The 2022 Nevada Wolf Pack football season is set to kick off in less than 20 days!
After an unceremonious end to the 2021 season — which included head coach Jay Norvell abruptly departing to in-conference foe Colorado State, taking a dozen Pack players and most of the offensive coaching staff with him on top of plenty of its important playmakers graduating or electing to go pro — Nevada enters the 2022 season with a fresh new start.
Ken Wilson, who spent over two decades with the program both as a coach and as an administrator during the Chris Ault-era, takes over as the new head man. Nevada also has the fewest production returning amongst Division-I programs with plenty of opportunity to be had.
The group is expected to finish fourth in the West Division ahead of UNLV and Hawai’i, so there isn’t a lot of expectations — unlike the last two seasons. It will also have a relatively easy non-conference schedule, on paper, aside from a Big Ten date against Iowa.
Below, I preview the 2022 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 the schedule?
Nevada Football 2022 Schedule
|Date:||Opponent:||TV:||Time (all time PT)|
|Date:||Opponent:||TV:||Time (all time PT)|
|Aug. 27||at New Mexico State||TBD||TBD|
|Sep. 3||vs. Texas State||TBD||2:30 p.m.|
|Sep. 10||vs. Incarnate Word||TBD||2:30 p.m.|
|Sep. 17||at Iowa||Big Ten Network||4:30 p.m.|
|Sep. 23||at Air Force||FS1||5:00 p.m.|
|Oct. 7||vs. Colorado State||FS1||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 15||at Hawai'i||TBD||TBD|
|Oct. 22||vs. San Diego State||CBSSN||7:30 p.m.|
|Oct. 29||at San Jose State||CBSSN||7:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 12||vs. Boise State||CBSSN||7:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 19||vs. Fresno State||CBSSN||7:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 26||at UNLV||TBD||TBD|
The Nevada Wolf Pack will be one of five Mountain West teams to appear in a Week 0 zero game — along with UNLV, Utah State, Wyoming and Hawai’i. No time has yet been set for that game against New Mexico State, and regardless of the quality of opponent, there will likely be plenty of intrigue with Wilson at the helm and a completely new roster plus coaching staff in-place.
Their next two games against Texas State and Incarnate Word should be more than manageable. They should win those three games, all things considered. But the first real (road) test of the Wilson era arrives on Sept. 17 against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who play an incredibly physical brand of football on both ends.
The Pack kick off conference play thereafter, beginning with Air Force. Its road schedule — Air Force, Hawai’i, San Jose State and UNLV — is much more manageable than its home MWC schedule.
Speaking of its home slate, every Nevada fan imaginable will have their eyes on the Oct. 7, with return of Norvell and the Colorado State Rams. It follows suit with San Diego State, Boise State and Fresno State — three of the top teams within the Mountain West.
Overall, it’s reasonable that Nevada will take a considerable step back in 2022 with brand new rosters, schemes, coaches, etc. The whole deal. Their ceiling is probably five-to-six wins; but if we learned anything about Nevada, the Mountain West or anything in college football as a whole — it’s that anything can happen on any given week.
Now let’s dive into the roster!
Nevada on offense:
The Wolf Pack return just two starters from last year’s squad: right tackle Aaron Frost and running back Toa Taua.
Back-to-back Mountain West offensive player of the year Carson Strong — one of the best quarterbacks in recent program history who combined to complete 70.1 percent of his attempts for 7,033 yards, 63 touchdowns and 12 interceptions over his final two seasons with Nevada — elected to turn pro. So did Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner, the team’s top two pass catchers who combined for 142 receptions, 1,786 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2021.
Aside from Doubs and Turner, six of Nevada’s other nine pass catchers depart, including Melquan Stovall (CSU), Tory Horton (CSU), Justin Lockhart (SJSU) and Elijah Cooks (SJSU).
Its top returning receiver is Jamaal Bell, who caught 14 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown. He earned All-Mountain West honorees as a punt returner, too. (More on that core below.)
The player throwing them the ball will be the other big question heading into fall camp (more on that below). The competition really has two key standouts: Senior Nate Cox, its second-string signal caller last year, and Oklahoma State transfer Shane Illingworth.
New offensive coordinator Nate Costa and Co. are expected to run the ball a lot more than it did under Matt Mumme’s air-raid system. Taua rushed for 772 yards on 4.9 yards per carry last year with six touchdowns; Devonte Lee, who’s alo coming back for a super senior season, had 85 carries for 331 yards (3.9 ypc) and five scores.
With Frost — who recently suffered an injury in practice and will miss “a while”, per Wilson — as the only returning starting offensive lineman from last year, Nevada newfangled Union will have plenty of competition. While it’s obviously still up in the air for who starts, Grant Starck, Jacob Nunez, Zac Welsh, Joey Capra and Trey Hamilton are among the prime candidates to compete for the starting jobs, among others.
Nevada on defense:
Despite sporting the third-worst total defense a year ago, nobody in the Mountain West forced more turnovers (27) or recorded more sacks (41) than Nevada.
Only four starters — defensive tackle Dom Peterson and defensive backs Bentlee Sanders, Isaiah Essissima and JoJuan Claiborne — return on that side of the ball. Peterson recorded 39 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks, with a pair of pass deflections and one fumble return for a touchdown.
Claiborne was fourth on the team in tackles with 62 — 46 solo — with an interception while Sanders had 24 tackles and Essissima with 12.
While the Wolf Pack’s secondary is its most experienced side of the ball, it would have to leverage the losses of safeties Jordan Lee, who was third in tackles with five fumble recoveries, and Tyson Williams, who had 47 tackles, four tackles-for-loss (one sack) and three interceptions (one pick-six).
Perhaps its biggest losses came in its front-seven. Three of its five leading tacklers — including dynamic playmaker Daiyan Henley and Lawson Hall, who combined for 180 tackles — will not be there next season, the former transferring to Washington State while the latter ran out of eligibility.
Three burning questions I have:
1. Who steps up at QB?
As I mentioned above, there’s two real candidates to take over at quarterback: Illingworth and Cox.
Cox is the top returning quarterback, but with a completely new roster and coaching staff, that talking point reigns moot. Cox, listed at 6-foot-9, completed 26-of-43 passes for 279 yards, two touchdowns and one interception last year, and flashed some mobility with his legs with a makeshift offense in the Quick Lane Bowl against Western Michigan.
Illingworth played in eight games and started in three — going 3-0 — with Oklahoma State. Over his Cowboy career, he completed 57.5 percent of his attempts for 939 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. While the bulk of the competition he faced (Missouri State, Kansas, Tulsa, West Virginia) wasn’t terrific, Illingworth still got plenty of game reps and carries a good pedigree entering fall camp.
Cox has the noticeable leg up on familarity with the system, however, partaking in spring camp while Illingworth did not. But the latter will have plenty of time to win the job in the fall. Cox also got arrested for DUI earlier in the Summer and Wilson has yet to determine a suspension. So that’s a situation worth monitoring, too.
2. Where does it find production at receiver?
Romeo Doubs was the first Pack receiver in nearly two decades (Marko Mitchell - ‘07-’08) with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Now, top returning catcher has just 17 career receptions at the Division-I level.
Wilson, however, did a solid job attacking the receiver market in the transfer portal — brinding in Arizona transfer B.J. Casteel and Illinois transfer Dalevon Campbell, one its late-r additions to the roster, among others. Casteel, who has one year of eligibility left, projects to be one of the team’s top targets in 2022, hauling in 90 career receptions for 880 yards and four scores with the Wildcats from 2017-21. Campbell recorded six career catches for 98 yards with the Fighting Illini, which obviously isn’t a lot but getting game reps is better than not getting any at all.
The Pack have a litany of other options — including Tyrese Mack, Keenan Speer-Johnson, Spencer Curtis, Aaron Smith and even freshman Victor Snow, who showed out in the spring game. The target share is going to be wide open across the board — but who will stand out? Time will tell.
3. How does the front seven shape out?
With Peterson as the only returning starter along the front seven, there will be plenty of opportunity for up-and-coming linebackers and defensive lineman.
Wilson’s specalized at developing defensive fronts — specifically linebackers — throughout his 30 years of coaching. But without Henley, Hall, Tristan Nichols or Sam Hammond, this will be a project.
The Pack brought in Liberty transfer William Green Jr., who’s expected to start at the other defensive tackle spot. Caleb Manson, James Hansen, Jeremiah Bodwin, Isaiah Overton and Dion Washington are expected to compete at the ends. At linebacker, moving to a 4-3 under co-defensive corrdinators Mike Bethea and Kwame Agyeman, they will have a chance to develop some of the young linebackers in Davion Blackwell, Drue Watts, Marcel Walker and Naki Mateialona with veterans Eli’jah Winston (USC Transfer) and Josiah Bradley.
Anywho, this will be a big year for growth at that position, and it could go a long way into determining how the defense fares against top-tier Mountain West competition.