Following a breakout 2020 campaign, Chad Muma isn’t taking his foot off the gas.

The University of Wyoming senior linebacker has made an early case as a top candidate for Mountain West defensive player of the year two games into the season, with his imposing presence on defense remaining a constant throughout an up-and-down start for the Cowboys.

Ask UW players and coaches about what’s impressed them most about Muma this season, and you’re bound to get a different answer from each.

UW coach Craig Bohl says it’s his ability to make plays in space, while junior quarterback Sean Chambers points to his leadership. Senior cornerback Azizi Hearn doesn’t want anyone to forget about his classmate’s work ethic, either.

For Muma, the greatest area of focus has been creating more explosive plays – something that was on full display during a Sept. 11 victory at Northern Illinois, as he returned an interception 23 yard for the Pokes’ first defensive touchdown of the year.

“One of the biggest things I focused on during the off-season was just making more of those explosive plays that can really change the game,” Muma said. “Being able to get that pick last week, that’s something I was working on this offseason. Then also making plays in space and running down the stacks if I’m on a blitz and need to make a tackle down the field.”

Muma even caught himself by surprise during that particular play.

With Northern Illinois running an apparent run-pass option, the Lone Tree, Colorado, product had worked his way down to the line of scrimmage and prepared for a pair of pulling blockers heading his way. Noticing a potential tackle for loss on the way, Huskies quarterback Rocky Lombardi attempted a short pass to his left.

Muma leaped in the air looking to just get a hand on the football and force an incompletion. Instead, the bullet pass hit him right in his outstretched hands, and he proceeded to race untouched to the end zone.

The pick-six drew rave reviews across social media, with Wyoming great and current Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen chiming in on Twitter to say the UW linebacker “is an animal, that is all.”

“I wasn’t expecting the play to come to me at all,” Muma recalled. “I was just fitting and stepping up off the tight end right there. I saw the ball coming so I was thinking, ‘I’m going to jump up and tip it, and maybe get in the way of it.’

“It was right in my hands all of a sudden, so it surprised me a little bit.”

While this moment might take the top spot on Muma’s highlight reel through two games, it’s been far from the only display of his playmaking ability.

He was named the MW defensive player of the week after racking up 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery and a blocked field goal during the Pokes’ season-opening win over Montana State. And after recording 10 more tackles, a tackle for loss and the aforementioned pick-six against NIU, there’s an argument to be made he was snubbed of repeat honors this week.

“I think the biggest thing he’s been able to do has been play out in space a little bit better,” Bohl said. “He’s always been really decisive. Once he sees something, he’s been really aggressive as far as his run key and following through.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger. Very rarely does he miss a tackle, and now when he makes a tackle it’s almost (always) for no gain. But, his out in space ability has improved. He’s improved his ability to break on passes, and he had a nice break with the interception, so I think that’s the biggest area (of improvement) for him.”

Muma is currently tied for second in the country with 16 solo stops, trailing only Oklahoma State linebacker and All-Big 12 honoree Malcolm Rodriguez, who leads the nation with 18. His 21 total tackles rank 15th in the FBS and second in the MW, with his three tackles for loss tied for the most among linebackers in the conference.

Hearn says the growth Muma has displayed since last season, when he ranked among the nation’s top 10 tacklers, stems from the work he’s put in on the practice field and in the film room.

“It’s his preparation,” Hearn said. “He’s always been a hard worker, but you can tell he’s working harder and harder every day. He comes in with the mentality that he’s going to work hard. That’s something you have to do every day, and he really owns it and lives his life that way.

“He’s a hard worker, whether he’s watching film, out on the field at practice, anything. If he wants to do it, he’s going to work hard at it.”

Despite all of Muma’s on-field accomplishments, Chambers points to the veteran linebacker’s leadership as his greatest area of growth this season – something UW has leaned on during back-to-back game-clinching stops.

The Cowboys allowed MSU to move down the field during the final minute of a three-point game, but a trio of heads-up tackles in bounds burned the remaining time off the clock before the Bobcats could get into field goal range. Then, after giving 33 points to the Huskies during the second half, UW held the Huskies to 1-of-7 passing on their final drive, forcing four straight incompletions to escape Northern Illinois with a victory.

For all of the Cowboys’ defensive struggles at times throughout the fourth quarter of recent wins, they’ve done nothing but deliver during crunchtime. There’s no doubt the group’s senior leader has played a vital part.

“Just him becoming the commander out there,” Chambers said. “Everyone rallies behind him. He’s the heart of the defense, and everybody knows that he’s going to be in the right spot. He’s going to make plays, provide energy and be a great leader out there.”

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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