Entering his fourth season, Brian Polian is starting to get his legs under him at Nevada. The Wolf Pack has gone 7-6 in back-to-back seasons and should have enough experience on offense (nine returning starters) to reach the postseason again. If the defense can overcome just one returning starter in the front seven, Nevada could make a run at the Mountain West title game.
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Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2016
New offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey appears ready to usher in a new era at Nevada, which has run the Pistol offense exclusively for more than a decade. Cramsey, whose offenses at Montana State were among the tops in FCS, will still run plenty of Pistol. But as part of the Chip Kelly coaching tree, Cramsey will likely introduce more spread principles, giving the Wolf Pack a new look for head coach Brian Polian.
Cramsey will have plenty of talent. Junior James Butler — who ran for 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns — will anchor the offense. Despite starting only one game in 2015, Butler emerged as the Wolf Pack’s top threat and appears poised to truly break out.
Senior quarterback Tyler Stewart’s 2015 campaign was steady, if unspectacular. He started all 13 games and threw for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. But he completed just 57 percent of his passes, and his consistency waned later in the season. Stewart’s job was tested in the offseason with the addition of junior college transfer Ty Gangi and sophomore backup Hunter Fralick, but the senior had a strong spring.
Senior Hasaan Henderson — a 6'5", all-conference-caliber receiver when healthy — leads an experienced group. But senior Jerico Richardson is a more consistent performer, and sophomore Ahki Muhammad, who converted from cornerback to slot, provides a new dynamic. Senior tight end Jarred Gipson offers a dependable option.
For the offense to truly jell, the experienced offensive line will have to take another step forward, particularly in pass protection. Junior left tackle Austin Corbett anchors the line, but all five projected starters are upperclassmen, a first in the Polian era.
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Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2016
After making the jump from FCS and William & Mary, defensive coordinator Scott Boone has turned in an underrated effort at Nevada. He inherited a defensive unit that allowed 34.4 points per game in 2013, and each year that average has dropped, to 27.2 in 2014 to 26.8 last season. The job gets more difficult this year, however, as the Pack must replace six starters in the front seven. Ends Malik Reed (sophomore) and Patrick Choudja (junior) have flashed at times, but both must step up in starting roles. Salesa Faraimo returns at tackle, and coaches were pleased during the spring with redshirt freshman tackle Hausia Sekona.
The biggest concern is at linebacker, where all of three career starts are returning. Freshman Gabe Sewell redshirted last year, but he will likely start with seniors Alex Bertrando (one start) and L.J. Jackson (two) on either side.
Safeties Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber are among the best in the conference and head up a young, talented secondary. Rufus led the team in tackles, and Baber had six interceptions. Elijah Mitchell is the lone senior in the back and leads a foursome of corners with junior Kendall Johnson, sophomore Elijah Moody and freshman EJ Muhammad.
Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2016
Special teams are a strength. Senior kicker Brent Zuzo was nearly automatic last year, hitting on all 17 of his field goal tries inside 50 yards. Senior punter Alex Boy (42-yard average) has been nearly as steady. Mitchell averaged 26.4 yards per kickoff return and returned one for a touchdown. Sophomore punt returner Andrew Celis proved reliable.
Nevada’s offense should improve over last year, which will help blunt the significant losses to its defensive front. Still, the Wolf Pack have too many holes to expect a serious run at a West Division title. Nevada has finished 7–6 in four of the last five seasons, and there is plenty of reason to believe that history will repeat itself.