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Mountain West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Brian Polian , First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Nick Rolovich | DEF. COORDINATOR: Scottie Hazelton
New Nevada coach Brian Polian says that he was interested in the Wolf Pack job in part because legendary coach Chris Ault did not leave a bare cupboard. That is especially true with Ault’s Pistol offense. One of Polian’s first moves when he assumed the reins of the program in January was bringing back offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich after a hugely productive 2012.
Rolovich and junior quarterback Cody Fajardo should bring a level of continuity to Reno. The dual-threat Fajardo was brilliant in 2012, throwing for 2,786 yards and running for another 1,121. He also threw 20 touchdowns against nine interceptions and ran for 12 more scores en route to being named to the All-Mountain West second team.
Fajardo gets the benefit of returning senior Brandon Wimberly, an all-conference candidate who led Nevada with 70 catches for 845 yards in a comeback junior season. And juniors Richy Turner (60 catches, 752 yards) and Aaron Bradley (45-467) should give Fajardo a plethora of targets.
Nevada’s normally dominant run game is its biggest question mark. With Stefphon Jefferson, who ranked second nationally with 1,883 yards last year, headed to the NFL and Anthony Knight leaving the team in the spring, junior college transfer Don Jackson is the early favorite at running back. But redshirt freshmen Chris Solomon and Xavier Stephens and sophomore walk-on Nate McLaurin will need to provide depth.
Tackle Joel Bitonio and center Matt Galas provide experience on the line, but the Wolf Pack need to replace three starting linemen in a wide-open race that won’t be decided until late in fall camp.
The defensive front was the big question last year with four untested starters. Nevada returns all four this year to form the strength of the 2013 unit. Sophomore Lenny Jones and junior Brock Hekking are all-conference-caliber ends while the trio of Jack Reynoso, Jordan Hanson and Rykeem Yates will be tough to handle inside.
First-year defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton must find six new starters in the back seven. Former walk-on Jordan Dobrich, a sophomore, should secure the middle linebacker spot. Junior Jonathan McNeal and sophomores Bryan Lane Jr. and Burton De Koning likely will battle a pair of sophomores who originally signed with BCS teams — Ian Seau (Kansas State) and Matthew Lyons (Washington) — for the other two spots.
Junior Charles Garrett is the only returning starter in the secondary, and he moves from corner to safety. Bryson Keeton, another converted corner, will likely start at the other safety spot. Senior Markus Smith and junior Evan Favors are penciled in at the cornerback spots, but prized prep recruit Teré Calloway could get a look.
Prior to taking over at Nevada, Polian made his mark as a special teams coach at Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M. He needs to identify a placekicker, a long snapper and another kickoff returner to complement junior Kendall Brock. The Pack are in good shape in the punting department with Chase Tenpenny (43.3-yard average in 2012) back for his senior season. Speedy incoming freshmen Elijah Mitchell and D’Andre Fuller could factor into the return game.
A new regime makes Nevada tough to predict. The offense should still be formidable, and the Wolf Pack’s porous defense could be improved. But with a brutal road schedule that includes trips to UCLA, Florida State, Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State, even a modest defensive improvement might not be enough for the Wolf Pack to return to a bowl for a ninth consecutive season.