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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...NEVADA WOLF PACK
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Welcome to the Promised Land!

At least as far as the Nevada Wolf Pack is concerned.

That’s because we’re only talking about the Mountain West Conference.

For the Wolf Pack, however, affiliation with “the Mountain” is akin to hitting a jackpot at one of the slots at the nearby Silver Legacy or Harrah’s. Inclusion in the Mountain West is a culmination of two decades worth of ground laying and foresight in Reno, fostered mostly by College Football Hall of Fame HC Chris Ault, whose affiliation with the school up the street from the casinos on downtown Virginia Street is now closing in on five decades.

Indeed, it was Ault who foresaw the future for the Wolf Pack long ago, when Nevada sports were then campaigning in the Big Sky Conference. A move to the Big West, and Division I-A football, was finally forged in 1992, and when the Big West disintegrated as a football league later in the decade, the Pack, inspired by Ault (then the AD) and his vision, made a bigger leap to the WAC.

Now, a bit more than a decade later, with the WAC splintering, the Pack has made another jump, this time to its real target base over the past decade, the Mountain West. Although the MWC looks a bit different than it did a few years ago, it is a paradise of sorts for Nevada, joined again with Silver State sister school UNLV in what is eventually to become a sort of reunion for much of the old PCAA and Big West, at least the schools from those loops that continue to play football.

The grand scheme of Nevada athletics, as dreamed by Ault, would still have one more move, and that would be inclusion into the Pac-12 should it expand to sixteen members in the near future. But don’t expect Nevada to do any overt campaigning for another switch. If the Pac-12 comes calling, fine and dandy, but for the time being, the Mountain West provides an enhanced profile to the WAC and figures to work just fine for the Wolf Pack into the foreseeable future.

Now, what they’re worried more about in Reno is a future without the venerable Ault on the sidelines. Indeed, it would be hard to envision the Wolf Pack without “The Little General” somewhere in the vicinity. Ault has spent almost all of his adult life in Reno, beginning with his days as an undergrad and the Pack QB in the late ’60s, then as a high school coach in the area for a few years after his graduation. A brief stint on Ron Meyer’s UNLV staff in the early ‘70s was the only period since 1965 in which Ault wasn’t in Reno, but his alma mater called in 1976 and made him their head coach when he was only 29 years old.

Ault has won and won mostly big in three different stints as Nevada’s head coach sandwiched in and around an 18-year run as the Wolf Pack Athletic Director. When hiring himself to succeed Chris Tormey after the 2003 campaign, Ault was forced to relinquish his AD duties, but picked up where he left off in his first two stints as coach. Ault, who was elected to the College Football HOF in 2002, has recorded seven winning seasons and bowl visits in a row in his third term as coach.

Various sources in the region, however, are indicating that Ault, now 65, might be looking to coach for only two or three more seasons. Which is enough to make Pack fans shudder, considering how far the program slipped when Ault previously hung up his coaching whistle. Nevada won for a year in 1993 under Jeff Horton after Ault’s first coaching retirement, then The Little General returned to the sidelines for two successful seasons and another bowl bid (Las Vegas) in 1994-95 before stepping down again. Thereafter, however, neither Jeff Tisdel nor the aforementioned Tormey could keep the program afloat until Ault rode in to the rescue once again in 2004.

But the days in which Ault might no longer be on the sidelines are drawing nearer for Nevada football. Stay tuned for further developments.

For the moment, however, Ault remains in place, along with his pet “Pistol” offense that he introduced in 2005, the campaign in which the Pack’s current winning seasons and bowl streak commenced. Nevada has consistently ranked among the top ten rushing and total offense leaders since, with 2011 no exception when Nevada ranked sixth in total offense (507 ypg) and eighth in rush offense (248 ypg) while scoring 32 ppg. All of this in a supposed rebuilding year following the departure of 4-year starting QB Colin Kaepernick, now a member of the San Francisco 49ers.

Although the Pack regressed from the 13-1 team that finished 11th-ranked in the final 2010 polls, Nevada still got back to the postseason on the heels of a 7-5 regular-season mark a year ago prior to a bitter 24-17 loss to Southern Miss in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl.

In the process, Ault managed to uncover a capable heir apparent to Kaepernick in RS frosh QB Cody Fajardo (left), who took over for sr. Tyler Lantrip as the starter at midseason and immediately proved a proper fit for the Pistol when he rushed for 694 yards and 11 TDs while passing for another 1707 yards (and 69% completions). Having bulked up to 215 pounds in the offseason to better withstand the expected punishment he’ll take over a full season’s worth of games this fall, expect the exciting Fajardo to post even bigger numbers in 2012 (providing, of course, he doesn’t get injured along the way).

This year’s RS frosh QB to watch is Tanner Roderick, a former Montana Prep MVP who looks as if he could also post big numbers as a Pistol QB. As might juco Devin Combs, a superior runner who flourished at Modesto JC. Although neither Roderick nor Combs have taken a snap at the FBS level, they provide intriguing upside should Fajardo go down at some point this fall.

The Pistol figures to get a few new wrinkles in 2012 with the addition of new o.c. Nick Rolovich, not long ago a productive QB for June Jones at Hawaii and most recently the coordinator for Red Gun attacks on the islands for HC Greg McMackin, who was forced out in Honolulu after last season. Rolovich figures to add a few more aerial tricks to the offensive package without altering the Pistol’s focus upon the infantry.

Another experienced well-coordinated “The Union” OL should open up holes for a variety of backs and keep Fajardo fairly well-protected, although Ault and Rolovich spent spring closely monitoring the development of soph C Matt Galas, quick but a bit undersized at 275 pounds and taking the place of graduated starter Jordan Mudge. Three seniors, including an obliterating left side of the line featuring T Jeff Nady (right) and G Jeff Barker, plus RG Alex Pinto, provide the veteran leadership up front, while MWC sources believe soph T Kyle Roberts could eventually be the best of the bunch.

Ault has been reloading his Pistol RBs on almost an annual basis over the past seven seasons and 2012 should be no different after the departure of last year’s top rushers Lampford Mark & Mike Ball, who combined for over 1600 YR a year ago. Look for Ault to utilize a RB-by-committee approach that will surely include jr. Stefphon Jefferson, who’s totaled almost 900 YR in a reserve role the past two years and flashed plenty of big-play potential when gaining 6.1 ypc last fall. Soph pinball Kendall Brock anxiously awaits more work after gained 7.8 ypc in limited opportunities as a frosh, while Ault might have a bonafide pile-driver in 225-lb. RS frosh Tony Knight, perhaps the best potential power-back in Reno since rodeo cowboy Chance Kretschmer led the nation in rushing in 2001.

Also look for Fajardo to far surpass the 6 TD passes he threw a year ago, especially since WR Brandon Wimberly (left), considered an NFL prospect before a suffering a life-threatening gunshot wound early in 2011, is now back in the fold. If back near 100%, the 6'3, 210-lb. Wimberly (with 94 career catches) could emerge as a field-stretching threat. The emergence of soph Aaron Bradley (28 catches LY as a frosh) as 2011 progressed as a secondary-distorting threat also bodes well for Fajardo and the aerial games.

Meanwhile, the kicking game uncovered a surprise contributor last fall in walk-on Allen Hardison, a former soccer player as a youth in Orange County, Ca. and transfer from, of all places, UNLV, who displayed good accuracy and a strong leg when hitting 8 of 11 FGs last fall after first-stringer Anthony Martinez went down with a leg injury.

As is usually the case with Nevada, however, it’s how well the defense performs that will determine the eventual fate of the team. With the Ault Pistol likely to generate lots of yards and points, it will again be up to the “D” to uphold its end of the bargain...something often beyond its reach in recent years.

There have been several impact players gracing the Wolf Pack stop unit lately, however, and a few of those were among Nevada’s school-record four picks in last April’s NFL Draft (LB James-Michael Johnson by the Browns in the 4th round, LB Brandon Marshall by the Jags in the 5th round, and CB Isaiah Frey by the Bears in the 6th round; DE Brett Roy was a FA signee by the Jets). So, with much of last year’s stop unit spending the summer in NFL camps, the pressure is on d.c. Mike Bradeson to fill in an uncommon number of high-profile gaps on the Nevada defense.

The main area of concern is along the DL, where the graduated Roy provided much of the pass rush last year. A completely rebuilt front four will be tested early by Cal and South Florida before MWC play commences. Sierra Nevada sources do say that the new-look line is loaded with athleticism, however, with 270-lb. RS frosh DT Rykeem Yates and juco DE Tyler Houk most impressive in spring work. An all-senior LB corps should feature plenty of pressure from the edge with last year’s juco find Jeremiah Green and sr. DeAndre Broughton, who missed all of 2011 with a broken leg.

The strength, such as it is, of the platoon is likely to be in a veteran secondary that features honors candidates in hard-hitting sr. SS Duke Williams (left, vs. Hawaii last year), who recorded 83 tackles im 2011, and CB Khalid Wooten. The big play-ability of CB Frey (who had a team-best 8 picks a year ago) might be hard to replace, but Pack DBs allowed only 48% completions in 2011 and ranked near the middle of the "pack" in national pass defense stats after placing 98th the previous year. As with the LB corps, Bradeson likely employs an all-sr. secondary for the opener at Berkeley.

As mentioned, the Pack gets tested early this season, opening with a game at Cal in the first game at remodeled Memorial Stadium; Jeff Tedford’s Golden Bears will surely recall a 52-31 beating they absorbed at Reno two years ago. Big East contender South Florida then visits Mackay Stadium, and the Pack’s MWC debut takes place a couple of weeks later at another WAC defector, Hawaii. Pointspread-wise, Ault’s teams have historically been a good bully at home, but the Pack is only 5-6 as Reno chalk the past two seasons after a 19-4 mark in that role between 2004-09.

Summary...The Pack picked a good year to the move to the Mountain West, as the race appears wide open with Boise State and San Diego State both in rebuild modes before they bolt (supposedly) for the Big East in 2013. QB Fajardo is likely to post Colin Kaepernick-like numbers (at least 1000 YR and 2000 YP) if he can stay healthy, and the Pistol should again post eye-popping stats. How well the defense holds up in its new league, and how soon some new playmakers emerge on the stop unit (especially within the front four) should determine if Nevada can contend for a conference title in its first trip around the Mountain West track.


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