Expectations for the 2016 Nevada Wolf Pack are the highest since Chris Ault led the program.
Coach Brian Polian is entering his fourth season as the head coach and the schedule is certainly favorable to make a run at a berth in the Mountain West Championship game. San Diego State, which has allusions of an undefeated season, remains the biggest obstacle.
Nevada is coming off two straight 7-6 seasons, including last year’s campaign that ended with a win in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl over Colorado State, just the program’s fourth bowl victory.
Nine starters return on the offensive side, including stud junior running back James Butler (ran for 1,342 yards in a crowded backfield last year) and senior quarterback Tyler Stewart. On the outside, senior receivers Hasaan Henderson and Jerico Richardson have the potential to be one of the better receiving tandems in the conference under the direction of new offensive coordinator, Tim Cramsey, out of Montana State.
Larger question marks persist on the other side of the ball. The sophomore safeties (Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus) will be the strength of the defense with almost an entirely new starting front seven. Polian was most concerned about the linebacking corp entering fall camp so that will be a unit to watch, specifically redshirt freshman Gabe Sewell and junior Travis Wilson.
It all starts Friday night against Cal Poly at Mackay Stadium, which received an $11.5 million facelift in the offseason.
It is the third straight season Nevada has opened at home against an FCS program. The Pack has won the previous two meetings, but neither were in dominating fashion. Nevada beat Southern Utah, 28-19, to start 2014 and UC Davis, 31-17, in last year’s opener.
Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.
About the Mustangs
Coach: Tim Walsh (eighth season, 43-37)
2014 finish: 4-7, 3-5 (10th in Big Sky)
Quarterback: Redshirt senior Dano Graves is taking over the starting quarterback duties for the graduated Chris Brown. Brown accounted for over 3,000 career yards both running and passing in the Mustangs’ triple-option offense. Graves has thrown for 536 yards and ran for 499, starting five games as a sophomore. He was relegated to the backup role as a junior before redshirting last season. Graves was a high school phenom, garnering Maxpreps National Player of the Year honors in 2010.
Weapons: Cal Poly led the FCS in rushing for the third straight season last year (387.3 yards/game) and is going to ask running back Joe Protheroe to carry the rock. The junior is a 2016 preseason All-Conference selection and was named an FCS Preseason Second Team All American. Pretheroe ran for 779 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore while missing a pair of games. Kori Garcia will be an alternative in the triple-option ground game. He ran for 780 yards (second on team behind Brown) and five touchdowns last fall. When the Mustangs will opt to throw the ball, which is rare, it is unknown who’s going to catch it. Last year’s leading receiver, Willie Tucker, graduated. Tucker finished with 17 grabs for 383 yards and six touchdowns. Nobody else had more than 158 yards.
What to look for
-Scheduling an FCS opponent at home in the opener makes sense for Nevada. But Cal Poly presents a unique challenge. The Mustangs run the triple-option, which requires great discipline on the defensive side. Nevada is breaking in almost an entirely new front seven, so that group will be tested right out of the gate. Defensive ends are key reads for option offenses. Malik Reed and Patrick Choudja will be tested.
-Nevada was not an explosive team last year. Part of that was due to the success of the ground game with James Butler and Don Jackson. Part of that was because the deep ball simply wasn’t there. With Tim Cramsey taking over for former offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich (now head coach at Hawaii), and a slew of skill players returning, the big play potential is there in 2016. The Mustangs struggled to slow opponents last year, allowing 287.4 passing yards per game. Stewart and the aerial attack will have opportunities.
-Butler ran a team-high 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns as a sophomore while accounting for just 40 percent of the team’s rushing attempts. He led the conference with 6.5 yards/carry. Running behind an experienced offensive line and with the aid of an improved passing game, he’s poised for a big 2016. Don’t expect the running game to be a one-man show, however. Akeel Lynch transferred to Nevada from Penn State in the offseason. It will be worth following how much time he gets.
-The last two seasons Nevada opened with an FCS opponent and it hasn’t been sexy. A nine-point win over Southern Utah and a 14-point victory over UC Davis didn’t exactly set a promising tone. With increased expectations and a looming matchup at No. 10 Notre Dame next week, a crisp showing could be the first step for a program trying to move up the food chain in the Mountain West.
Let’s be honest, Nevada’s offense was hard to watch at times last year. The ground game was efficient, but 4-yard runs on first down to set up second and manageable don’t put butts in the seats. With so many weapons coming back this year and Cramsey in place to mold a new offensive identity, we should see more chunk plays, starting Friday night against an FCS defense that struggled in 2015, allowing 35.5 points per game. Those plays will be enough to overcome “learning opportunities” the new-look defense will surely experience trying to limit the triple option.
Nevada 38, Cal Poly 17