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Nevada Football: Four burning questions as spring practice starts up

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal Andy Barron/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

Spring camp is underway!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or went without technology for the last several months, you might’ve heard by now that the Nevada Wolf Pack football team has underwent serious changes. Head coach Jay Norvell departed to in-conference foe Colorado State nine days after beating the Rams by 42 points in Fort Collins, Colo. Former long time Nevada assistant Ken Wilson, who most recently had assistant coaching stints at Oregon and Washington State, took over as the head man and will begin an entirely new era of Wolf Pack football.

There will be a ton of new faces on the Nevada sideline this season. The programs returns the lowest production of any team in the nation while welcoming in an entirely new coaching staff, save for running backs coach Vai Taua. With all of the team’s question marks, I devised four key questions that I have heading into the spring and the 2022 season. Let’s dive right into it!

1. Who starts at quarterback?

Given it’s oftentimes the most important and looked-at position on the field, perhaps the biggest question heading into the offseason is: Who will be starting at quarterback?

Nevada hasn’t had to ask that question heading into each of the last two seasons with Carson Strong at the helm. Having won back-to-back Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year awards while combining to throw 9,368 yards, 74 touchdowns to 19 interceptions over three seasons with the Wolf Pack, Strong forgoed his final year of eligbility to enter the 2022 NFL Draft.

Nevada’s 6-foot-9 gun slinger Nate Cox is the top returning quarterback from a year ago. Cox has thrown only 45 passes at the Division-I level — completing 60 percent of such attempts for 289 yards, two touchdowns and one interception — while the other returnees Jake Barlage, Jonah Chong and Drew Scolari haven’t. Nevada also brought in Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth along with freshman A.J. Bianco from Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Cox should receive a majority of the first team reps, since Illingworth won’t join the team until after the spring. But it will be a quarteback race to track up until Nevada’s season-opener on Aug. 27.

2. What will the WR, other skill positions look like?

Barring injury, the only skill position that’s set in stone is running back, with both Toa Taua and Devonte Lee exercising their final years of eligibility. The two combined for 235 carries, 1063 yards and 11 rushing touchdowns, in addition to 58 carries, 394 yards and two receiving touchdowns in 2021 — and should receive even a bigger share of touches given a new scheme (more on that below).

But what about the other skill positions?

Five of Nevada’s top six pass catchers from a year ago — who accounted for 72.3 percent of the team’s receptions, 79.1 percent of the receiving yards and 76.3 percent of the receiving touchdowns — depart. Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner, Nevada’s top two targets, joined Strong in declaring for the NFL Draft; Melquan Stovall, Tory Horton and Justin Lockhart — who were its No. 3, 4 and 6 in receptions, respectively — all transferred to other schools; Stovall and Horton followed Norvell to Colorado State while Lockhart and Elijah Cooks, the Pack’s top pass catcher in 2019 who was hammered with injuries in 2020 and 2021, transferred to San Jose State.

Nevada’s top returning receiver is Jamaal Bell, who finished the season with 14 catches for 119 yards and one touchdown. Tyrese Mack (2 rec., 27 yards) is the only other returning wideout who caught a pass in 2021. Wilson brought in a decent crop of pass-catching transfers led by Arizona transfer BJ Casteel, who hauled in 90 passes for 880 yards and four touchdowns in four years with the Wildcats, and Oregon transfer Spencer Curtis.

With Turner’s departure, the Wolf Pack also lacked at tight end. Wilson made it an emphasis, netting three in this year’s class. Given the scheme changed, I wonder how Wilson’s tight ends will be used.

3. What are the new schemes?

This pertains to both sides of the ball, since Nevada had to replace each of its two coordinator positions, but what will the schemes look like?

Norvell used the Air Raid throughout his five-year tenure. It certainly reaped the benefits, finishing inside the top-5 in passing offense in four of those five years while also placing in the top-50 in scoring three of those seasons. But under first-year head coach Ken Wilson and first-year coordinator Derek Sage, I presume the offense is going to look much different. When asked about what the offensive scheme would look during his introductory press conference, Wilson was pretty coy with fine details of it.

“We’re gonna be an attacking offense; we’re gonna be a multi-personnel, multi-formation, multi-play offense,” he said. “We’re going to be able to run the ball, we’re going to be able to pass the ball and we’re going to be aggressive at all times. We’re going to be able to challnege you with our looks and our personnels. And I think we we announce the staff, people will be excited with what we can do and what the staff has ... First of all, we’re going to be able to run the ball and help the defense. Obviously, I’m a defense coach — but we’re going to be able to throw it. When I was at Nevada, we were the Air Wolf, we were the pistol, we were the Union. We were able to do a lot of different things to win football games. And we’re going to take our personnel, we’re going to build it and we’re going to be able to win football games.”

They’ve been pretty tight lip about it since, so I’m not expecting to know the complete answer until the spring game on April 23rd. My guess is they shift away from the Air Raid to a more traditional attack. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilson brought back the Pistol, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he opted to use a more pro-style look.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Pack have shifted through multiple schemes. When Norvell first arrived, Nevada went with the 3-3-5. Over the last two years with Brian Ward, it utilized a 4-2-5 look. Again, Wilson didn’t reveal his cards, which is understandable. Here’s what Wilson told Nevada Sports Net in January:

“On defense, they could watch what we’ve been doing at Washington State and Oregon. It’s going to be a lot of those same things. A lot of pressure, a lot of movement, a lot of different coverage looks out there. They’re going to see a lot of that pre- and post-snap movement on the front and try to get a lot of tackles for loss. We led the Pac-12 in the regular season this year in rush defense. I think we’ve done that two of the last three years up there. So we’ll stop the run. That’s going to be a priority.”

4. Who replaces the All-MWC production defensively?

While we’re on the topic of defense, I know I’ve belabored who’s missing on offense multiple times, but the defense is experiencing significant personnel changes as well. The Wolf Pack will be losing All-Mountain West production at all three levels: Defensive ends Sam Hammond (graduation) and Tristan Nichols (graduation), linebackers Daiyan Henley (transfer to Washington State) and Lawson Hall (graduation), who were their top two tacklers; And defensive backs Jordan Lee (transfer to Washington State) and BerDale Robins (graduation).

Henley had one of the most productive defensive seasons (94 tackles, two TFL, 4 INTs) for a Nevada linebacker in recent memory, while Hall tallied the team’s most tackles (207) over the last three combined seasons; Hammond had 9.5 since the start of 2020 while Nichols burst out of a cannon in 2021, leading the team in sacks with 10.5; Robins was arguably Nevada’s top cover corner and Lee, the Pack’s third-leading tackler, was a hard hitting safety that was excellent at mucking it up and forcing turnovers.

And it shouldn’t be limited to the five aforementioned players above — Nevada won’t have 12 of its top 16 tacklers from a year ago. The Pack return defensive centerpieces in Dom Peterson and JoJo Claiborne, but that’s not enough. It’s going to be a very tall task to have a productive defensive season and, needless to say, there’s going to be plenty for players to rise up to that challenge.