LARAMIE – It wasn’t a debut in the true sense of the word for Alijah Halliburton.
The University of Wyoming senior strong safety played in 39 games prior to last Saturday’s season opener against Missouri. He started the last five games of 2018, and six overall, as UW moved senior safety Marcus Epps to other areas of the field.
But the Missouri game was the first where Halliburton was the leader of the Cowboys’ safeties, and he came up big. Halliburton recorded a game- and career-high 17 tackles, and returned a fumble 79 yards that set up a field goal just before halftime in UW’s 37-31 victory.
Halliburton was fourth on the team last season in both total tackles (61) and solo tackles (39). Tackling has been his strength throughout his career, and that was reinforced against Missouri.
But in this day and age of college football, tackling isn’t practiced as much as in the past – at least not live tackling – as coaches try to keep players healthy.
Halliburton said he’s always been a good tackler, going back to his time at Overland High in Aurora, Colorado.
“Back then, it was more like 'see ball, get ball,'” he said.
Things changed once Halliburton arrived at UW.
First, he matured both physically and mentally. Secondly, he learned different tackling techniques. One of his favorites is the “gator roll,” where he grabs the ball carrier’s legs and then rolls him to the ground. Halliburton said he also learned a lot about tackling by keeping good leverage.
The Cowboys may not do a lot of live tackling in practices, but they do plenty of drills using tackling dummies and pads. But no matter the method, Halliburton said there is one thing that is key for him to not only being a good tackler, but a good overall defender.
“It is all about having great effort and getting to the ball,” he said.
KEEP THEM QUIET
Junior safety Esaias Gandy is Halliburton’s backup this season. Most of his playing time the last two years came on special teams.
Gandy saw his most extensive playing time at safety against Missouri. He recorded five solo tackles and one tackle for loss, forced one fumble and broke up one pass.
“It felt good to be out there and see all the hard work I put in pay off,” he said. “We won, but we have a lot to improve on. We made our fair share of mistakes. We need to learn and move on."
Many thought UW’s two safety spots would take a step back after losing Wingard and Epps, who made NFL opening-day rosters for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, respectively.
One game is a small sample size, but it was encouraging to see what the Cowboys can do with some new bodies back there.
“We all learned from Marcus and (Wingard), and we’ve heard what a lot of people were saying about us. I know I’m tired of hearing that we will struggle without them. I think we silenced some critics."
Sixth-year coach Craig Bohl said Tuesday he’s hopeful redshirt freshman defensive end Solomon Byrd (high ankle sprain) will be ready to play Saturday.
Bohl added that other than some bumps and bruises after the Missouri game, UW is healthy.
“We’re healthier than I thought we would be at this point,” Bohl said.
ONE VOTE FOR UW
The Cowboys received one vote in the Amway Coaches top 25 poll Tuesday. They didn’t receive any votes in The Associated Press poll.
HULL STILL GONE
Senior cornerback Antonio Hull remains away from the team and at home in California due to a personal matter. Bohl said Monday during his weekly news conference that UW is preparing not to have Hull this week, and there is no time frame for his return.
Sophomore cornerback C.J. Coldon started for Hull last week and is slated to do the same at Texas State. Hull also was listed as one of UW’s top two kickoff returners. Senior wide receiver Raghib Ismail Jr. now joins senior cornerback Tyler Hall as the Cowboys’ starting kickoff return duo.
NFL scouts from Jacksonville and the Seattle Seahawks were at Tuesday’s practice.
Robert Gagliardi is the WyoSports senior editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @rpgagliardi.