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Nevada Football: Analyzing the depth chart

Nevada v UNLV Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Nevada Wolf Pack, scheduled for a Week 1 showdown against the Cal Golden Bears on Sept. 4, released its first official depth chart Monday. Let’s dive into it!

Quarterback:

Starter: Carson Strong

Second-stringer: Nate Cox

Other backups: Nate Barlage, Hamish McClure, Jonah Chong

Strong is arguably the Mountain West’s best quarterback entering the year, garnering plenty of pre-NFL draft hype. Though coming off offseason knee surgery and began practicing in mid-August, Strong’s the favorite to repeat as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. He is the most integral source of production for the Wolf Pack offense; they will go as he goes. The junior gun slinger led the Mountain West in passing yards (2,858), touchdowns (27) and completion percentage (70.1), tossing just four interceptions. He will be up against a good Cal defense led by Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng, who look to mitigate the damage that Strong ever so often inflicted last year.

Running Backs:

Starter: Toa Taua or Devonte Lee

Second-stringer: The other of Taua/Lee

Other backups: Avery Morrow (coming off injury), Wesley Kommer, Terrell Johnson, Ty Collins, Jacques Badolato-Birdsell

Taua’s the most likely candidate to be on the field for the team’s first snap, but the duties between the two workhorses will likely be distributed 60-40. Taua saw his greatest yards per attempt (5.9), largely attributed to better run blocking coupled with Nevada’s dominant downfield attack in 11 or 10 personnel. Lee was Nevada’s best option in short-yardage scenarios, especially in Wildcat packages. Though touches became more sparse in 2020 than in 2018-19, the Wolf Pack run more than traditional air-raid attacks. So if the offensive line play holds up, look for the dynamic duo to fashion productive seasons once again in 2021.

Wide Receivers:

Starters: Romeo Doubs (WR-X), Elijah Cooks (WR-Z), Melquan Stovall (slot)

Other Backups: Tory Horton, Jamaal Bell, Justin Lockhart, Carson Walters, Tyrese Mack, Jeremiah Gradowitz

The wide receiver room is unquestionably Nevada’s deepest unit and is arguably the conference’s best receiving core. Cooks, Nevada’s top wideout in 2019, returns after he was limited to just one half before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his season. Though Doubs leaped Cooks as the Wolf Pack’s top wideout, becoming the conference’s only 1000-yard receiver last year. Doubs routinely punctured secondaries down the field and is a tremendous after-the-catch threat — though the success was mainly felt in the first five games of the season. He, as well as Cooks and Stovall, will be at the top of scouting reports this year. The Pack have a litany of other capable targets — including Horton, Bell and Lockhart. Strong will have no shortage of options to throw to this upcoming season.

Tight end:

Starter: Cole Turner

Second-stringer: Reagan Roberson

Other Backups: Carlton Brown, Evidence Njoku

After transitioning from wideout to tight end last spring, Turner shot out of a cannon. Behind Doubs, Turner was Strong’s second-most reliable option — especially on third down and in the red-zone. The 6-foot-6 target can line up anywhere on the field and become a downfield threat with stout athleticism. His backup, Roberson, is the Wolf Pack’s best blocking tight end and will be featured in short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Right Tackle:

Starter: Aaron Frost

Second-stringer: Moses Landis

Frost is the Wolf Pack’s best offensive lineman, showcasing physicality in both the run and pass. He could be in-line for an All-Mountain West first team berth in 2021. Landis, who’s played in seven collegiate games in two seasons, isn’t bad insurance behind Frost.

Right Guard:

Starter: Drew Cannon

Second-stringer: Gray Davis

Right guard is the only position that does not return a starter from last year’s team with Nate Brown graduating. Cannon — who previously played at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas, for two seasons — redshirted last season.

Center:

Starter: Tyler Orsini

Second-stringer: Moses Landis

Orsini has more than held his own at center across the last two seasons. The former Ventura College transfer was named to the All-Mountain West Honorable Mention team and should hold down the fort up the middle again this year.

Left Guard:

Starter: Jermaine Ledbetter

Second-stringer: Trey Hamilton

Ledbetter was nominated as Nevada’s team captain for the second-straight season. Ledbetter was named to the All-Mountain West honorable mention team last year and was one of Nevada’s best pass blockers on its roster. He’s expected to have another quality season protecting Strong.

Left Tackle:

Starter: Jacob Gardner

Second-stringer: Grant Starck

In the days leading up to Nevada’s season-opener against Wyoming last season, the left tackle position was in flux. Miles Beach, its starting left tackle at the time, retired from football 10 days prior to the Wolf Pack’s first game. Then-freshman Jacob Gardner stepped in and didn’t miss a beat, anchoring down Strong’s blind side. The All-Mountain West honorable mention honoree is expected to take another sizeable leap in 2021 and will have his hands full with Goode in Week 1.

Defensive Tackles:

Starters: Dom Peterson, Zak Mahannah (NT)

Second-stringers: Amir Johnson, Christopher Love

Peterson is Nevada’s primary 3-tech linemen, while Mahannah holds down the nose tackle. Peterson is the Wolf Pack’s engine up-front. Last year, he battled a midseason ankle injury that ultimately limited his production after coming off a season with 15.0 tackles-for-loss and nine sacks. Mahannah started all eight of Nevada’s regular season contests, tallying 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two tackles-for-loss.

Defensive Ends:

Starters: Sam Hammond, Kameron Toomer

Second-stringers: Daniel Grzesiak, Jack Powers

Hammond had his first real season of starting opportunity last season, putting together a strong campaign on the outside. Hammond was a second-team All-Conference lineman, registering four sacks with 7.5 tackles-for-loss in addition to 32 tackles. He and Peterson are the Wolf Pack’s two strongest pass rushers. Hammond’s cohort, Toomer, also had a very productive year, tallying 29 tackles with one sack and a fumble recovery.

Linebackers:

Starters: Lawson Hall and Lamin Touray or Daiyan Henley

Second-stringers: The other between Touray/Henley, Josiah Bradley, Naki Mateialona, Trevor Price

The “or” in this scenario applies to Touray and Henley, two of Nevada’s top six tacklers from a year ago. Hall, the team’s top tackler, has locked up the MIKE linebacker spot, with Touray and Henley splitting duties in Brian Ward’s two-base linebacker scheme. Both Touray and Henley are athletic presences with a nose for the football. Both could potentially put together fruitful campaigns for the second consecutive season. Meanwhile, Hall, a team-captain, is a top-5 returning player on this team and is one of the Wolf Pack’s top leaders.

Cornerbacks:

Starters: BerDale Robins, Bentlee Sanders (NICKEL), Jaden Dedman or AJ King

Second-stringers: Christian Swint, Isaiah Essissima

Robins and Sanders, who transferred from South Florida, are Nevada’s two immediate contributors at corner, though Sanders has experience in both the nickel and safety spots. Robins will handle a majority of the duties against an opposing team’s best receiver, while Dedman and King battle for the No. 2 spot. King, a freshman last year, fought with Mikael Bradford for the second cornerback spot last year, adding 12 tackles in nine games.

Safeties:

Starters: JoJuan Claiborne, Tyson Williams

Second-stringers: Chad Brown, Jordan Lee

Williams finished second on the team in tackles last year with 56 after leading the team in 2019 with 85. He recorded two of Nevada’s six interceptions. He should be in for another strong 2021. Claiborne saw a majority of the action at free safety last year, adding 22 tackles.

Kicker:

Starters: Brandon Talton

Second-stringer: Matt Freem

Talton, a two-time All-Conference honoree, has been one of the best kickers in the Mountain West since securing the starting role in 2019. He’s gone 36-of-43 on field goal tries (83.7 percent) — including 21 in 2019, the third-most in program history. He’s also converted on field goals under 50 yards at a 89.5 percent clip (34-for-38). In other words, he’s really good.

Punter:

Starter: Julian Diaz

Diaz and Talton form a very dependable special teams duo. Diaz was named to the All-Mountain West honorable mention team, tallying conference-bests in yards per punt (46.3) and punts traveling 50-plus yards (11). He also planted 11 kicks inside-the-20 with just one touchback.

Other specialists:

Kick returner: Jamaal Bell, Stovall or Taua

Punt returner: Doubs

Long snapper: Austin Ortega (returning starter) or Nick Barcelos

Holder: Diaz