Sophomore linebacker Easton Gibbs provided University of Wyoming fans with a glimpse of his potential during last year’s season finale against Boise State.

Making his first career start at the college level, Gibbs racked up 13 tackles. Even after finishing the season as the Cowboys’ third-leading tackler, however, the Temecula, California, product felt like he was capable of more.

Gibbs admitted during fall camp that he struggled to get in a rhythm at times while coming off the bench as a freshman. Now, as the Pokes’ full-time starter at weakside linebacker, he’s beginning to find his groove.

“It’s definitely helped me get more comfortable with everything,” Gibbs said. “Knowing I’m going to go out there every week and have a substantial amount of plays definitely is a big factor. I’ve gotten used to the physical shape I need to be in, and just the mental preparation I need going into every game.”

Linebacker was poised to be one of UW’s deepest positions in 2021, but that changed when 2020 starter Chuck Hicks entered the transfer portal less than two weeks before the season opener.

Naturally, this increased the role Gibbs would play on the field, as one of only two players left at the position with significant college experience. Gibbs embraced the opportunity, and with 20 tackles, 1½ tackles for loss, a sack and a tipped pass resulting in an interception over the past three games, he’s beginning to show what he is capable of as an every-down contributor.

As junior defensive tackle Cole Godbout is quick to note, however, this isn’t the only area where Gibbs has grown.

“Honestly, I think it’s his leadership,” Godbout said of what’s impressed him most about Gibbs this season. “Ever since Chuck left, I think he’s really stepped up and filled that starting role really well. I think he’s only going to improve.”

Senior linebacker Chad Muma echoes this sentiment.

“He definitely did, and I see it every week now,” Muma said. “He’s been a great leader toward other guys on the team. He’s stepped up in that sense, and I’m proud of him for doing that.”

Gibbs acknowledges that he’s taken it upon himself to improve as a leader and establish his voice, both on the field and in the locker room. The biggest focus has been on communication, something he views as a key aspect to the defense’s overall success.

“Everyone has their role in leadership, but I’m trying to be as vocal and talk as much as I can,” Gibbs said. “Communication is key, and the more you communicate, the more successful you can be as a unit.”

Aiding Gibbs in his progression has been the presence of Muma, who ranked No. 6 in the country in tackles last fall and currently leads the Pokes in five defensive categories.

UW’s last game against UConn foreshadowed a likely trend to come, as the Huskies built their game plan around containing Muma. They succeeded in doing so, holding him to three tackles after averaging 11 through the first three games, but the rest of the defense rose to the occasion – holding their opponent to just 281 total yards.

Wyoming’s players and coaches are confident that Muma will return to the meteoric pace he started the season at. But as more teams game plan around the Butkus Award Watch List honoree, Gibbs is aware that it presents an opportunity for him and the other UW defenders.

“I don’t know many offensive coordinators that will look at our defense and say, ‘I’m going to run straight at Chad Muma,’” Gibbs said. “They try to eliminate him from the game as much as possible, but it opens up stuff for the rest of the defense.”

Added Wyoming coach Craig Bohl following the UConn game: “You can strategize an offense and put guys in different positions to have an impact. What it does do is it forces some other players to make some plays. I talked to (UConn offensive analyst) Noel Mazzone before the game, and he had great things to say about Chad. He can’t call plays or have interactions with players. However, he can set a game plan, and I’m sure they had a plan.

“It didn’t have anything to do with Chad not wanting to play hard. They could get different formations and sets to neutralize him a little bit, but that gave some of our other players an opportunity to play. I thought Easton Gibbs played one of his best games.”

Muma has received a front-row seat to Gibbs’ evolution this season, whether it be his increased aggression, improved feel for the game or commitment to preparation.

Watching this growth has only fueled the faith the standout linebacker has in his teammate.

“It’s been huge,” Muma said. “He’s doing well in his preparation, and I trust him out there on the field. Anything that comes his way, he’s going to make the play.”

Junior cornerback C.J. Coldon has witnessed a difference, as well.

“(He’s) just bouncing back and being accountable for things that might go wrong on the field,” Coldon said. “He’s persevering and growing as a player and a person, and he’s getting better week-in and week-out. He knows he has to play well and bring it every down.”

While Gibbs’ play throughout the Cowboys’ 4-0 start has spurred optimism, the competition is only going to increase from here on out. With wins over an FCS opponent and three FBS teams with a combined record of 5-11, UW’s strength of schedule ranks among the lowest in the country.

The Pokes won’t have the luxury of easing into conference play, with a showdown looming Saturday against an Air Force team that leads the nation with 367.4 rushing yards per game and 22 touchdowns on the ground.

Gibbs knows that he has plenty of room for improvement, with cleaning up prior mistakes serving as a primary focus during UW’s bye week. But the more he’s out on the field, the more his confidence continues to grow.

“I’m definitely getting more comfortable every game,” Gibbs said. “I have some stuff to clean up, but I’m definitely fitting (in), getting rolling and getting used to playing this much every week.”

Josh Criswell covers the University of Wyoming for WyoSports. He can be reached at jcriswell@wyosports.net or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @criswell_sports.

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