The Wolf Pack rank No. 115 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
Nevada hired veteran offensive coordinator Jay Norvell as head coach following a 5-7 season that saw both sides of the ball struggle. Norvell’s impact on the Wolf Pack offense may not be instant with uncertainties at quarterback, a group of unproven receivers and significant question marks up front. But he does have one of the Mountain West’s top running backs to lean on. The defense features a little more on the experience side, but few proven playmakers and everyone will be adjusting to a new system. An unforgiving road schedule only adds to the challenge facing Norvell and his staff, so don’t be surprised if Nevada takes another step backwards this fall.
Previewing Nevada Football’s Offense for 2017
New head coach Jay Norvell, a veteran offensive coordinator with stops at Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona State, has promised to revive a stagnant Nevada offense with an up-tempo, pass-happy spread attack.
Still, expect the Wolf Pack to rely on its running game. Nevada’s top returning player is unquestionably running back James Butler (1,336 yards, 12 TDs), who is back for his senior year. Butler is dynamic and a candidate for Mountain West Player of the Year honors. But the depth at the position is thin, making Butler’s health critical.
Quarterback Ty Gangi showed promise in 2016 (1,301 yards, eight TDs, six INTs) and a more polished arm in spring. But the dual-threat incumbent will be pushed by newcomer David Cornwell, a 6'5", 228-pound junior transfer from Alabama. Cornwell was Norvell’s prized first recruit, and the pro-style quarterback will battle Gangi for the job.
Who will protect the quarterback is an open question. Nevada’s offensive line has struggled, and the unit is again inexperienced and thin. Senior left tackle Austin Corbett is an all-conference player. Junior Sean Krepsz adds some starting experience, but junior college transfers Marshall Levins and Anthony Palomares will likely be called on immediately.
Senior receiver Wyatt Demps (686 yards, nine TDs) should thrive under the new system, and junior Andrew Celis adds experience. But no other Nevada receiver has more than six career catches. The team was high on freshman Trevion Armstrong during the spring, and the Pack added five wide receivers in its recruiting class, so expect new faces to emerge. Notre Dame graduate transfer Justin Brent will arrive this fall and should push for a starting job.
Previewing Nevada Football’s Defense for 2017
Norvell will also switch the Pack’s defensive attack to a 3-3-5 stack from 4-3 and lean on the expertise of new coordinator Jeff Casteel, who ran the scheme at Arizona and West Virginia. Change was needed. Nevada lacked size and talent up front, and opponents battered the Pack with 297.6 rushing yards per game in 2016 — the most allowed by any team in the nation.
The Pack have the athleticism and depth in the secondary to fit the new scheme. Safeties Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber are among the top defensive backs in the league. Seniors Jaden Sawyer and Kendall Johnson and a host of younger cornerbacks give Nevada the right personnel.
But the front six is a question mark. Junior end Malik Reed is a dark horse league Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and sophomore middle linebacker Gabriel Sewell could soon emerge as an all-conference pick. The Pack need senior end Patrick Choudja to finally arrive, especially as Reed fights double-teams. Sophomore nose tackle Hausia Sekona is a bit undersized, but he gained a lot of experience last season. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman linebacker Kameron Toomer, who could emerge.
Previewing Nevada Football’s Specialists for 2017
Kicker Spencer Pettit (7-of-9 field goals) emerged to buoy a struggling special teams unit during his freshman season. Nevada went through spring drills with only a freshman walk-on punter on its roster, so expect an offseason addition to fill the large shoes of Alex Boy. Celis handled punt returns last season, but he will be challenged by a host of talented newcomers.
Norvell’s rebuild will take some time. Adopting a new offensive system and reforming a defense that has struggled will lead to growing pains. And with many of its toughest games on the road, including dates against Northwestern, Washington State, Boise State and San Diego State, easy wins will be scarce. Nevada does have some talent, but bowl eligibility is a long shot.
National Ranking: 115
MW West Prediction: 4
(James Butler photo courtesy of Getty Images)