With the conclusion of the 2020 college football season (that almost didn’t happen), let’s reflect on what took place.
In a truncated eight-game regular season and a second-consecutive Famous Idaho Bowl Appearance, the Nevada Wolf Pack finished 7-2, including five straight victories to begin the season by combined 58 points.
The Pack were one of the highest scoring teams in the Mountain West — tallying 30.8 points per game. It featured the 12th-best passing attack in the country (319.1 ypg), led by quarterback and Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year Carson Strong.
Let’s deep dive into the season review, and what’s next among the positions on the offensive side of the football.
- Carson Strong: 249-for-355 (70.1 percent), 2,858 yards, 27 TDs, 4 INTs
In hindsight, how ridiculous am I to have had Strong as my 10th best player heading into 2020? In a breakout sophomore season, Strong emerged as the best quarterback in the Mountain West this season. Strong led the conference in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, while finishing second in passer rating and yards per game. The Pack passing attack was explosive — totaling 12 plays of 40-plus yards, nine of 50-plus and three of 60-plus. Strong was the first underclassman in Mountain West history to win the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award after his miraculous season.
Strong announced that he would not declare for the draft earlier this month. Barring an offseason injury, Strong will begin 2021 as the starting quarterback and the conference’s best quarterback. There shouldn’t be any changes there.
- Toa Taua: 144 car., 675 yards (5.9 ypc), 4 TDs; 31 rec., 214 yards, 1 TD
- Devonte Lee: 82 car., 427 yards (5.2 ypc), 2 TDs; 17 rec., 96 yards
- Avery Morrow: 12 car., 76 yards, 1 TD; 4 rec., 13 yards
Though Nevada did not run as often in 2020 — running on 40.3 percent of its plays in 2020 compared to 45.6 percent in 2019 — the running backs were far more effective. The team averaged 0.9 more yards per carry than it did in 2019. Taua had just 807 rushing yards in 2019; he nearly surpassed that mark in five fewer games in 2020, averaging nearly two yards per carry more. Despite recording five fewer touchdowns, Lee produced more yards per touch with an increased load — solidifying himself as a true No. 2 tailback. Both tailbacks were oftentimes utilized in the wildcat on short-yardage situations. Morrow, a true freshman, occasionally saw snaps and could see an increased load in 2021 when he gets healthy.
Barring any transfers, the three tailbacks should return to fulfill similar roles heading into 2021. Morrow, who got hurt in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl versus Tulane, received offseason surgery on his leg earlier this month and will be out for several months.
- Romeo Doubs: 57 rec., 994 yards, 9 TDs
- Justin Lockhart: 27 rec., 241 yards, 2 TDs
- Melquan Stovall: 33 rec., 250 yards, 2 TDs
- Tory Horton: 20 rec., 333 yards, 5 TDs
You might be asking, “Where is Cole Turner?” Well, I’m glad you’re potentially asking that through whatever device you’re reading this on. Though Turner was the Pack’s second-best receiving option this year, he technically transitioned from wide receiver to tight end prior to the start of the 2020 season — so he is under that positional category (see below). This was Nevada’s deepest position in 2020 and one of the deepest it has had in recent memory. Doubs was the best receiver in the conference, finishing atop the Mountain West in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Though he did regress to the mean later in the season, Doubs recorded five consecutive 100-yard-one touchdown performances to begin the year (he had zero of each in the final four games). Horton, a true freshman in 2020, put together big numbers in the beginning and end of the season. Lockhart began the year strong, but finished the final four games with one 23-yard touchdown against Tulane. Stovall became a reliable option out of the slot as the season took its course. In terms of reliability and depth, this was the best group the Pack had in 2020.
The embarrassment of riches should be getting even richer next year. After undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery and missing the final eight games of the season, star receiver Elijah Cooks will make his return as arguably Nevada’s No. 1 wideout. Cooks totaled 76 receptions for 926 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019 — all team highs. The thought of Cooks and Doubs on the outside with Turner, Stovall and Horton is a terrifying thought for opposing secondaries. Pick your poison, because at least one is almost guaranteed to beat you. Strong will have plenty of mouths to feed next season.
- Cole Turner: 49 rec., 505 yards, 9 TDs
Turner, who converted from wide receiver to tight end in the offseason, flourished as Nevada’s No. 2 target behind Doubs. He finished top-5 in the Mountain West in catches, receiving yards and tied with Doubs for the most receiving touchdowns. Turner proved to be Nevada’s top safety valve on third down, routinely puncturing zone defenses in the middle of the field. In third down situations, he totaled 12 catches for 205 yards and picked up eight first downs — including eight catches for 158 yards on third downs with 10 or more yards to go. He also proved to be Nevada’s top red zone target, totaling a team-most eight of his nine scores in such territory.
Turner is expected to return next season, along with Reagan Roberson (who was a senior in 2020). Tight end Henry Ikahihifo entered the transfer portal earlier in the offseason after recording just one catch for ten yards in 2020 and six for 27 in 2019.
- LT: Jacob Gardner
- LG: Jermaine Ledbetter
- C: Tyler Orsini
- RG: Nate Brown
- RT: Aaron Frost
The offensive line, also known as “the Union”, was much improved from its lousy 2019 season. It was no secret that the Pack threw the ball more in 2020 than in 2019 — throwing the ball over five percentage points more over its total assortment of plays. The Union surrendered just 2.2 sacks per game, down from its 2.5 it allowed in 2019; It gave up over one fewer tackle-for-loss per contest (6.4 in 2020; 7.5 in 2019) as well. The team rushed for more yards per attempt (4.3 in 2020; 3.4 in 2019) in large part due to the offensive line creating better creases to run through. I’d be remiss to mention that even with the abrupt retirement of left tackle Miles Beach just weeks before the season began, true freshman Jacob Gardner did a superb job fortifying the left tackle position. In total, the Union placed No. 55 in the Pro Football Focus’ offensive line rankings after ranking among the 10 worst offensive lines the year prior.
The Pack will return four of its five starting offensive lineman heading into next season, with Brown graduating. Two seniors — Orsini and Ledbetter, a team captain — will return for another year of eligibility and fortify the interior of the offensive line. Gardner, who was thrown into the fire due to Beach’s departure, performed well and will look to protect Strong’s blindside next year. Frost will hold down the right tackle spot. Perhaps Zac Welsh or Gray Davis slide into the right guard positions? We will have a better grasp once training camp begins, but this group looks to build upon its continuity heading into 2021.