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Nevada Football 2021 Season Preview

NCAA Football: Idaho Potato Bowl-Ohio vs Nevada Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

Nevada football season is rapidly approaching!

The Wolf Pack’s fall camp began late last week with their eyes on their first Mountain West Title in program history.

They shot out of a (Fremont) cannon last year, notching wins in their first six games before falling to Hawai’i, 24-21.

Nevada finished the season 7-2, winning the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl 38-27 against Tulane. It returns plenty of experience and firepower to make another run at the title in 2021 — perhaps its best shot. One might pose the question: If Nevada doesn’t win this year, when will it?

That’s another separate segment for another article.

Below, I preview the 2021 outlook for the Nevada football season — looking at its schedule, previewing its offensive and defensive, as well as posing three burning questions!

Let’s get into it!

What is Nevada’s schedule?

Nevada Football 2021 Schedule

Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Date: Opponent: TV: Time (all time PT)
Sept. 4 at California FS1 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 11 vs. Idaho State TBA TBA
Sept. 18 at Kansas State ESPN+ 11:05 a.m.
Sept. 25 BYE ---------
Oct. 2 at Boise State Fox Networks (specifics not yet announced) TBA
Oct. 9 vs. New Mexico State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 16 vs. Hawai'i CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 23 at Fresno State Fox Networks TBA
Oct. 29 vs. UNLV CBS Sports Network 7 p.m.
Nov. 6 vs. San Jose State Fox Networks TBA
Nov. 13 at San Diego State CBS Sports Network 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Air Force FS1 6/7/7:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 at Colorado State CBS Sports Network 6 p.m.

After an eight-game regular season in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, Nevada will play a full 12-game schedule!

It will play four non-conference opponents in its first five games — the lone Mountain West matchup coming against Boise State.

After that five-game stretch, the Pack will play four of their seven final games at home against Mountain West opponents.

Nevada went 6-2 in-conference in 2020.

Let’s dive into the roster!

Nevada on offense:

Carson Strong, who is returning from offseason knee surgery, looks to re-establish his candidacy as the Mountain West’s top quarterback. He’s also receiving serious pre-draft hype for the 2022 NFL Draft, if he chooses to declare.

The reigning Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year threw for 2,858 yards, 27 touchdown and four interceptions, completing 70.1 percent of his attempts. He led the conference in completion percentage, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions (249) and pass efficiency rating (160.6).

Nevada v Hawaii Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Strong leads one of the most high-powered offenses, which returns 10 of its 11 starters, in the Mountain West. A year ago, the Pack ranked in the top-3 in the conference in passing offense (319.1 ypg; 2nd), total offense (441.4; 2nd) and scoring offense (30.8 ppg; 3rd).

The Wolf Pack ranked among the top-25 nationally in pass plays of 30-plus yards (19), 40-plus yards (12), 50-plus yards (9) and 60-plus yards (3).

Strong’s connection with star wideout Romeo Doubs was the main catalyst for Nevada’s “Pack Attack”.

Doubs sported conference-mosts in receptions (58), yards (1,002) and tied teammate Cole Turner for the most receiving touchdowns (9). He was the Mountain West’s only 1,000-yard receiver and Nevada’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Rishard Matthews tallied 1,364 yards — the 6th-most in program history — in 2011.

Elijah Cooks, who was limited to just one-half of play in 2020, also returns.

Cooks was the team’s top receiver — and, frankly, one of the team’s best players — entering 2020. He suffered a shoulder-injury in the season-opener versus Wyoming, undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery soon thereafter.

The 6-foot-4 target is two seasons removed from topping the Wolf Pack in receptions (76), receiving yards (926) and receiving touchdowns (8) — each figure placing in the top-10 in the conference.

Turner led Nevada’s newfound surge tight end utilization in the passing game, which it didn’t do in previous seasons under Matt Mumme, who’s been with the program in 2017.

Nevada v Hawaii
Cole Turner #19 of the Nevada Wolf Pack makes a catch and look to get past Michael Washington #21 of the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

Turner was one of the most productive tight ends in the conference last season, especially in the red-zone; eight of his nine scores came from such area. His career year featured 49 catches for 605 yards.

In addition to the Doubs-Cooks-Turner three-headed monster, the Pack also return slot receiver Melquan Stovall. He finished third on the team in catches with 33 for 250 yards, in addition to Justin Lockhart and Tory Horton, who put together strong contributions.

Spoiler alert: Strong has an abundance of mouths to feed on the outside in 2021; barring injury, Nevada won’t be short for capable receiving options.

Nevada returns its top two tailbacks in Toa Taua and Devonte Lee.

After a down 2019, Taua bounced back last season, tallying 675 rushing yards on 114 carries (5.9 ypc) with four touchdowns, adding 31 catches for 214 yards and a score. Lee recorded 82 carries for 427 yards and two touchdowns.

Combined, the two averaged a very formidable 5.6 yards per attempt. The lack of touches stem from its reduced run frequency due to its tremendous success through the air: In 2020, Nevada ran the rock just 40.3 percent of the time, noticeably lower than its 45.1 percent mark in 2019 and 45.3 percent mark in 2018.

The Wolf Pack return all but one starter to their offensive line — formally known as “The Union” — entering 2021, led by captain Jermaine Ledbetter and seniors Tyler Orsini and Aaron Frost.

Nevada on defense:

They didn’t generate as much havoc or create as many turnovers as expected, but the Wolf Pack defense held their own last season.

They ranked No. 7 in the Mountain West in total defense (377.7 ypg), No. 6 in rushing defense (138.1 ypg) and in the top-5 in scoring defense (23.3 ppg).

Nevada was middle-of-the-pack in first downs surrendered (20.0 per game; T-7 most) while boasting the conference’s fourth-best red-zone defense — opponents scoring (including field goals) just 77.4 percent of the time.

The Wolf Pack defense begins up-front with two-time All-Conference defensive lineman Dom Peterson, plus All-Conference defensive end Sam Hammond.

Nevada v UNLV
Quarterback Max Gilliam #6 of the UNLV Rebels runs against defensive tackle Dom Peterson #99 of the Nevada Wolf Pack.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Peterson tallied a team-high 4.5 sacks last year, adding 7.0 tackles-for-loss and 27 total tackles. Hammond registered 7.5 tackles-for-loss with four sacks and 32 tackles.

Both Peterson and Hammond made All-Mountain West second team last season.

They are joined by nose tackle Zak Mahannah — who had 14 tackles, two tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 2.5 sacks — and defensive end Kameron Toomer, who tallied 29 tackles with three tackles-for-loss and a sack.

The team’s top tackler, Lawson Hall, returns. Hall, who mans the middle linebacker spot, led the team with 65 tackles last season. He added a team-most 8.5 tackles-for-loss with three sacks.

Nevada runs a two-base linebacker scheme with its dime secondary package. Its lone linebacker spot is shared by Lamin Touray and Daiyan Henley.

Henley was third on the team in tackles with 49 and Henley was sixth, so both will see ample opportunity at the spot.

Nevada’s secondary is led by All-Conference honorees BerDale Robins and Tyson Williams.

Robins, the team’s top cornerback, tallied 27 tackles with one fumble recovery, one interception and five pass breakups last year. Williams was second on the team with 56 tackles, adding two interceptions and one forced fumble.

Transfers Isaiah Essissima, Bentlee Sanders and Chad Brown join the mix.

Essissima, a transfer from Wake Forest, didn’t record a stat his six games in 2020. As a true freshman in 2019, he had six tackles in 10 games.

Sanders, a transfer from South Florida, tallied 25 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, two pass breakups with one pick-six against Houston. In 2019, the 5-foot-9 defensive back registered 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, one interception and a team-high two forced fumbles.

Brown transferred to UCF last October before re-entering the portal in spring, eventually transferring to Nevada in May. His collegiate career began at Fresno City Community College — where he spent the 2019 season prior to the 2020 season got cancelled due to COVID-19. He tallied 24 tackles with six interceptions, a remarkable feat, in 2019.

Who returned for another senior season?

It was voted upon by the NCAA last fall that fall and winter athletes gained an additional year of eligibility. Thus, it allowed for any senior in the 2020 season to return for one more additional season.

The Wolf Pack have nearly a dozen “super-seniors” returning. Here’s a list of who they are:

  1. Elijah Cooks, WR
  2. Julian Diaz, P
  3. Lawson Hall, LB
  4. Sam Hammond, DE
  5. Jermaine Ledbetter, OL
  6. Zak Mahannah, DT
  7. Tristan Nichols, DT
  8. Tyler Orsini, OL
  9. Reagan Roberson, TE
  10. BerDale Robins, CB
  11. Kameron Toomer, DE

Three burning questions I have:

1. Can Strong put together another successful season?

There is some ambiguity that rests within the question: What is considered “successful”?

Strong was on-pace for approximately 3,811 yards with 36 touchdowns and five interceptions. That shouldn’t be a bench mark for a successful season, though it certainly is one in itself.

Predicating that he remains healthy the entire season, if Strong can post numbers anywhere near 3,000-plus yards and 30-plus touchdowns while limiting turnovers, then it should be considered a success.

All this factors in a tougher schedule with more than just nine games under his belt. If Nevada makes the Mountain West title game, that number balloons to 14 — assuming it accepts a bowl invite (why wouldn’t it?) — bumping his final statistical profile.

This is largely the same Pack offense it had last season. I’d be remiss to mention that it might not be able to rely on the deep ball as much this season because opponents will gameplan for it. However, with as many options as Strong has — with Cooks returning in addition to Doubs, Turner, Lockhart, Horton and Stovall — he should still be in-line for another largely successful 2021 campaign.

2. How much will the non-conference schedule flummox Nevada?

As I noted above, the schedule is different compared to its COVID-shortened 2020 season. Non-conference football is back!

Due to the Mountain West’s scheduling restrictions, Nevada didn’t play a non-conference game last season. In fact, multiple COVID-19 restrictions throughout the season led to Nevada playing out-of-state just twice, going 1-1 in such outings.

This year, its non-conference schedule features two road Power-5 foes: California and Kansas State. Both should be good litmus tests for this experienced squad, who didn’t encounter any comparable test at this magnitude a year ago.

With as much firepower this offense possesses, the Wolf Pack splitting the two is well within the realm of possibility. Its other two non-conference foes — home contests against Idaho State and New Mexico State — should be chalked up as wins, though anything is possible in this sport.

Going 3-1 against those four should be considered (not counted) another win in Nevada’s book.

3. Can the re-vamped secondary continue to hold up?

Losing EJ Muhammad — who was granted a sixth-year of eligibility because of a previous injury last season — stings.

But Jay Norvell supplemented the secondary, which posted the Mountain West’s fourth-best pass defense efficiency (127.4), with three transfers.

With its manageable non-conference schedule paired with challenging conference matchups against Boise State (road), Hawai’i (home), Fresno State (road) and San Jose State (home) foes, its biggest question-mark defensively lies within the secondary's performance.

It’s unquestionably an experienced group. But the question poses on whether this personnel will completely mesh together — especially in favorable down-and-distance situations.

The Wolf Pack ranked last in opponent’s pass plays of 10-plus yards (82), second-worst in opponent’s pass plays of 20-plus yards (29) and third-worst in pass plays of 30-plus yards (6).

If they can limit favorable opportunities thru the air with its re-vamped secondary, they will go far. Very far. The team’s performance isn’t contingent on just the secondary’s performance, though it will be a big part of the defensive’s performance, especially if the front-four still can’t get home on pass plays.