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TGS 2011 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...NEVADA WOLF PACK
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


A lot of good that 13-1 record and rank of 11th in last year’s final polls has done for the Nevada Wolf Pack!

We’re talking about the Pack’s 2011 schedule, which hardly befits a program that has made six straight bowl appearances and accomplished as much as Nevada did a year ago. Four road games await Nevada out of the chute this season, and these aren't trips to Big Sky or Sun Belt locales, either. Try visits to last year’s BCS finalist Oregon, bowl winner Texas Tech, and top ten Boise State (which hasn’t lost a regular-season home game since 2001), in three of the first four weeks. A date at WAC foe San Jose State follows the opener at Eugene, but therein lies one of the byproducts of the Pack’s pending move to the Mountain West Conference, slated for 2012. More specifically, the jilted WAC was in no mood to do any favors for Nevada when it requested some help in rescheduling that game vs. the Spartans, either to later in the season or perhaps juggling the conference slate to move a later home game into September. San Jose had no interest in accommodating the Wolf Pack, either, and since the cash-strapped Nevada program was not about to lose the nice paydays (reportedly to total into seven figures) it will experience in the trips to Eugene and Lubbock, or the TV date vs. Boise (which becomes a conference game again next season when the Pack moves to the MWC), Nevada was stuck.

We can only guess the reaction of the tempestuous “Little General” himself, HC Chris Ault, and any conversation he might have had with AD Cary Groth when it became apparent in early spring that the scheduling nightmare could not be avoided. Let’s just say it might have been fun to be a fly on the wall for that discussion.

The move to the Mountain West, however, has long been a goal of Ault and the Wolf Pack program, which for years has been desirous to reunite with sister school UNLV; the Rebels have been competing in different leagues than the Reno branch since 1995, when both schools were members of the Big West. Originally, Nevada and Fresno State (which moved in tandem with the Pack to the Mountain West) were expecting to leave the WAC in 2011, but steep departure penalties have delayed each, as well as Hawaii, from joining the MWC until 2012. Hawaii will only be competing in the Mountain West for football, linking with the Big West for other sports; more on the Warriors in coming weeks.

For Ault, however, 2010 proved the frosting on the cake for a marvelous career in Reno that had already landed the Little General in the College Football Hall of Fame from earlier coaching stints with the Wolf Pack before he reassumed control of the program (and leaving the AD chair to do so) in 2004. It was also the culmination of a marvelous 4-year career by QB Colin Kaepernick, the perfect triggerman for Ault’s unique “Pistol” formation who was a 2nd-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in last April’s NFL Draft. All Kaepernick did was become the first player in college football history to pass for at least 2000 yards and rush for at least 1000 yards in three consecutive years, as well as become only the third QB to ever pass for over 3000 yards and rush for over 1000 yards in the same season, not to mention tie former Nebraska Heisman winner Eric Crouch for most rush TDs (59) in a career by a QB. “Kap” was also just the third NCAA player to ever pass for 20 TDs and run for 20 TDs in a season. In other words, he leaves some pretty big shoes to fill.

Along the way with Kaepernick at the helm, the Pack also became one of the most-colorful and entertaining shows in college football, and the biggest deal to hit Reno since the Rat Pack would make occasional visits to local showrooms in the ‘60s. Last year was the big jackpot, with the school's first ranking in the polls since 1948, capped by a wild 34-31 overtime win over Boise State on Thanksgiving Friday, wrecking the Broncos’ undefeated season, which was considered by many as last season’s Game of the Year as well. A 20-13 win over Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl was also the Pack's first bowl win after four straight postseason losses since winning the Hawaii Bowl in 2005.

Kaepernick is not all Nevada lost from last year’s dream team, however, with slashing north-south RB deluxe Vai Taua (1610 YR LY), TE Virgil Green (Broncos draftee), and three other starters from the 2010 offensive juggernaut that produced a whopping 41 ppg also finished with their college careers. That list also includes WR Brandon Wimberly, the team’s second leading receiver with 41 catches last season who suffered gunshot wounds in the offseason, and whose career has likely ended.

Eventually, Ault is expecting redshirt frosh Cody Fajardo, a decorated prep from Anaheim (CA) Servite High, to assume the QB duties, but for the moment it appears sr. Tyler Lantrip, Kaepernick’s caddy the past two years, will take the snaps in the opener at Oregon after doing enough in spring to claim the starting role. WAC sources believe the 6'4 Lantrip has the nuances of the Pistol down pat, and might be able to do a reasonable impersonation of Kaepernick, if lacking his game-altering gifts. Taua is likely to replaced by a committee of RBs led by a couple of quick-hitting slashers, Lampford Mark (7.5 ypc LY) & Mike Ball (6.8 ypc in 2010), who have both demonstrated coast-to-coast ability in the past. The darkhorse in the mix could be touted frosh Kendall Brock, built low along the lines of the graduated Taua after leading the San Joaquin Valley in rushing last season and whom some believe could emerge if Ault doesn’t decide to redshirt him instead. Three starters are back from the latest version of a series of robust Pack offensive lines that have been opening holes for various Nevada runners for years. Wimberly’s absence, however, could be felt by the receiving corps which will need someone else to take pressure off big-play threat Rishard Matthews, who caught a team-high 56 passes LY and was named MVP of the Kraft Bowl vs. BC after catching 7 passes and scoring twice vs. the rugged Eagles, including a 72-yard punt return. Senior Tray Session has hinted at a breakout in the past, and after gaining nearly 19 yp reception in 2010 could emerge as a dual deep threat along with Matthews. Ault was also fretting in spring about replacing the various dimensions of valuable TE Green; one of several newcomers, perhaps RS frosh DeAndre Roberts, will have to emerge.

At least the Nevada defense advanced from road kill status a year ago under new d.c. Andy Buh, a Pack alum lured from Stanford back to Reno by Ault and who impressed with various scheme alterations out of the base 4-3 alignment last season. Nevada’s stop unit numbers had rated among the nation’s worst for several years prior to 2010, when under Buh the points per game allowance dropped to a respectable 21.4 (31st in the nation) and the “D” displayed a big-play bent when collecting 35 sacks, which ranked 13th in the land. Replacing the contributions of hybrid DE/LB Dontay Moch, a 3rd-round pick of the Bengals who had a whopping 22 tackles for loss in 2010 along with 8 ½ sacks, won’t be easy, but several defensive playmakers return. Including senior LB James-Michael Johnson, an All-WAC pick who ended up the Pack’s leading tackler with 88 a year ago after Buh moved him from the outside to the inside, and one of seven starters who return from 2010. Other impact performers include DT Brett Roy (8 sacks LY), sr. CB Isaiah Frey, and jr. SS Duke Williams in a speed-based platoon that also welcomes a few interesting additions, in particular ex-UCLA signee DT Rykeem Yates, whom some sources believe could immediately vie for playing time, and true frosh LB Burton De Koning, who could also make his presence felt if not redshirted.

Summary...It’s too bad the Pack has to run through that meatgrinder of a slate in September; don’t expect to see Nevada in the rankings again this season after a likely slow start. Another bowl bid, however, looks entirely possible, especially if Lantrip provides proper stewardship for Ault’s Pistol, which was firing live ammunition long before Colin Kaepernick showed up a few years ago. By October (when the home portion of the schedule begins), Lantrip might have also progressed enough for Ault to continue his well-documented success as Mackay Stadium chalk, a role in which his teams are 21-6 against FBS opposition since his return to the sidelines in Reno back in 2004.


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