 Wednesday to claim its first Mountain West Conference victory of the season.

UW’s women’s basketball team won at San Jose State 70-56 Wednesday to improve to 3-3 in MWC play.