By Neil Patrick Healy
Nevada football enters the 2016 season with several questions, and if this season is to be a success, then those questions must be answered. After two straight 7-6 campaigns and an overall record of 18-20 over the past three seasons, it’s put up or shut up time for head coach Brian Polian. Polian, who is entering the fourth year of his five-year contract, will have to make a big splash this season in order to secure a contract extension.
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IS TYLER STEWART GOOD ENOUGH?
It’s no secret that having a good quarterback is essential to the success of a football team. That being said, the Mountain West Conference isn’t stocked with blue-chip signal callers. Only Boise State sophomore Brett Rypien threw for over 3,000 yards a season ago, so the recipe for success in the MWC is to run the ball effectively and have a quarterback that can make just enough plays to not screw it up.
Enter Nevada senior quarterback Tyler Stewart, who is tasked with taking the offense to the next level in the passing game after a mediocre junior season. Stewart has the weapons around him to make the offense dynamic, with four skill position players named on award watch lists, the entire offensive line returning and 10 of 11 returning starters from last year. Not to mention the return of junior running back James Butler, who was the No. 2 option out of the backfield, and rushed for 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Stewart will also benefit from the installation of a new offensive playbook, thanks to first-year offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. After being groomed by former University of Oregon and current 49ers head coach Chip Kelly at the University of New Hampshire, Cramsey made a name for himself as the offensive coordinator at Montana State. His offense ranked third in the FCS in both points per game (41.9) and yards per game (519.8), while his former quarterback, Dakota Prukop, is now the starting signal caller at the University of Oregon.
If Nevada wants to take the next step as a team, the offense has to excel. Stewart’s stat line of 2139 yards, 15 touchdowns, seven interceptions and 57 percent completion rate will have to improve. His 6.6 yards per attempt average was the lowest in the conference among eligible quarterbacks. That just won’t cut it.
CAN THE OFFENSIVE LINE HOLD UP?
The offensive line was the subject of enormous criticism during stretches of last season. Despite clearing the way for two 1,000-yard rushers, the line was ravaged by injuries and lack of depth after two veteran linemen went down with career-ending injuries. Pile on the fact that three members of the starting unit were once walk-ons and the scrutiny was abound. Now, despite some depth concerns, that same unit looks to be one of the strengths of the team. With all five primary starters returning, and in at least their fourth year of eligibility, “The Union,” as it’s called, may be a little more difficult to criticize this season.
WHO WILL STEP UP IN THE FRONT SEVEN?
One of the strengths of last season’s team was a talented, experienced group along the defensive line and linebacker core. Now the only returning starter is senior nose tackle Salesa Faraimo, who will be looked to as the leader of a young front. The defensive line will be able to break-in sophomores Korey Rush and Malik Reed, who are young, but highly-anticipated talents. The linebacker core is completely remixed this year, with senior Alex Bertrando leading the way with six career starts over his first three years at Nevada.
Expect Nevada to be a tad more explosive and creative with regard to offense. Stewart isn’t going to impress anyone with the passing game, but the playbook will be opened up more for him thanks to Cramsey’s game plan. The Wolf Pack will still look to run first with Butler and Penn State graduate transfer Akeel Lynch in the backfield, but wide receivers Jericho Richardson and Hasaan Henderson will look to break out as seniors, while senior tight end Jarred Gipson will continue to be the consistent security blanket for the offense.
Expect the defense to take a step back out of the gate, but then show glimpses of improvement as the season progresses. Replacing that much experience and talent in the front seven is never an easy task for a program, but there is talent along the defensive line that can make the transition just a little more seamless. The secondary, particularly sophomore safeties Asani Rufus and Dameon Baber, will be the strength of the defense. The new starters at linebacker, who have all seen limited action in their careers at Nevada, may be the weak link to this rebuilding defense.
The offense should improve and be more balanced, but the defense will cost the Wolf Pack some games this season. If everything breaks perfectly, Nevada could be sitting at 8-4 and Polian will be signing a new and juicy contract extension. If things go wrong, Nevada could be sitting at 6-6 or even 5-7. I expect something in the middle and will bet Nevada finishes at 7-5 with a few close games in the fourth quarter. If that happens, the athletic department will have a tough decision to make about the future of its head football coach.
Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NP_Healy.