Welcome to the Mountain West!
This would not be earth-shaking news at most college football locales but it certainly is a headliner in Reno, where the Nevada Wolf Pack have escaped the burning building that is the WAC and finally landed in their long-term destination of the MWC. Where, among other things, the Pack will be reunited with sister school UNLV in the southern part of the state.
Indeed, for the Nevada athletic program, affiliation with the Mountain West is akin to hitting a jackpot at one of the slots at the nearby Silver Legacy or Harrah’s.
The Pack seems to have picked a good year to make the jump to the MWC where it is also being joined by another couple of former WAC refugees, Fresno State and Hawaii. With TCU leaving for the Big XII and Boise State looking at significant graduation depletion before it heads (supposedly) for the Big East next year, the Mountain West race looks wide open, and Nevada can feel justifiably confident that it has a chance to steal the league crown in its first trip around the new track.
Of course, the Wolf Pack is going to feel pretty confident in whatever league it plays as long as “The Little General” himself, coach Chris Ault, is still stalking the sidelines. Ault, who had already been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame before he took over the Nevada program for a third time in 2004, has again resurrected the Pack to the point where they are now bowl regulars, having competed in the postseason for seven straight seasons. Not to mention occasionally making noise in the national rankings, as was the case two years ago when the Pack fashioned a 13-1 mark and finished ranked 11th in the final polls.
Although we suggest that Nevada backers enjoy Ault while they can, as regional insiders are suggesting that The Little General might only have a couple of years to go before hanging ‘em up for good. Replacing Ault has already proven to be a tricky exercise two previous times, when Ault temporarily hung up the coaching whistle to concentrate on AD duties at the school. But Ault, who has been in Reno almost all of his adult life after starring as a Wolf Pack QB in the ‘60s, and was named Nevada’s head coach for the first time in 1976 when just 29 years of age, is not going to be coaching forever.
Ault, however, has always made the most of his situation, and the Pack is hardly outgunned as it enters its new league this fall. Ault’s pet “Pistol” formation, which has been copied by a variety of coaches around the country, continues to churn out big numbers for annually-explosive Nevada offenses that consistently rank among the top rushing and scoring teams in the nation.
Nevada ranked sixth nationally in total offense (507 ypg) and eighth in rushing offense (248 ypg) while scoring a hefty 32 ppg in 2011. We doubt much changes in all regards this fall.
Although the Wolf Pack regressed a bit a year ago from the Colin Kaepernick-led side that finished 13-1 in 2010, Nevada still got back to the postseason on the heels of a 7-5 regular-season mark prior to a bitter 24-17 loss to Southern Miss in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, and many key elements return to the Nevada mix.
Importantly, Ault discovered a viable heir apparent at QB to the prolific Kaepernick when then RS-frosh QB Cody Fajardo burst open the scene last fall, taking over for senior Tyler Lantrip as the starter at midseason and immediately proving a perfect fit for the Pistol when he rushing for 694 yards and 11 TDs while passing for another 1707 yards (and 69% completions).
Expect the exciting Fajardo to post even bigger numbers in 2012, although it’s worth noting that Pistol QBs are expected to take much punishment (which, in retrospect, made Kaepernick’s durability even harder to comprehend), and Fajardo was temporarily KO’d late last season. That is why Ault took a careful look at his backup QBs, neither of whom had taken a college snap, in spring. But RS frosh Tanner Roderick and juco addition Devin Combs appear to have plenty of intriguing upside should either be called upon if Fajardo goes down at some point this fall.
Ault has been plugging in varieties of different RBs to his Pistol since first installed in 2005, and we hardly believe the departure of last year’s top two rushers Lampford Mark and Mike Ball (who combined for over 1600 rush yards in 2011) is going to slow the attack. Junior Stefphon Jefferson (6.1 ypc last year) has been anxiously awaiting his turn in line the past couple of years, and regional sources say soph pinball Kendall Brock and punishing 225-lb. RS frosh Tony Knight, a legit pile-driver, should forge another seamless transition to a new set of Nevada runners.
The Pistol figures to get a few new wrinkles this fall with the addition of offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, not long ago a productive QB for June Jones at Hawaii and most recently the coordinator for Red Gun attacks on the islands for HC Greg McMackin, who was forced out in Honolulu after last season. Rolovich figures to add a few more aerial tricks to the offensive package without altering the Pistol’s focus upon the infantry.
As usual, another experienced well-coordinated 'The Union' OL should open up holes for a variety of backs and keep Fajardo fairly well-protected, although Ault and Rolovich spent spring closely monitoring the development of soph C Matt Galas, quick but a bit undersized at 275 pounds and taking the place of graduated starter Jordan Mudge. Three seniors, including an obliterating left side of the line featuring T Jeff Nady and G Jeff Barker, plus RG Alex Pinto, provide the veteran leadership up front, while MWC sources believe soph T Kyle Roberts could eventually be the best of the bunch.
Expect Fajardo to far surpass the six TD passes he threw a year ago, especially since WR Brandon Wimberly, considered an NFL prospect before a suffering a life-threatening gunshot wound early in 2011, is now back in the fold. If back near 100 percent, the 6-foot-3, 210-lb. Wimberly (with 94 career catches) could emerge as a field-stretching threat. The emergence of soph Aaron Bradley (28 catches as a frosh) as 2011 progressed as a secondary-distorting threat bodes well for Fajardo and the aerial games.
Meanwhile, the kicking game uncovered a surprise contributor last fall in walk-on Allen Hardison, an Orange County, Ca. product who displayed a strong leg when hitting 8-of-11 FGs after first-stringer Anthony Martinez went down with a leg injury.
Although Ault’s defense usually lags behind his offense, there have been several impact players populating the Wolf Pack stop unit in recent years, and a few of those were among Nevada’s record four picks in last April’s NFL Draft (LB James-Michael Johnson by the Browns in the 4th round, LB Brandon Marshall by the Jags in the 5th round, and CB Isaiah Frey by the Bears in the 6th round; DE Brett Roy was a FA signee by the Jets).
With much of last year’s stop unit spending the summer in NFL camps, the pressure is on defensive coordinator Mike Bradeson to fill in an uncommon number of high-profile gaps on defense.
The main area of concern is along the DL, where the graduated Roy provided much of the pass rush last year. MWC scouts do say that the new-look line is loaded with athleticism, however, with 270-lb. RS frosh DT Rykeem Yates and juco DE Tyler Houk most impressive in spring work. An all-senior LB corps should feature plenty of pressure from the edge with last year’s juco find Jeremiah Green and DeAndre Broughton, who missed all of 2011 with a broken leg.
The strength of the platoon is likely to be in a veteran secondary that features honors candidates in hard-hitting senior SS Duke Williams, who recorded 83 tackles a year ago, and CB Khalid Wooten. Remember, the Pack allowed only 48 percent completions in 2011 and ranked near the middle of national pass defense stats after placing 98th the previous year. As with the LB corps, Bradeson likely employs an all-senior secondary for the opener at Berkeley.
Pointspread-wise, Ault’s teams have historically been a good bully at home, but inflated numbers (a carryover from the Kaepernick years) have made overcoming those hefty imposts a bit harder the past two seasons. The Pack, which was 19-4 for Ault as Mackay Stadium chalk from 2004-09, is only 5-6 as a favorite in Reno the past two years.
Summary: Nevada has emerged as one of the nation’s most-exciting and entertaining teams over the past several years and we see no reason that should change with the Pack’s move into the Mountain West this fall. Fajardo is likely to post Kaepernick-like numbers (at least 1000 YR and 2000 YP) if he stays healthy, and the Pistol should again post eye-popping stats.
How soon some new playmakers emerge on the stop unit (especially within the front four) should determine if Nevada can contend for a conference title in its first trip around the Mountain West track. Even if falling short of that goal, expect Ault’s Wolf Pack to make an eighth straight bowl appearance in December.
Follow Bruce Marshall's college football previews throughout the summer here at Don Best Sports: Boise State ... Brigham Young ... Florida State ... Nevada ... Penn State ... Stanford ... Washington State