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Top-10 returning players for Nevada entering 2021

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Nevada Wolf Pack’s 7-2 run in the COVID-shortened season was sparked by many outstanding performances from key contributors, none bigger than Carson Strong, winning the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year award. A large bulk of the Wolf Pack’s starters return — including 10 starters on offense and nine on defense.

As the preseason favorite to win the West division in the Mountain West next season, they will kick off their 2021 season against the Cal Golden Bears on Sept. 4. As we approach the much-anticipated date, I decided to conduct my second-annual Top-10 returning player list for the Wolf Pack entering the season. Check out last year’s here!

Yes, that won’t include the Wolf Pack’s eight transfers — such as defensive backs Isaiah Essissima, Bentlee Sanders or wideouts Charles Njoku and Marquis Spiker — it added during the offseason.

Let’s jump into it!

Honorable Mentions:

Jacob Gardner, OT

Daiyan Henley, LB

Aaron Frost, OT

BerDale Robins, DB

Nevada v UNLV
Running back Toa Taua #35 of the Nevada Wolf Pack runs against the UNLV Rebels.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

10. Toa Taua, RB

5’9” | 210 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 6

Though Taua had a much better season in 2020 than in 2019, he slipped because of the substantial hit his role took offensively last season. That said, when he was called upon, he produced. The former Mountain West Freshman of the Year award winner rushed for 675 yards on 114 carries (5.9 ypc) with a team-high four touchdowns last season — twice more than the next-most (Devonte Lee - 2). With the assistance of a high-powered passing attack in addition to continuity along the offensive line, Taua is in-line for another productive season in Nevada’s backfield.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Wyoming
Wyoming Cowboys wide receiver Raghib Ismail Jr (17) runs against Nevada Wolf Pack defensive end Sam Hammond (98).
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

9. Sam Hammond, DE

6’5” | 265 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: Honorable Mention

In his first full season of starting opportunity, Hammond flourished. He earned second-team All-Mountain West honors, tallying 32 tackles — three fewer than his 2019 mark in five fewer games — with four sacks and 7.5 tackles-for-loss. Hammond and Dom Peterson are expected to lead a top-5 defensive unit in the Mountain West in 2021.

NCAA Football: Purdue at Nevada
Nevada Wolf Pack wide receiver Elijah Cooks (4) catches a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers.
David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

8. Elijah Cooks, WR

6’4” | 215 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 3

Cooks is one season removed from suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, limiting him to just one half in the COVID-shortened 2020 season. He began practicing with the team in early August when fall camps opened up, which is a good sign. With Romeo Doubs emerging as Nevada’s top target last season, I’m interested to see how often Cooks is utilized. When he is, the 6-foot-4 target is one of the most dangerous threats in the Mountain West. He is one year removed from ranking in the top-10 in the conference in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

New Mexico v Nevada
Brandon Talton #43 of the Nevada Wolf Pack kicks a field goal after a touchdown against the New Mexico Lobos.
Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images

7. Brandon Talton, K

5’9” | 180 lbs. | Junior
Last year’s ranking: 2

A year after his torrid freshman campaign in 2019, Talton led the Mountain West in made field goals (15) at an 83.3 percent clip in nine contests. He was on-pace to convert 20 field-goals in a 12-game regular season, one fewer than his 2019 mark of 21 made field-goals — the third-most in program history. All but one of his field-goal conversions came within 50-plus yards at an 87.5 percent clip. With how potent the offense was, when they were in the red-zone the Wolf Pack had difficulty entering the end-zone at times. They recorded touchdowns on just half their 38 red-zone visits — placing among the bottom-20 programs nationally. If those mishaps linger, Talton should feast in short-range situations and lead the Pack in scoring once again.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 09 Nevada at San Diego State
San Diego State Aztecs tight end Daniel Bellinger (88) fights off Nevada Wolf Pack defensive back Tyson Williams (6).
Photo by Justin Fine/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6. Tyson Williams, S

5’9” | 200 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 7

How many players have racked-up more tackles than Williams over the last two seasons? If you guessed zero, you’re correct. Nevada’s hard-hitting safety has recorded 141 tackles since the start of 2019 (22 games) — 20 more than the next-most (Lawson Hall - 121 tackles) — including 56 last season, nine fewer than Hall. He earned All-Mountain West honorable mention honors last season, tallying two of Nevada’s five interceptions. Williams will be Nevada’s top safety once again entering 2021.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Tulane v Nevada
Linebacker Lawson Hall #30 of the Nevada Wolf Pack attempts to intercept a tipped pass during first half action against the Tulane Green Wave.
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

5. Lawson Hall, LB

6’0” | 235 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 9

Putting Hall above Williams was not an easy decision — though the gap is marginal (if anything). The sixth-year senior commands the middle of the Wolf Pack defense and anchors the front-seven with Dom Peterson. The first-team All-Mountain West honoree led the team in tackles (65) and tackles-for-loss (8.5) with three sacks last season. Expect him to be near the top of the leaderboard and both tackles and tackles-for-loss again in 2021.

Nevada v Hawaii
Cole Turner #19 of the Nevada Wolf Pack jumps to make a reception in the end zone to score a touchdown against Michael Washington #21.
Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

4. Cole Turner, TE

6’6” | 240 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: NR

Have you ever whipped out Madden or NCAA Football (please bring the game back!) and spammed the fade play in any goal line situation? You have? Me too. Nevada did as well, except in real life. It was successful due with Turner’s presence, listed at 6-foot-6. He tallied eight of his nine touchdowns in the red-zone last season; he created the ultimate size mismatch against opposing defensive backs no matter where he was on the field. Turner, who transitioned from wide receiver to tight end last offseason, finished behind Romeo Doubs in receptions (49) and receiving yards (605) — giving Matt Mumme and the Wolf Pack offense a bevy of versatility with their play calling. Just throw the ball up, and he’ll likely catch it.

Nevada v UNLV
Defensive tackle Dom Peterson #99 of the Nevada Wolf Pack sacks quarterback Max Gilliam #6 of the UNLV Rebels.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

3. Dom Peterson, DL

6’0” | 285 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 1

Despite a down season — while battling a midseason ankle injury — Peterson remains the backbone of the Pack’s defensive line. Its success predicates on Peterson’s production, thus fashioning more advantages and potential success for others along the front-four. Seven of Peterson’s 27 total tackles were for loss, adding 4.5 sacks. Don’t forget: Peterson is two years removed from tallying nine sacks, 15.0 tackles-for-loss and two forced fumbles. If he can generate anything close to that, the Wolf Pack defense could become one of the best in the conference.

Nevada v UNLV
Romeo Doubs #7 of the Nevada Wolf Pack is tackled by defensive back Tre Caine #29 of the UNLV Rebels on a 52-yard pass play.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

2. Romeo Doubs, WR

6’2” | 200 lbs. | Senior
Last year’s ranking: 4

Carson Strong has rightfully received all the preseason and pre-draft hype; that said, Doubs deserves some, too. Due to Cooks’ injury last season, Doubs’ role was magnified as the top-target. He was the Mountain West’s only 1,000-yard receiver, adding a team-high 58 catches and tied Turner for a team-high nine touchdowns. He and Strong lead Nevada’s high-powered offense, which arguably ranks atop the conference entering 2021.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Tulane v Nevada
Carson Strong #12 of the Nevada Wolf Pack passes the ball during second half action against the Tulane Green Wave at the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

1. Carson Strong, QB

6’4” | 215 lbs. | Junior
Last year’s ranking: 10

Though it might’ve been a fair placement at the time, I’m not making the same mistake twice. It helps that Strong’s the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year Award, too. The hype is real.