By Neil Patrick Healy
Nevada football is known for having reliable running backs, electric quarterback play and scoring points in bunches, but since Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault left the school in 2012, the offense has been stagnant. In Ault’s last year, Nevada ranked 14th in points per game. In the three years since his departure, the offense sunk to 77th, 51st and 78th, respectively. But with a new offensive coordinator, a slew of returning talent and a shot of adrenaline, this offense could be what brings the Wolf Pack out of its scoring slump. A combination of factors has led to the conclusion that there are no excuses for the Nevada offense not to be drastically improved.
RETURNING STARTERS: 10
QB Tyler Stewart, RB James Butler, the entire starting offensive line, TE Jarred Gipson, WR Jericho Richardson and WR Hasaan Henderson
RB Don Jackson, OL Adam Khouri and OL Joey Anglemire
RB Akeel Lynch
Points per game: 25.8 (78th)
Total offense: 76th
Yards per game: 375
THE NEW OFFENSE
Enter first-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. Once groomed by the offensive guru Chip Kelly of the San Francisco 49ers, Cramsey hit the college football radar last season leading the Montana State offense to one of the best in school history. The Bobcats ranked third in the FCS in both points per game (41.9) and yards per game (519.8) thanks to Cramsey’s ingenuity as a play caller. His most recent quarterback, Dakota Prukop, was the field general for the Bobcat offense and is now in line to be the starting quarterback at the University of Oregon.
Cramsey has had the better part of six months to instill his new offense, and he is pleased to see how well the players have grasped it.
“They’ve done a great job picking it up through the spring and through fall camp,” Cramsey said. “We have the entire package in. Everything that we have is in their heads.”
Unlike former Nevada offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, who is in his first season as head coach of the University of Hawaii, Cramsey is more fluent with the passing game. He also has a more motion-heavy offense that has players moving around in different formations.
“Coach Cramsey has a lot of moving pieces in his offense and a lot more moving around in the pass game,” Butler said. “I like it a lot. Teams can’t key in on just the run game like they did more so last year, so we’re a more balanced offense this year.”
With all the new moving pieces and new plays, the toughest part of instilling the new offense was some of the new ways to refer to a familiar play.
“It was a matter of changing terminology,” Cramsey said. “Schemes are very similar in a lot of ways. Last year something they were doing was called this, but now it’s called this. Then adding new schemes and new ideas on top of that. It’s moreso terminology than anything else for guys who have played football for a long time.”
Even with the weapons to utilize the passing game, the offense will still be oriented around the running game, led by Butler and Penn State graduate transfer Akeel Lynch. With a multitude of options on offense, the play calling won’t fall into the trap of being one-dimensional.
“I feel like we can be wide open when we want and be conservative when we want,” Stewart said. “I feel like that’s a good dynamic to have just to keep defenses on their toes.”
The guys up front were a question mark throughout last season. After suffering through a lack of depth and two rotational players having to retire due to injuries, the offensive line looks to build off the success of paving the way for two 1,000-yard rushers. The entire main starting unit returns from a year ago, and each member is in his fourth year of eligibility. That experience can’t be understated.
“I think it’s good they have a whole season under their belt, so we’re all excited,” Butler said. “I’m excited to get all those guys back and having the same five guys back. That should be fun.”
The fate of the offense rests on Stewart’s shoulders. Is it fair to expect him to carry the offense? No, but he still has to be able to put the ball in play and get it to his playmakers. If the offense falls into the predictability of being one-dimensional, as it did last season, then nothing will change, but all the pieces are in place to have an effective offense.
The receivers and tight ends possessing big-play ability, the run game expecting to be as good as last year’s and having a veteran offensive line all mean the offense could be sneaky good this season.
Expect a boost in the passing game. Is Stewart going to go bonkers and be the best quarterback in the conference? No, but there should be an improvement overall. The coaching staff knows what kind of player Stewart is. He knows the offense and can manage a game for you, but he isn’t going to be a gun-slinging quarterback and win you games with his arm. The coaches won’t put him in a position where he makes too many mistakes.
Stewart should throw for about 2,800 yards, 19 touchdowns and around eight interceptions. Phenomenal numbers? No, but compared to last season, those stats will be the best Nevada fans can ask for. Meanwhile, Butler and Lynch should both run all over defenses. Butler should rush for about 1400 yards and 13 touchdowns, Lynch should rush for about 850 yards and eight touchdowns. Butler will lead the team in carries, but the offense will still look for balance in the backfield.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.