The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 82 Nevada.
Previewing Nevada’s Offense for 2014
Nevada’s famed Pistol offense struggled in the first season under head coach Brian Polian and second-year offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich. After years of being among the nation’s leaders in rushing offense and scoring, Nevada averaged only 26.9 points per game a season ago. And though Nevada improved as the season progressed, the Wolf Pack averaged a lackluster 3.8 yards per carry and dropped to No. 51 in the nation with 179.0 rushing yards per game. One of the major culprits: An offensive line that, despite the efforts of top lineman Joel Bitonio, struggled mightily. Four starters return on the line, but the bad news is that Bitonio isn’t one of them.
The good news is that the Wolf Pack still return eight starters on offense. The most important returnee in Nevada’s quarterback-dependent offense is dual-threat senior Cody Fajardo. Fajardo played with nagging leg injuries for much of last year, and his rushing yards were cut nearly in half to 621 yards, even as his passing numbers remained consistent. The all-conference-caliber quarterback must stay healthy this season to open up the running game.
A strong frontline receiving corps led by senior Richy Turner (61 catches, 755 yards) and 6'5", 230-pound sophomore Hasaan Henderson (29 catches, 326 yards), should help take the pressure off Fajardo. Incoming freshmen Andrew Celis and Wyatt Demps could also contribute.
Senior running back Kendall Brock (812 yards) and junior Don Jackson (332) are capable of carrying Nevada’s running game. But incoming freshman James Butler is an intriguing prospect who could battle for carries.
Previewing Nevada’s Defense for 2014
On paper, the Pack have one of the better defensive lines in the Mountain West, led by all-league end Brock Hekking. The duo of Ian Seau (nephew of Junior Seau) and Lenny Jones at the other end spot and the inside tandem of Jordan Hanson and Rykeem Yates should make for a solid unit. Yet this group was abysmal against the run in 2013, to the tune of 258.5 yards per game, and improvement is paramount.
The linebacking corps has four mainstays for three spots, as incoming defensive co-coordinator Scott Boone, one of the top DCs at the FCS level last year at William & Mary, will retain the Pack’s 4-3 front. Jonathan McNeal and Jordan Dobrich are dependable, while Matthew Lyons played very well at times in 2013. But the key may be athletic junior Bryan Lane Jr., who has split time at linebacker and safety in recent years.
Per usual at Nevada, the secondary appears shaky. Senior Charles Garrett is one of the top corners in the league, but he needs help. Safety Kaodi Dike and undersized corner Elijah Mitchell played last year as true freshmen, and senior corner Evan Favors needs to be a factor. Junior college transfer safety Duran Workman could be a starter right off the bat.
Previewing Nevada’s Specialists for 2014
Nevada loses a weapon in punter Chase Tenpenny, who averaged 44.5 yards per kick last season. Placekicker Brent Zuzo appears dependable after a solid freshman season in which he hit 14-of-17 field goals and 33-of-36 extra points. The Pack need a spark in the return game, and speedster D’Andre Fuller might just provide it.
With 16 returning starters, including Fajardo, Nevada should improve over last season. The Wolf Pack’s 2014 slate lightens up from a brutal 2013. Mountain West heavyweights Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State and San Diego State all come to Reno. If the Wolf Pack improve substantially on defense and solve their second-half woes, they should make a bowl game and contend for the West Division title.