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Nevada football 2020 spring position preview: Special teams

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nevada
Nevada placekicker Brandon Talton celebrates his game-winning field goal against the Purdue Boilermakers
David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

Before I begin, I want to thank every single first responder, doctor, nurse, health professional and every essential worker around Nevada (where I reside) and the United States who are working to help us keep safe and defeat this pandemic. I hope everyone is, and remains safe during these unprecedented times.

Now lets get into it.

Nevada Football is coming off its second consecutive 7-win season. The team also reached back-to-back bowl games for the first time since 2014-15, With spring football postponed for the foreseeable future, we will be breaking down each position group of the 2020 Nevada football team every Monday.

In the final edition of the position preview, we will be previewing the special teams unit.

If you have read each of them, thank you. If you haven’t and want to catch, here’s the list of them!

Previous weeks:

3/30: Quarterbacks

4/6: Running backs

4/13: Wide receivers

4/20: Tight ends

4/27: Offensive Lineman

5/4: Defensive Lineman

5/11: Linebackers

5/18: Defensive backs

Anyone departing?

Quinton Conaway (Punter)

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nevada
Nevada punter Quinton Conaway (35) punts against the Purdue Boilermakers.
David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

Conaway departs as one of the best punters in Nevada history. In three years as Nevada’s punter, Conaway amassed the fourth-most punting yards (7,085) and sports the sixth-best punting average (42.2 avg) in school history. He put together two remarkable seasons in 2018 and 2019. Last year, Conaway punted 61 times for 2,621 yards (43.0 avg). His 2,621 yards are the seventh-most for a single season in school history. Out of his 61 punts, 16 landed inside the 20-yard line and 11 traveled 50-plus yards. In 2018, Conaway punted 62 times for 2,701 yards (43.6 avg) with 18 punts landing inside the 20 and 16 going for 50-plus yards. His punting total of 2,701 yards ranks as the fourth-highest in school history. Conaway made the conference’s All-Mountain West Honorable Mention team in 2018 but failed to crack any All-Mountain West team last season.

Spencer Pettit (Kicker)

UNLV v Nevada
Nevada kicker Spencer Pettit (48) kicks a field goal against the UNLV Rebels.
Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images

Pettit exists Nevada going 15-for-20 (75 percent) in his career on field goal attempts. Spending all four seasons with Nevada, he was the starting kicker in the second half of 2016 and in all of 2017. He appeared in all 12 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2017, going 8-for-11 on field goal attempts with a career-long of 47 yards coming against Toledo. Pettit connected on 40-of-41 PAT attempts, including an 8-for-8 performance versus San Jose State. After the starting job was given to Ramiz Ahmed in 2018, Pettit appeared in three games. He did not attempt a field goal and went 3-for-3 on PAT attempts. As Brandon Talton’s backup last year, Pettit appeared in just one game (against UNLV), going 1-for-1 one PAT attempts.

Karson Thomas (Long Snapper)

Thomas is not currently listed on Nevada’s 2020 roster, despite having two years of eligibility remaining. Thomas made the only two appearances of his Wolf Pack career last year. Thomas, a local product from Wooster High School in Reno, Nev., made Northern 3A honors on the offensive line and honorable mention honors on the defensive line.

Robert Hill (Long Snapper)

Hill, like Thomas, is not listed on the 2020 roster. Hill, a junior last season, appeared in nine games in his first season with Nevada. He also recorded one solo tackle versus San Jose State. Hill spent one season apiece at Tulsa and Georgia prior to his Wolf Pack stint.

Anyone returning?

Brandon Talton (Kicker)

Purdue v Nevada
Brandon Talton (43) kicks the game-winning field goal against Purdue.
Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images

Talton had a tremendous true freshman season with Nevada. He earned the starting job in the last week before Nevada’s season opener versus Purdue. Few knew Talton’s name prior to kickoff, but by the conclusion, everyone knew his name. In just his second career field goal attempt, Talton nailed a game-winning 56-yard field goal at the end of regulation, completing a 17-point Pack comeback in a 34-31 thriller over the Boilermakers.

His 56-yarder was the longest ever by a freshman in Mountain West History and the third-longest field goal in Nevada history. It was also the second-longest field goal on the year from a Mountain West kicker (Jake Koehnke - AFA: 57 yards vs. Utah State). The game-winner capped off a night where Talton booted four PAT’s and two field goals. Just a month after walking-on with the program, head coach Jay Norvell awarded Talton a scholarship after the game.

Talton hit 21-of-25 (84 percent) of his field goal attempts last year — nailing the first 13 of his career. His 21 field goals tied him with Kevin McKelvie (1990) and Tony Zendejas (1981) for the third-most field goals in a single season in school history. He was named to the All-Mountain West second team.

Julian Diaz (Kicker)

In his first year with Nevada last season, Diaz was its kickoff specialist. Appearing in 12 contests, Diaz attempted 56 kickoffs for 3,323 yards (59.3 avg) with 34 touchbacks. Prior to Nevada, Diaz spent two seasons at American River College in Sacramento, Calif. He ranked second in the state in kickoff distance average (61.4 yards). He was 12-for-14 on field goals and 33-for-35 on PAT attempts as a sophomore.

Carson Strong

This one is a wildcard. You might be asking yourself why the starting quarterback is on the special teams list. Since Jay Norvell took over, Nevada quarterbacks (Ty Gangi - 2017-18; Strong - 2019-present) have been called upon sparsely to attempt “pooch” punts dependent on field position. Pooch punts typically occur near midfield or in the opponents’ territory when it’s too far away to attempt a field goal and too close to the opposing endzone for a traditional punt. Last year, Strong pooch punted ten times. He was quite adept at it, with seven landing inside the 20-yard line with just one touchback. Strong averaged 36.9 yards per punt with one travelling 50 yards. Strong punted a career-high four times in his first college start versus Purdue. As the season went on, he wasn’t called upon as often — punting just six times over the final six games.

Eric Fellenzer (Punter)

Fellenzer is Nevada’s lone traditional punter that returns from last year’s team. As a redshirt freshman last year, he did not see the field. A graduate of Dana Hills High School in Laguna Niguel, Calif., Fellenzer averaged 35 yards per punt in his high school career per maxpreps.com. He chose Nevada over Colorado, UNLV, Portland State and UAB.

Austin Ortega (Long snapper)

Ortega is the only long snapper on the Wolf Pack roster. As a redshirt freshman last year, he appeared in three contests. He also tallied one tackle versus Weber State. A graduate of Reagan high School in San Antonio, Texas, Ortega helped lead his team to two district titles. He chose Nevada over Texas State, Baylor, TCU, Houston and Incarnate Wood, among others.

Any new faces?

Charlie Pollock (Punter)

Pollock, a two-star recruit, was ranked as the 13th-punter in the 2020 class per 247Sports. He joins Fellenzer as the only two punters on the roster. A graduate of Walton High School in Marietta, Ga., Pollock averaged 39 yards per punt in his high school career. He earned all-region honors twice and was an honorable mention as a junior.

Here is what Mountain West Connection’s site manager and recruiting guru Mike Wittmann had to say about Pollock in Nevada’s 2020 recruiting breakdown:

“Charlie is coming in as a punter, although he handled both duties in high school. He has a nice, fluid punter motion that gets a lot of hang-time. As his tape shows, Pollock has quite a powerful kick and that should be a real weapon as he continues to develop in college. Scholarship special teamers are not something that happens in every class, especially out of high school, so clearly the talent is there for him. Nevada found quite a steal with their kicker last year, they may be able to do the same with Charlie in this class.”

My Thoughts:

This was one of Nevada’s strongest groups last season. Talton emerged as one of the best kickers in the conference and Conaway delivered another historically season. It’s hard to predict punter performance because it’s a circumstantial position, but even with the loss of Conaway, the punting unit takes a hit. If Nevada sees equal the amount of production from Talton, then that’s a luxury. But even if he can’t replicate last season’s production, the Pack should still have a formidable special teams unit heading into 2020.