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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 43: Nevada

No team in college football suffered a commensurate drop in production at quarterback from 2010 to last season. And you knew it was coming: Nevada went from Colin Kaepernick – who remains wildly under-recognized – to unknowns, and the offense struggled at times as a result. But there’s good news, and it comes in form of program-best depth under center since 2007, when Kaepernick, a redshirt freshman, was backed up by Nick Graziano, then a sophomore. There’s such depth, in fact, that it came as no surprise when would-be sophomore Mason Magleby opted to transfer in January, before the Wolf Pack even stepped on the field for spring ball. That leaves Chris Ault and Nevada with only four pedigreed options: a returning starter, the most decorated quarterback to come out of Montana in generations, a promising former JUCO transfer and a true freshman purported to have the highest ceiling of them all. Seeing that the Pistol is predicated on quarterback play, Ault has to feel pretty secure about his program’s future on offense.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Reno, Nev.

Nickname
Wolf Pack

Returning starters
13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 53

2011 record
(7-6, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 69

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at California
  • Sept. 8
    U.S.F.
  • Sept. 15
    Northwestern St.
  • Sept. 22
    at Hawaii
  • Sept. 29
    at Texas St.
  • Oct. 6
    Wyoming
  • Oct. 13
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Oct. 20
    S.D.S.U.
  • Oct. 26
    at Air Force
  • Nov. 10
    Fresno St.
  • Nov. 17
    at New Mexico
  • Dec. 1
    Boise St.

Last year’s prediction

Is Nevada going to suffer a massive slide to, say, six wins? Not on your life. The offense is still going to roll, as it has since Ault invented the Pistol back in 2005. Even the defense will be fine, perhaps better than fine if Nevada can maintain its ability to get to the quarterback. But that’s a huge issue: the secondary’s big step forward was done with help from the pass rush, and I wonder if the defensive backfield can keep up its 2010 play without Moch causing havoc off the edge. Is Nevada going to win the WAC? It’s pretty easy to see that happening. Is Nevada going to win eight games? That’s a safe bet. Still, this team isn’t quite as good as last year’s version. But you knew that already. The WAC title comes down to Hawaii and the Wolf Pack.

2011 recap

In a nutshell No one was expecting another 13-win season. But the Wolf Pack finished a disappointing third in a very weak WAC, losing key games down the stretch to Louisiana Tech and Utah State. Nevada was on a six-game winning streak over the Bulldogs, having last lost to Tech in 2004, and had won 12 of 14 over the Aggies dating back to 1992. But it was a transitional year, as suspected, so not taking home the WAC title is fine – just disappointing. The offense took a step back from a school-record 574 points to only 412 points, the program’s fewest since 2006. Part of the slide had to do with a very tough start to the season – Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State over the first four weeks – and the game of musical chairs Ault played at quarterback. The defense also suffered a slight decline, again due to the pieces missing from Nevada’s brilliant 2010 season. Not a terrible year, but I do feel that the Wolf Pack should have won at least eight games.

High point Five straight wins from early October through early November. Not one came over a bowl team, but the offense came alive following a quarterback change, averaging 44.2 points per game against the group of U.N.L.V., New Mexico, Fresno State, Hawaii and New Mexico State.

Low point Back-to-back losses to Louisiana Tech and Utah State. The first loss cost Nevada the WAC title; the second pushed Nevada into third place. And both were there for the taking: Tech scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 24-20 win, and the Wolf Pack held a halftime lead against the Aggies.

Tidbit Ault owns the third-most wins, 226, of any active F.B.S. head coach. Mack Brown squeezed past Ault during bowl play, when he led Texas past California while the Wolf Pack lost to Southern Mississippi – Brown now has 227 career wins. Leading the way is Frank Beamer, who owns a career record of 251-121-4. Ault is the current leader in two categories, however: he has the most wins of any coach at his current stop and the most wins of any active coach serving at his alma mater. At some point this season, Ault will pass Bear Bryant – 232 wins at Alabama – for the most wins by an F.B.S. head coach at his alma mater. That’s something that few will talk about until it actually happens.

Tidbit (Idaho edition) Nevada won’t have Idaho to kick around anymore. To say that the Wolf Pack owned the Vandals over the pair’s final seven encounters doesn’t quite do the series justice; Nevada dominated, controlled, ruled, manhandled Idaho – still, these words fall short of doing the rivalry justice. From 2006-11, Nevada beat Idaho by a combined score of 382-121. That’s an average final score of 54.6-17.3 – a shellacking, in other words. The Wolf Pack averaged 650.0 yards of total offense per game over the pair’s last four meetings, including a school-record 844 yards in a 63-17 win in 2010. Just over the last four games, Nevada has racked up 2,500 yards of total offense. In other words, the Wolf Pack gained 1.42 miles of total offense during their last four meetings against the Vandals. Poor, poor Idaho.

Former players in the N.F.L.

16 S Jonathon Amaya (New Orleans), WR Nate Burleson (Detroit), LB Kaelin Burnett (Oakland), LB Ezra Butler (New Orleans), OG Harvey Dahl (St. Louis), CB Isaiah Frey (Chicago), TE Virgil Green (Denver), LB James-Michael Johnson (Cleveland), QB Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco), LB Brandon Marshall (Jacksonville), WR Rishard Matthews (Miami), LB Josh Mauga (New York Jets), LB Dontay Moch (Cincinnati), DT Brett Roy (New York Jets), WR Tray Session (Oakland), RB Vai Taua (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Baseball players born in Nevada
1. SP Barry Zito.
2. OF Marty Cordova.
3. RP Mike MacDougal.
4. SP Jim Nash.
5. OF Bryce Harper.

Coaching

Chris Ault (Nevada ‘68), 228-104-1 over 27 seasons at Nevada. After more than a quarter-century with the Wolf Pack, Ault had his finest season yet in 2010. Thirteen wins, a school record; a win over Boise State; a high national ranking; a record-setting offense — that season had it all, and stands as the most successful in program history. What Ault has done since returning to the sidelines seven years ago is, yet again, make Nevada a strong, consistent winner. The Wolf Pack are 63-40 since 2004, when Ault returned as the program’s head coach, after posting a sour 19-39 mark from 1999-2003. The only active F.B.S. coach in the College Football Hall of Fame, Ault’s presence as both a coach and athletic director has been a constant at the university for more than 30 years. Ault has served three separate coaching stints with the Wolf Pack: 1976-92, 1994-95 and 2004–present. Each stretch on the sideline has been successful: three Big Sky championships (1986, 1990-91), five co-championships or outright Big West titles (1992, 1994-97) and a WAC co-championship in 2005 and 2010. Overall, Ault has posted six seasons of 11 or more wins, 14 with at least eight and only three losing seasons. Like Troy’s Larry Blakeney, he has led the Nevada program from Division II to Division I-AA to the F.B.S., experiencing success at each level. His latest stint in Reno, which has seen the Wolf Pack in seven straight bowl games, might be his most impressive yet. If the 2010 season did nothing else, it finally gave Ault his spot on the national stage. While Nevada was a disappointment last fall, the program is in no danger of falling off the map once it starts play in the Mountain West.

Tidbit (coaching edition) It’s the same old story: lose three assistants, hire three new assistants, shuffle responsibilities. Shortly after last season, Nevada lost defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Andy Buh to Wisconsin, where he’ll coach only the linebackers, and offensive line coach Cameron Norcross to the same position at Fresno State. Ault also decided not to retain running backs coach Casey Moore, the former Stanford fullback who spent only one season as a full-time member of the Wolf Pack’s staff. Ault promoted safeties coach Mike Bradeson to replace Buh – Bradeson will continue working with Nevada’s safeties. The new offensive line coach is Darren Hiller, who spent the last 10 years in the same position at Arkansas State. The Wolf Pack’s new running backs coach is Larry Lewis, the former Colorado State and Washington assistant; Lewis will also serve as the special teams coordinator.

And for the first time that I can remember – and I think for the first time ever – Ault will not serve as his own offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Instead, that duties will be handed over to former Hawaii coordinator Nick Rolovich. What does this mean? For one, that Nevada might feature the pass more predominately than at any point since the program adopted the Pistol offense in 2005. In addition, this frees Ault up to provide more focus on the defensive side of the ball – though he’ll remain very hands-on with the offense. Ault also shuffled responsibilities among two of his returning assistants. Ken Wilson, the longest-tenured member of Ault’s staff, will move from coaching the defensive ends to working with the linebackers. Instead of focusing solely on the defensive tackles, Barry Sacks will handle the entire defensive line.

Players to watch

There are no questions about sophomore Cody Fajardo’s ability to lead this offense – and lead it well, putting him right alongside Wyoming’s Brett Smith and Fresno State’s David Carr as the best quarterbacks in the Mountain West. One of the best coaching decisions Ault made last fall was naming Tyler Lantrip the starter coming out of fall camp; that meant Lantrip started against Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State, keeping Fajardo out of games that might have permanently damaged his confidence as a redshirt freshman. But Fajardo stepped into the lineup against U.N.L.V. and claimed the starting job outright a week later, throwing for 1,480 yards and rushing for 443 yards over his five starts.

The signs are obvious: Fajardo can play. He’s much more compact than Colin Kaepernick – against whom all future Nevada quarterbacks will be compared – but similarly dangerous on the ground, as well as farther ahead in the process as a passer heading into his sophomore season. Based on Fajardo’s accuracy, in fact, it will be interesting to see how he meshes with Rolovich’s ideas for the passing game; while not a bomber, Fajardo would be a nice fit in a Hawaii-style pass offense predicated on timing. While consistency was an issue last fall, it was an expected byproduct of playing a redshirt freshman quarterback. After playing musical chairs last fall, Nevada seems to have found a starting quarterback for the next three years.

The issue with Fajardo is his durability, or lack thereof. One thing is clear: Nevada can’t rely on him to play every snap – or even in every game, based on last season. That’s where losing Lantrip hurts. While he wasn’t a starter, Lantrip was extremely valuable as a backup; not merely in terms of his experience, but also because he could keep the offense rolling when called upon. So the Wolf Pack need to find a trustworthy backup from sophomore Devin Combs, a former JUCO transfer, and redshirt freshman Tanner Roderick – because I don’t think Ault wants to play either one of his incoming freshmen, Hasaan Henderson and Tyler Stewart.

There’s nothing sillier than worrying about Nevada’s running game – don’t waste your breath. While the Wolf Pack lost their two leading rushers in Lampford Mark and Mike Ball, this is a team with options rising up the ranks; in addition, this offense will be able to rely upon Fajardo to better his freshman totals of 694 yards and a team-best 11 scores. All Ault and Nevada need to do is settle on a starter, even if it’s highly likely that at least two backs earn 100 or more carries. Based on his experience, junior Stefphon Jefferson (429 yards) should be the favorite to nab the starting role heading into September. But the competition is wide open, to put it mildly.

The Wolf Pack will head into fall camp with four backs on an even plane: Jefferson, redshirt freshman Tony Knight and sophomores Nick Hale (105 yards) and Kendall Brock (101 yards). If Jefferson’s the most experienced back on the roster, Knight is certainly the most intriguing. A late addition to Nevada’s 2011 class, Knight was originally headed to N.C. State before enrollment issues sent him west; he’s a big-time prospect with major potential, and should challenge Jefferson for touches throughout the season. No matter how you cut it, Nevada’s running game is going to rank in the top 10 nationally – just as it has in each of the last four years.

The Wolf Pack need to replace four of last season’s top five receivers, led by an all-WAC pick in Rishard Matthews. Therefore, the health of the passing game doesn’t only rely on Fajardo’s development but also the growth and progression of several as-yet untested receivers – not to mention the health of senior Brandon Wimberly, the team’s second leading receiver in 2010. Poised to fill a huge role last fall, Wimberly missed the season after suffering a gunshot wound in the abdomen in June. In the week that followed, the general consensus was that Wimberly’s football career was over. Not quite.

It’s a little too early to predict how his body will fare once Nevada takes the field in September, but Wimberly, who made 41 receptions for 482 yards in 2010, is expected to reclaim his role as the Wolf Pack’s top target in the passing game. If he can regain his prior form, Wimberly would give Fajardo a security blanket amid a receiver corps lacking in prototypical experience. Behind Wimberly, Nevada has sophomores Aaron Bradley (28 catches for 336 yards) and Nach Beard, junior Joe Huber and a handful of incoming freshmen.

One player Nevada won’t have at its disposal in 2012 is JUCO transfer Nigel Westbrooks, who tore his A.C.L. earlier this month. Westbrooks was projected to hold a huge role right from the start. In addition to getting a healthy Wimberly, Nevada also returns senior tight end Zach Sudfeld, who suffered a season-ending injury in last fall’s opener against Oregon. Junior Kolby Arendse (26 for 340) stepped up in Sudfeld’s stead, giving Nevada a pair of very talented options at the position.

Nevada’s offensive line churns out all-conference picks on a conveyor belt, with one starter replacing another and one replacing another until all you’re left with is one hulking, intimidating mob of skilled, ferocious blockers – a Union of linemen, you might say. Despite losing a pair of starters off last year’s group, there’s no reason to expect any decline in production. The Wolf Pack will again bookend the line with senior Jeff Nady and junior Joel Bitonio, with Nady a reigning second-team all-WAC pick. Chris Barker, a first-team all-conference pick – and the best linemen in his new conference – returns at left guard. After serving as the primary reserve last fall, senior Alex Pinto steps in for Steve Haley at right guard. The only area that lacks enviable experience is center, where the Wolf Pack go from the experienced tandem of Jordan Mudge and Jeff Meads to sophomore Matt Galas.

So the offense is going to roll, with its overall potency ultimately decided by how well a young and unproven receiver corps stands up during conference play. The defense, on the other hand, is a work in progress. The Wolf Pack are in the midst of a fairly massive rebuilding project, one that has touched each level of this defense: Nevada lost three starters up front, another two on the second level and the team’s top cornerback – this will test Nevada’s ability to keep teams under wraps throughout this coming season. There are three things to like about this defense, however. One thing is a secondary that retains enough experience to be the best in the Mountain West. The second is Ault’s decision to promote Bradeson from within the staff; he knows the roster, the personnel and the system. The third is the fact that the new Ault, a coach now free from his offensive responsibilities, can held land a hand on the defensive side of the ball.

Last year’s secondary might have been the best in program history. At the very least, this group defended the pass as well as any group in Ault’s second go-round, which began in 2004. While the Wolf Pack lost cornerback Isaiah Frey, a first-team all-WAC pick, there’s enough returning experience to expect similarly effective play from the secondary in 2012. This is a senior-laden group, beginning with strong safety Duke Williams (78 tackles), a second-team all-conference selection last fall. Williams now assumes the leadership mantle, one held by Frey a season ago; he’s more than ready to lead by example, but Williams must also provide some vocal leadership to a team lacking adequate experience along the front seven.

Williams is one of three returning starters in the secondary, joining senior free safety Marlon Johnson (49 tackles, 1 interceptions) and senior cornerback Khalid Wooten (65 tackles, 4 interceptions) – with Williams and Wooten absolute locks for all-M.W.C. accolades. The lone new face in the starting lineup is, yes, another senior: Thaddeus Brown (22 tackles) moves into Frey’s shoes after serving as Nevada’s third cornerback a season ago. Last fall, Nevada made 15 interceptions and allowed quarterbacks to complete only 48.3 percent of their attempts. Those numbers will be hard to duplicate, but don’t look for any major decline – Nevada’s pass defense should remain among the top 25 in the country.

The defensive issues lie in the front seven. I’ll touch on the defensive line, where things get really messy, but the Wolf Pack must also address two significant holes at linebacker. There was one constant over the last two years of Nevada football: James-Michael Johnson would be in the middle and Brandon Marshall on the weak side. With that pair now gone, Nevada will rely heavily on senior strong side linebacker Jeremiah Green (48 tackles, 3 interceptions), the team’s lone returning starter on the second level.

Green’s ready to break out after serving in the background last fall, but it’s going to be nearly impossible for Nevada to match what Johnson and Marshall brought to the table. Here’s what will help, however: a position change and a healthy return from injury. For senior Albert Rosette (29 tackles), moving to linebacker was easy; it was moving to end last fall that was difficult. Rosette, a key cog in the rotation at linebacker as a freshman and sophomore, was moved down to end last fall. He ended up starting most of the season, but will be moved back to middle linebacker as a senior, replacing Johnson. Another senior, DeAndre Boughton, was expected to make a run at a starting job last fall before suffering a season-ending injury during spring drills.

The issues up front loom large, as I’ll touch on below. But the situation along the back seven isn’t as dire as some may believe it to be. For one, the secondary looks like the Mountain West’s best – and it will be the best if Brown can move seamlessly into the starting lineup at cornerback. And while Nevada’s production at linebacker will take a step back, the Wolf Pack are moving forward with three senior starters: one starter from last season, one of last season’s starting ends and a player who likely would have started last fall if not for an injury. There will be seven senior starters along the back seven. This is a very good thing.

Position battle(s) to watch

Defensive line Forget about getting to the quarterback, something Brett Roy and Kaelin Burnett did wonderfully a year ago – especially Roy, a two-time all-WAC pick. Before focusing on the pass rush, Nevada must address its ability to stop the run along the interior of the line. Despite landing some flashy play up front a year ago, the Wolf Pack’s run defense was very unpredictable; this defense would go four weeks with steady results before utterly failing to get key stops, as was the case against Utah State.

Nevada has one sure thing up front in junior Jack Reynoso (24 tackles, 4.0 for loss), who started the first eight games of last season before breaking his leg against New Mexico State. He’s a very nice prospect: Reynoso has rebuilt his frame to better handle the load inside, and was a nice surprise last fall – he didn’t play much as a freshman – before suffering his season-ending injury. Outside of Reynoso, however, Nevada will be relying on a batch of wholly unproven down linemen. Most are sophomores: ends Brock Hekking, Jake Peppard and Tyler Houk and tackle Jordan Hanson, for example. The Wolf Pack also have a few players coming off redshirt seasons, like end Lenny Jones and Rykeem Yates. The problem? While Yates, freshman Reggie Coates – a class of 2011 signing who delayed his enrollment – and Jones had their moments during the spring, not one of this group has achieved anything of note on the college level.

Nevada’s in a tough spot. For one, there’s no way of predicting how these underclassmen deal with vastly increased roles. Perhaps Jones, Peppard or Hekking gives the Wolf Pack some nastiness off the edge; then again, perhaps the Wolf Pack are wholly incapable of getting any pressure with their front whatsoever. And while Nevada will land an influx of talent in August from JUCO transfers Cortez Woods and Shane Pennix – Woods at tackle, Pennix at end – it’s equally difficult to project how each will fare with the move up the ladder. You can take some comfort in Nevada’s depth and experience along the back seven. You cannot do the same with a very unproven defensive front.

Game(s) to watch

Nevada will get a chance to make some national noise early: California to open the year, South Florida at home a week later. Getting a split there would give this team ample confidence heading into the heart of Mountain West play. While several new conference rivals are familiar – Boise State, Hawaii and Fresno State, for starters – Nevada will be taking on new foes in Wyoming, San Diego State and Air Force. Keep this in mind: Nevada gets four of the league’s best six teams at home. Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State and Wyoming come to Reno; the Wolf Pack play Hawaii and Air Force on the road. That will help Nevada make a successful debut in its new conference.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Two years later, Nevada makes another run at Boise State. Can the Wolf Pack pick up where they left out, knocking off a national favorite at home during the season’s final month? I’ll predict one thing: Nevada will be within a game of the Broncos in the conference standings when the two meet in Reno in early December. The reasons to like the Wolf Pack are simple, and most revolve around what should be another top-flight offensive attack. While he needs to prove that he can remain healthy, Fajardo looks like a keeper at quarterback – if he doesn’t miss any extensive time, he should hover around 3,000 yards of total offense with 30 total touchdowns. The offensive line is going to maul teams inside and out of M.W.C. play. While the staff has yet to settle on a lead back, there’s no doubt that Nevada will remain among the most electric running teams in the country. There’s a lack of experience and proven play-making ability at receiver, but that’s not a huge deal: Nevada rolls through the run, for starters, and the passing game doesn’t need flash as much as simple reliability – the Wolf Pack will be fine as long as targets like Wimberly, Bradley and the tight ends catch the ball with consistency.

But the defense is an issue, and it’s the one reason why unlike in 2010, Nevada is not going to make major noise on a national level. My biggest fear is that this weak defensive line offsets the Wolf Pack’s strength – the secondary. The defense has the potential to fall apart at the seams if Bradeson and Ault are forced to bring Williams or the cornerbacks closer to the box to lend run support. That’s the worry with Nevada: that this wonderful offense and promising back seven are waylaid by a very questionable defensive front. By and large, you’re looking at a team with clear nine-win ability. That’s probably the ceiling, given that this defense will likely be unreliable all season, but Nevada has the ability to simple outscore every team on this schedule. Eight wins is the safe bet, but keep an eye on Fajardo and this offense – it could be the best group on the non-B.C.S. conference level.

Dream season Let me know if this sounds familiar. Nevada beats California in September, loses at Hawaii by six points and beats Boise State at home to clinch the conference championship. The Wolf Pack head into bowl play at 11-1, 7-1 in M.W.C. play.

Nightmare season An early injury sidelines Fajardo for much of the season, taking this offense down a peg. The defense does Nevada no favors, ranking among the bottom 20 nationally in all major categories. The Wolf Pack slide into bowl play at 6-6, but the year is a massive disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do Nevada fans congregate? I have plenty of respect for the fans over at Silver and Blue Sports, so click on the link, even if you’re not a fan. If you are, you’ll find a place for solid Nevada chatter. Wolf Pack Chat is another option, though it’s a little troubling to see that the front page of that site features a story about Nevada adding to its 2008 recruiting class.

Nevada’s all-name nominee P Chase Tenpenny.

Word Count

Through 82 teams 323,499.

Up Next

Who is No. 42? Over the last two seasons, tomorrow’s program is 6-6 against F.B.S. competition when gaining at least 395 yards of total offense. This team went 3-2 in such games a year ago and 3-4 in 2010.

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Comments

  1. Cincy says:

    Cincy is next.

  2. DMK says:

    Auburn with a lake?

  3. Jon says:

    Ohio?

  4. David says:

    Tough one. Even with what I thought was a systematic search, I couldn’t figure it out.

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska is next.

  6. Chris says:

    Dominic Galas plays for California. His brother Matt plays for Nevada.

  7. Scott Wallace says:

    34 days to game day

  8. Charlie says:

    Small correction: Derek Carr, not David, is Fresno State’s starting QB.

  9. David says:

    Cincy makes it if you drop to 385 yards instead of 395. Yes, this has been bugging me all day.

  10. seth says:

    LA-tech is next!!

  11. BSmith says:

    According to ESPN post game stats, La Tech is 8-2 in games where they go 395 or more offensive yards in the past two years.

  12. Cincy says:

    Cincy 2011 vs FBS

    395+ Total Offense (3-2)

    W – NC State 503, Miami U. 398, USF 507,
    L – Tennessee 396, WVU 404,

  13. David says:

    Yes, that’s half of it, Cincy. Now show the Bearcats 2010 results in games where they had 395+ yards of total offense.

  14. Cincy says:

    Typo, maybe?

    @Dave

    2010 does make it with the change to 385, but Cincy is still the closest, I think. It’s gotta be a typo.

  15. David says:

    I’ve spent *way* too much time trying to solve this particular puzzle today, it’s causing me to get a little testy. :-)

  16. Daniel says:

    I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of your research, and the assessment of it. This is a must read site. Thanks for the great work.

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