Team Preview: Nevada
The Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006 Nevada Wolf Pack, exclusively on Insider.
Chris Ault put his eighth conference championship trophy away in Legacy Hall and promptly forgot about it as he prepared for the spring. Sharing the league title with Boise State and fashioning a dramatic Sheraton Hawaii Bowl victory over UCF was special, but it's time to put that where it belongs for now -- on the Tribute to Champions shelf.
Not that anyone needed to remind the 21-year veteran and former Nevada athletic director of that fact. By the start of the new year, he was already tinkering with his pistol offense and 3-4 defensive designs. It's one thing to introduce a new offense, but to keep defensive coordinators guessing in the coming campaigns, new schemes must be added to the playbook.
Things will be different in spring, Ault promised his 15 returning starters. Now that they could add, subtract, multiply and divide, it was time for algebra. And by all indications, the Wolf Pack took the step up in stride.
"I thought we had a good spring, not bad at all," Ault said. "Obviously, we're excited about last year and the things this football team accomplished. But we want to build on that, not dwell on past successes.
"What was good about this spring is we already had the offense and defense in place. There was a foundation there the guys didn't have a year ago. We were able to add some things on offense, something we'll do more of in fall camp. Overall, I liked what I saw. We want to improve as a football team. I think we have an opportunity to do just that."
It's well documented how Ault convinced his school president in late 2003 that the best thing for the athletic program was for the veteran coach to return to the sideline, clean up the mess that was the Wolf Pack football team, and get it going in a positive direction.
There were some struggles along the way. Nevada won only five games in 2004, a small step down from the six the Wolf Pack managed the season before. But the big strides were taking place off the field as Ault cut loose the marginal players and found suitable replacements in the junior college and high school ranks.
In the spring of 2005, he introduced the pistol offense that features more shotgun formations but is able to control the game on the ground when necessary. He also added a new 3-4 defensive package that produced moderate results last season, but not compared to the offense.
While the Wolf Pack ranked among the nation's best in scoring offense (No. 15 at 34.2 ppg), total offense (No. 14 at 449.3 yards), rushing offense (No. 22 at 199.5) and passing offense (No. 30 at 249.8), the defense lagged. Nevada finished No. 101 nationally in scoring defense and 88th in total defense, but did do a decent job stopping the run (No. 47 at 141.2 yards), a positive step in the eyes of Ault, who loves offense, but like most coaches, believes foremost in defense.
"We put five defensive coaches on the field to show our players where the emphasis is being placed," Ault said. "Defense is where you win championships. We've got to be a better ball club defensively this year if we want to reach our goals."
Those goals include defending the WAC title and enjoying another holiday bowl victory in the postseason. It took eight years for the Wolf Pack to win this championship in football. Ault doesn't want to wait that long for the next one. As a former athletic director, Ault knows the success of an overall program is directly tied to how well the football team performs.
Expectations are up in the biggest little city in the world. Plenty of starters return on both sides of the football, including senior triggerman Jeff Rowe, senior running back Robert Hubbard and senior wide-out Caleb Spencer.
"One area of concern is our offensive line," Ault said. "You can't have enough depth up there in the trenches. We have three very good starters back, but we lost two talented tackles and need to find guys who can step in and produce right away. Competition is the key. If somebody is pushing the starter for his job, it's better for everybody."
Defensively, the Wolf Pack has several good men to turn to in the early going, including senior All-WAC cornerback Joe Garcia and sophomore linebacker Ezra Butler. The first five weeks of the season will be demanding for the seven returning defensive starters -- Nevada opens on the road against Fresno State and Arizona State before returning home to host Colorado State and Northwestern.
"We then have to travel to UNLV to defend the Fremont Cannon," Ault said. "That's a big game for this program. We're going to find out a lot of things about this football team right away. We're looking forward to it as players and coaches. We've got a good taste in our mouths after last year. We want to keep it there this season."
Jeff Rowe (6-5, 220) took to the pistol offense so well last spring you would have thought Ault designed it with his big quarterback in mind. Rowe not only finished second in the WAC in total offense, averaging 264.1 yards a game, it was good enough for No. 21 in the country as well.
The hometown hero threw for 2,925 yards and 21 touchdowns, while completing only 10 passes to the opposition for a passing efficiency rating of 137.7, 30th in Division I-A. Rowe enters his fifth season at the collegiate level brimming with confidence. He earned second-team All-WAC honors last year and has a good chance to make it to the first team in '06.
His versatility is what sets him up so well in this one-back, three-wide formation that includes a tight end. Rowe rushed for six touchdowns and 244 yards last season, and plans to do more of the same this season.
"Jeff was excellent," Ault said of his performance this spring.
In the final scrimmage, Rowe completed 16-of-23 passes for 232 yards.
"He had the kind of spring you would hope for from your returning quarterback,'' Ault said. "He's bigger, stronger and accepted the leadership role on this football team. He's gotten better and has a great feel for the offense now. He'll have a good year."
Redshirt freshman Nick Graziano (6-1, 230) picked up some pointers during the spring. With senior Travis Moore (6-2, 215) out with a shoulder injury, Graziano received plenty of reps and responded well enough in the final scrimmage. Moore missed five months as he waited for his shoulder to heal but is expected back for fall camp.
Part of the reason Nevada had so much success last year out of this hybrid offense was because of running back B.J. Mitchell, who was selected the league's offensive player of the year. Unfortunately for Ault, Mitchell's time was up, leaving the veteran head coach scratching his head for a full-time replacement.
He will start with senior Robert Hubbard (5-11, 195), who finished second on the team to Mitchell in rushing with 719 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was about half what Mitchell contributed -- he managed a dozen touchdowns and 1,399 yards.
The question is, can Hubbard remain healthy? The senior back missed the spring with a hernia, which wasn't all bad because it gave Ault time to look for a suitable understudy or possible starter if Hubbard should falter. In the spring game, sophomore Luke Lippincott (6-2, 215) got a good look. The converted safety, who was a star running back at Palma High School in Salinas, Calif., carried the ball 14 times for 41 yards to lead all rushers, even drawing some attention from Ault.
"He did well," Ault said. "He showed signs of what we expect from him. You can't go through the season with only one or two running backs. You need three or four. We also have some backs coming in this fall who will get a good look."
Senior Kyle Eklund (5-9, 185) also figures into the mix. He hasn't seen much action in his time with the program, carrying the ball three times last year for minus-4 yards. Ault moved him to running back last spring after he spent the first three years in the program as a wide-out.
Redshirt freshman Mike Kanellis (5-10, 190) will be one of several youngsters to be considered for the back position. Ault will welcome two freshmen as well in fall camp, but neither will have a lot of time to learn the position, meaning Hubbard has to heal in a hurry.
If there's some question to the depth and quality at running back, Ault is not as concerned with his wide receivers and tight ends. He welcomes back two starters at wide-out, including senior Caleb Spencer (5-11, 180), who was first-team All-WAC last season.
The Hawaii native led Nevada in receptions (67), receiving yards (889) and touchdowns (seven), and had an excellent spring as well. He caught four passes for 78 yards, and like many of his teammates, continues to flourish in Ault's passing schemes.
Spencer finished 30th nationally, averaging 6.09 catches a game, and 35th in the country in yards per game with 80.4. He's the go-to man in this offense.
Joining him is an array of talented wide-outs, including returning starter Kyle Sammons (6-0, 195). While Spencer starts at the Z position, Sammons is the X-factor in this scheme. Last year he caught 27 passes for 375 yards and two touchdowns.
Missing from the starting lineup is F-receiver Nichiren Flowers, whose eligibility ran out. He finished second on the team in receptions last year with 55. Sophomore Mike McCoy (6-0, 190) is expected to fill Flowers' role. He appeared in 12 games as a redshirt freshman, catching 17 passes for 230 yards and one touchdown. McCoy started five games in 2005 at Sammons' spot, including the season opener, but will shift this year to give Ault the optimum in experience.
"We've got a very good group of receivers who understand what we're trying to do on a football field," Ault said. "We're not going to throw the ball all the time, but when we do, we think we give our receivers an excellent chance to be playmakers. And that's what you have to do on offense in our league, make big plays."
Redshirt freshman Arthur King (6-1, 195) will back up McCoy in the early going. He had a good spring, finishing second to Spencer with three receptions for 54 yards. McCoy had four grabs for 52 yards to give Ault the kind of competition he wants at all 22 positions on the field.
Sophomore Jack Darlington (6-2, 190) will serve as Spencer's understudy at the Z spot. He grabbed 17 passes for 182 yards and gives Rowe a big target at the key receiver spot in this offense. Redshirt freshman Rocco Bene (6-0, 195) will back up Sammons at the X. He snagged a ball or two in the spring game and figures to get on the field in certain situations.
Senior Alex Rosenblum (5-9, 185) also figures to see extended playing time, but where is yet to be determined. He caught three passes for 27 yards last season, but hurt his chances somewhat when he missed the spring because of injury.
And don't forget about the tight end. Last season, senior Anthony Pudewell (6-3, 240) was the perfect player for the Y position, as it is called in this offense. The returning starter caught 27 passes for 308 yards and two scores. He was a second-team All-WAC performer in 2005 and should only improve his second time around in this offense.
Backing him up will be junior Adam Bishop (6-4, 245), who had a touchdown grab among his seven receptions last season. A better blocking tight end, Bishop will get some competition from junior Jeremy Scott (6-2, 235), who missed spring with an injury and senior Travis Branzell (6-4, 240). Scott and Branzell figure to play more in the two tight-end sets.
This is where Ault gets a little weak in the knees, and for good reason. While three starters return, top tackles Adam Kiefer and Tony Moll are no longer here to protect Rowe, forcing Ault to move junior Charles Manu (6-3, 300) and sophomore Dominic Green (6-2, 290) to strong and weak tackle, respectively.
Manu was the starting weak guard the last eight games of the season, while Green split time starting at guard and center. Ault is hopeful these two guys will solidify the line by adapting to their new assignments in fall camp. The fact they can play center and guard is a good thing, should the need arise.
"We need to be very efficient at tackle, protecting the quarterback and protecting the edge in our running game," Ault said. "Losing both starting tackles is an area of concern for us."
What isn't worrying Ault all that much is having second-team All-WAC Barrett Reznick (6-1, 280) back at his strong-guard spot. While the main focus is still the tackle positions, Reznick provides the kind of leadership Ault needs to keep the big boys in line.
Helping Reznick will be senior center Jimmy Wadhams (6-3, 290), who started the first four games before going down hard with a torn ACL. Green shifted from guard to center the final eight games of the season. His versatility is a key for Ault as he tries to create depth. Sophomore Greg Hall (6-3, 285) will get the early nod as the starter at weak guard, but that could change in fall camp.
The projected backup tackles are senior Reid Jacobs (6-4, 295), who redshirted last year and will help Manu on the strong side. Mid-season junior college transfer A.J. Slater (6-4, 300) will be Green's backup at weak-side tackle. Sophomore Brad Eskew (6-3, 295) will also get reps at that spot.
Sophomore Mike DeMars (6-2, 305) will help Reznick at strong-side guard, while junior Kyle Robertson (6-3, 290) is penciled in as the backup center.
Sophomore place-kicker Brett Jaekle (6-2, 225) will handle field goals and kickoffs for the Wolf Pack this season. Last year, he led the team in scoring with 86 points by hitting 12-of-15 field goals and 50-of-53 PATs.
His long was only 40 yards, but Ault is confident he'll extend that range this season. Most of Jaekle's field goals were from close range. He hit 8-of-9 inside the 30 and was 4-for-4 inside the 40. He was 1-for-2 from 40 and beyond with one kick blocked.
Not great numbers, but consistent enough, especially for a freshman.
While the O-line is under construction, the defensive front for the Wolf Pack is already well built. That's because two of the three starters from a year ago return with a much better understanding of what Ault expects in his version of the 3-4 defense.
Senior end Charles Wilson (6-4, 270) and junior nose tackle Matt Hines (6-1, 285) are the headline acts up front. Wilson wasn't the minister of defense, but he did manage 38 tackles, including 2.5 sacks.
One way Nevada did combat opposing offenses was with a decent pass rush that produced 29 sacks, good enough for third in the league. Hines did his part by being the run-stopper at the point of attack. While he had no sacks and only a modest 22 tackles, his job is to draw double teams, allowing the linebackers to make the majority of the run stops. He also needs to occupy enough guys on the pass rush to allow the ends and outside linebackers to slip on through.
Hines was all over the place in the spring game. He led the way with nine tackles, including three for loss and one sack. Wilson added six tackles of his own to show the backups what starting is all about.
One man who stands to benefit from all this teaching is junior end Erics Clark (6-5, 260). He served as an understudy to the dearly departed Craig Bailey, who had four sacks of his own last season. Clark appeared in all 12 games, managing 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks in somewhat limited action. He will be more of a force as a full-time starter in 2006.
Sophomore transfer Sam Stewart (6-3, 275) will be second on the depth chart behind Clark. He is among three newcomers expected to rotate in and out of the lineup as Ault tries to keep as many fresh faces as he can through the course of the season.
Redshirt freshman Nate Agaiava (6-2, 285) will back up Hines and sophomore transfer Mundrae Clifton (6-1, 295) will step in for Wilson when needed.
"We still have a long way to go defensively, but it starts up front," Ault said. "We've been inconsistent, but we played up to our potential somewhat in the spring game. We need to get better so we don't have to rely so much on the offense to pull us through."
The key to any 3-4 scheme is linebacker, and Nevada isn't hurting here.
Three starters from last year return, as do two more from two seasons back to give Ault all kinds of options as he plots his defensive strategy. Sam linebacker Ezra Butler (6-2, 255) did his part in 2005, finishing second on the team with 75 tackles. And that's only part of the story. He had a staggering 15.5 tackles for loss, including a team-high 5.5 sacks. As this guy goes from his outside spot, so goes the Wolf Pack. He will be the leader of a good pack of players.
The other outside linebacker in this scheme is called Bandit and will be played by junior Jeremy Engstrom (6-1, 247). In 2004, Engstrom made second-team All-WAC at the Mike linebacker, which is one of the two inside spots in this defense. Even though Engstrom didn't start last year, Ault thinks his experience will prove valuable to the other returning starters.
One is senior Jason DeMars (6-2, 255), who replaced Engstrom as starter at the Mike in 2005. He had a modest 39 tackles last season, a number that needs to increase if Nevada is going to discourage teams to run.
Sophomore Joshua Mauga (6-2, 245) returns as the starter at the Wolf linebacker. He had 32 tackles last season, including six for loss.
The wild card of this group is senior J.J. Milan (6-5, 265). A defensive end for his first three years in the program, he was switched in 2004 to linebacker, where he led the team in sacks with 4.5 and was tied for second in tackles for loss with 10.5. Injured in fall camp last year, Milan returns to a different defense than the one he played in two years ago. But he'll be a force wherever Ault puts him.
The backup at Bandit exiting the spring was senior Selevaso Fauolo (6-3, 220). He had 18 tackles last year with no sacks, something that has to improve in order to gain more playing time. Junior Nick Fuhr (6-3, 245) is No. 2 at the other outside spot. The Sam linebacker had only seven tackles last year, but did recover a fumble.
The inside boys are senior Scott Garrison (5-11, 220) at Wolf and junior Kevin Porter (6-1, 240) at Mike. They are a little undersized, but Garrison had some excellent numbers last year and could move into a starting role very easily. He not only finished with 35 tackles, he also managed five for loss, including four sacks. Garrison had one pick in pass coverage, showing his versatility. Porter didn't play last year, but had 20 tackles in 2004.
"We need these guys to come up big for us," Ault said. "It's a very good group, a lot of talent. They did a good job of setting the tone in the spring. They're going to be challenged in September. And then we fly over to Hawaii the first weekend in October, so our defense has to be up for the challenge of playing so many difficult games in a row."
This is where things get a little dicey for Ault. Despite returning two starters, the Wolf Pack needs to show real improvement in the secondary in order to have any chance of repeating as WAC champions. The good news is the front seven is solid and could put enough pressure on the quarterback to keep the secondary from being picked apart.
Even better news is senior cornerback Joe Garcia (6-0, 180) returns to do his part one last time. The first-team All-WAC defender, who is on the Lott Trophy watch list, was the third-leading tackler last year for Nevada with 72. He led the team in interceptions with four, which was also best in the WAC and 23rd in the country. He forced a pair of fumbles and managed 11 pass breakups as well. This guy has game.
To a lesser extent, so does fellow returning starter Sergio Villasenor (6-1, 220) at free safety. He had 18 tackles last year and one pass breakup after stepping in midway through the season. Look for junior college transfer Justin Jackson (6-1, 195) to see a little playing time here as well.
The starting strong safety spot is somewhat in flux. Freshman Mike Samples (6-0, 195) got some reps in the spring and will get a chance to show his stuff.
Senior Nick Hawthorne (6-0, 200) could also slip in there after battling back from injuries that kept him out of the lineup for four games last year and out of the spring as well.
When healthy, Hawthorne can play. He had 28 tackles in seven games in 2005 as the free safety, but more importantly, returned one of two interceptions 72 yards for a touchdown. In 2004 as a strong safety, he led the team in interceptions with five and returned two of those for scores as well. Look for him to be somewhere on the field.
The left cornerback spot will be manned by sophomore De'Angelo Wilson (5-10, 185). He started late in the season, finishing with 11 tackles, three pass breakups and two interceptions, but is still inexperienced enough to keep Ault up late nights.
Look for junior Shannon Sevor (5-10, 196) to help Garcia at right cornerback. Last season he had 20 tackles and two pass breakups in 12 games.
And don't overlook junior Paul Pratt (5-10, 185). He was a starting cornerback in 2004, before injuries forced him to the sideline last year. He started nine games as a sophomore and finished with 42 tackles. He also forced three broken pass plays, giving him some standing once fall camp begins.
Sophomore Uche Anyanwu (6-4, 220) will see some time at strong safety and junior college transfer Devon Walker (6-0, 180) will trail after Wilson at left corner. There's some talent there, but is it enough to offset the inexperience?
All-WAC punter Justin Bergendahl and the 41.3-yard average he produced last season will be difficult to replace.
Walk-on Thomas Barcia (5-7, 160) had the job in the spring. But Ault is bringing in another pair of walk-ons in fall camp to see who can win the day.
This isn't exactly what you hope for, especially in the early going where one bad punt could prove costly against top-caliber competition. But finding a reliable punter is not always easy, especially if a scholarship is not involved. Jaekle can step in if needed.
Hubbard and Sammons are the primary return men for the Wolf Pack on kickoffs. Hubbard led the team in kickoff returns with 13 for a 24-yard average and a long of 59. His health issues could keep him off returns, especially if depth at running back becomes a cause for concern. Sammons and Wilson had eight kickoff returns each, but neither was as much a threat as Hubbard.
Rosenblum, like Hubbard, has health issues but will probably handle punt returns. He had four last year for 38 yards. Ault also will give Garcia a look to see if his explosiveness can result in a big punt return or two.
Nevada wasn't that good on special teams last year, finishing last in the WAC on kickoff returns and fourth on punts. Look for that to improve in the upcoming season.
Ault has done a lot of right things on and off the field to give this team an air of respectability. Everyone figured Boise State to repeat as champions last season and the Broncos did just that. But this time around, they had to share the title with the surprising Wolf Pack.
As is often the case in a successful season, many things fell into place. A good example was the missed PAT in overtime by UCF that completed the unlikely comeback in the Hawaii Bowl. Will that kind of luck hold this season or will Nevada have to play that much better to get back to the postseason? Only time will tell.
The key will be the first six games. If Nevada can win four of those, including road games against league members Fresno State and Hawaii, then the Wolf Pack will be well on its way to a league repeat. Anything less and it could be a long climb to the top over the second half of the season.
Ault has a good offensive scheme in place. His defense, however, is still in transition and the special teams are only treading water. Throw in a tough schedule and anyone can see why Ault is concerned a letdown could be waiting. There's some toughness here, plus a lot of heart, and that could be the difference as the season moves along.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).