The saying goes, “Everything that goes up must come down.” Well, if you’re already at the bottom, there is nowhere else to go but up, right? That’s the attitude Nevada will have going into this 2023 season. Last year is nothing but the past. It can’t get any worse than that 2-10 record (knock on wood) and there’s enough evidence to prove that this season will be much better.
While 2022 is in the past, the future of this program needs to turn around quickly. Nevada made 14 bowl games in the 17 seasons between 2005-2021. Ken Wilson and Co. did a great job in the transfer portal and any improvement will do justice. No Wolf Pack fan (including myself) is expecting the Mountain West Title, but the bar needs to be set high.
Regardless of all of that, there’s plenty of hope. Both the offense and defense should be better, and the Wolf Pack have an exciting schedule ahead of them. Let’s dive more into how Nevada lines up for 2023, and why there’s reason to be excited and to worry.
Reasons for optimism: The run game could only muster 199 yards per game last year. Nevada will see a massive improvement in the backfield after adding two running backs from the Pac-12. Running backs Sean Dollars and Ashton Hayes are going to lead the room, and I’m predicting Dollars to have a 1,000-yard rushing season. He rushed for 316 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and 18 catches for 144 yards last season, and should only improve heading into 2023.
The potential in the pocket should excite Wolf Pack fans as well. Colorado transfer Brendon Lewis appears to be the favorite to win the starting job at QB. He’s the perfect dual-threat QB you can ask for, which will drastically change offensive coordinator Derek Sage’s scheme.
Regarding weaponry, Nevada added a fair amount of depth in the wide receiver room. Dalevon Campell and Jamaal Bell will lead the charge as returning players. Outside of that, it will be a fun battle, including a few Pac-12 transfers. John Jackson III from USC and Isaah Crocker from Oregon are the biggest additions. Senior Spencer Curtis will also be in the mix for that final WR spot.
Reasons for concern: No matter how high the potential of this offense is, nothing will get through if there’s no offensive line. In 2022, Nevada allowed 6.85 tackles for loss per game. Not only has it struggled, but it’s also extremely inexperienced. In total, Nevada’s offensive line returns only 37 career starts. They also allowed 34 sacks and limited the rushing game to 3.3 yards per carry. Sophomore tackle Isaiah World is the Wolf Pack’s most experienced lineman with a total of 10 career starts. Nevada did add Jason Rodriguez from USC who was once a four-star recruit. Rodriguez doesn’t provide starting experience either but should be in the battle for the right tackle position.
It’s not just the offensive line that’s inexperienced. Most of Nevada’s offense is filled with new players, and even if they were starters in the past, new scenery provides challenges. How will the offensive scheme adapt to Lewis and his strengths? Will the offensive line allow players such as Lewis and Dollars to make moves on the run? There are so many question marks tied with the potential this offense has, so it’s hard to keep the confidence level high.
Even with the added potential, we can’t forget how poor this offense was last year. Nevada averaged just 304.7 yards per game, ranking 122 in the nation. They pretty much struggled to get the ball downfield in general, so any improvement of that in 2023 will be a huge boost.
Key stat: As I mentioned before, the offensive line only has 37 career starts under their belts. That’s a lot of inexpensive that O-line coach Angus McClure will have to control.
Wildcard: The weapons are there, but the projections could fall into a spiral if Lewis isn’t named the starter. He hasn’t started in two years, and AJ Bianco and Shane Illingworth are right behind him in the chase. The entire shape of Nevada’s offense relies on who’s in the pocket week one, and whether they can stay there all season.
Reasons for optimism: The defense wasn’t any better, but I LOVE the potential the linebacker room has. Drue Watts and Naki Mateialona had incredible seasons last year despite lacking depth outside of them. Nevada continued their Oregon recruiting train with Jackson LaDuke, which should make the linebacker position Nevada’s strongest side.
The defensive line has quality depth as well, which should hopefully allow the linebackers more freedom. Dion Washington is a name to look out for. The redshirt sophomore is coming off a 2022 season that included 21 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, and a forced fumble. He only started two games but made appearances in all 12 games. Henry Ikahihifo, who started his career with the Wolf Pack as a tight end, is back in Nevada as a defensive line.
Nevada should have plenty of chances to apply pressure. This revamped linebacker/DL room paired with Coach Wilson’s defensive mindset (spent decades as Nevada’s defensive assistant before his head coaching gig) should generate a lot of explosion. Wolf Pack fans should be more patient with the defense because Wilson’s defensive mind will do wonders with the right group.
Reasons for concern: No matter how much pressure the line gets, it’s game over if it gets downfield. Nevada’s secondary has not been good, and there hasn’t been much improvement made. While they’re both not great, the safety position is extremely concerning. Emany Johnson has the most experience and should hold down the strong safety position. Zeke Robbins enters his redshirt year after playing in all 12 games in 2022, the second time he’s played an entire season in his career.
Cornerbacks Jaden Dedman and Issaiah Essissima have the potential to become an elite duo, and Nevada will need them to be because there isn’t much depth outside of them. Last season, the Wolf Pack were outscored 109-58 in the first quarter. Part of that blame is on the offense, but the other half is on the defense, especially the secondary.
Key stat: Losing defensive tackle Dom Peterson was an incredibly huge loss. He was the bright spot in this weak defense, so players such as Washington now have to step into a bigger role.
Wild card: Safety Tre Weeds transferred to Nevada from Eastern Washington. He finished his redshirt senior season last year with three interceptions and 30 tackles (24 solo), with one for loss. He could turn the Wolf Pack’s secondary around if he’s able to continue that performance.
Reasons for optimism: Nevada hired Michael Barton from Cal to be their special teams coach. While at Cal, Barton worked with a special teams unit that led the Pac-12 and ranked fourth nationally in kick returns with a school-record average of 29.1 yards per return in 2021. Their kick return coverage also ranked third in the conference at 20.2 yards allowed per return.
Kicker Brandon Talton was injured for half of last season, but he remains one of the nation’s most reliable kickers. He has the accuracy and strength with a 80 percent career field-goal percentage and he’s solid out to 55 yards.
Reasons for concern: With Sean Dollars looking to take the RB1 slot, Ashton Hayes will have to step up in a return role. The average kick return for Nevada last year was 19.27 yards, and the average punt return was 7.36. Being more explosive off returns will help this high-potential offense shine.
Key Stat: Despite the injury, Talton still went 22-for-30 on field goal attempts last year. His consistency will be key.
Wildcard: Talton also mentioned at Media Day how the Power 5 transfers will change the Wolf Pack’s luck and fans will see a significant difference. Players like Hayes are the guys I’m looking for in that position.
2023 Nevada Schedule:
Sept. 2- USC
Sept. 9- Idaho
Sept. 16- Kansas
Sept. 23- Texas State
Sept. 30- Fresno State*
Oct. 14- UNLV*
Oct. 21- San Diego State*
Oct. 28- New Mexico*
Nov. 4- Hawaii*
Nov. 11- Utah State*
Nov. 18- Colorado State*
Nov. 25- Wyoming*
*denotes conference game
Home games are highlighted in bold
Thoughts: This team probably won’t be going bowling this year. Still, this year's schedule provides an exciting challenge for this revamped team. USC, Idaho, Kansas, and maybe Texas State will almost certainly win, but it’s always exciting to see your school face big conference teams. No challenge is a bad challenge, and putting them at the beginning of the schedule is perfect. Nevada will be thrown some of the best, which will allow them to see the state of their team early and before they begin conference play. Figuring out what’s working and what isn’t, and they’ll be given a month to do that before facing Fresno State.
New Mexico, Hawaii, Colorado State, and Wyoming are games I predict Nevada to win. Utah State could go either way, so I’ll put Nevada around the 4-5 win mark. The battle for the Fremont Cannon is always fun for Nevada and UNLV fans, but unfortunately, I see the Rebels once again having control of it in 2023.
This season is truly one of the biggest question marks that I’ve seen. The potential of this team easily has a chance for a bowl game, but it’s also so new that it could crumble like last year. A bowl game is highly unlikely, but it isn’t impossible for Nevada.
Best Case Scenario: No matter what Nevada’s record is after the first four weeks, the Wolf Pack could come out erupting. Lewis and this offense can be so explosive and make the rest of the conference throw a fit. Even if they start 0-4, seven or eight wins aren’t out of the question. It’s all about how the coaching can work with such inexperience but high potential. Coach Wilson could end the rebuild right here and let Wolf Pack fans have a few years of joy.
Worst Case Scenario: Potential doesn’t always mean the best will happen. Just because it’s there, it could never grow its wings and fly. This team is much better than last year’s on paper, but it could come crashing back down. With the inexperience of the O-line and secondary, both sides of the ball will end up where they were last year. Coach Wilson could witness a winless season, at which you’d have to consider him on the hot seat. You can’t win any less than two games, and even a one-game improvement from 2022 would be concerning.
What’s probably going to happen: Be excited, Wolf Pack fans. But don’t get your hopes up. We’ll see the improvements, even though it could be small. Nevada will probably max out at five wins, but anything is better than nothing. Lewis looks to become a really promising QB, and having such a dual threat in the pocket is going to change Nevada’s offensive scheme for the better.
Final takeaway: The worst is behind us, Wolf Pack fans. We’ve entered the rebuild stage where the future stars begin to develop, and when that final click happens it’ll all be worth it. Patience is key. The days of having dominating players like Carson Strong and Romeo Doubs won’t come back overnight. I believe in Coach Wilson and his vision for Nevada, and other fans should too. If worst comes to worst, we’ll start over and try again. Once you hit rock bottom, the only other way to go is up. Pray for some breakouts to happen, and just try to relax and enjoy the rollercoaster of a season that will happen.