Editor’s Note: Any articles produced under the name “The Sports Desk” are produced in the combined efforts of the entire sports section of the Nevada Sagebrush.
1. Who’s the starter at quarterback?
With the departure of starter Ty Gangi from Nevada, a hole has been left in the Wolf Pack offense, which presents the biggest question facing head coach Jay Norvell: who will steer the ship for the Pack this season? There are three main competitors for the position as Nevada heads into camp: senior Cristian Solano, walk-on Malik Henry and redshirt freshman Carson Strong.
Solano looks to be the favorite entering 2019. Serving as Gangi’s backup last season, even starting one game when Gangi went down with an injury. In that start, he finished with a 51 percent completion rate while throwing for 195 yards. Additionally, he scrambled for 71 yards on 23 attempts.
The senior quarterback was used sparingly throughout the 2018-19 season, being mostly regulated as rushing option over the year. His longest run on the season — and career — came against Colorado St. when he picked up 17 yards on the ground.
Solano has been in Norvell’s offense since the head coach came to Nevada prior to the start of the 2017 season. His familiarity with said offense gives him an advantage over both Henry and Strong.
With the arrival of Henry from Independence Community College in Kansas, an interesting conundrum at quarterback has emerged. Henry made a name for himself nationally on Netflix’s Last Chance U. Henry was in the spotlight of the show for a season and a half. In that spotlight, Henry managed to showcase his biggest attribute: a powerful arm.
Henry possesses next level deep threat ability. His longest pass of the 2017-18 season resulted in an 83-yard touchdown. Henry’s 2018-19 record pass also resulted in a touchdown but went for a modest 69 yards by comparison.
Over 12 games at ICC, Henry averaged a 52.4 completion percentage while throwing for 1,620 yards with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The biggest concern facing Henry is his accuracy.
In the Silver and Blue game this past April, Henry had the lowest completion percentage of the three quarterbacks. He completed 57.1 percent of his throws, versus Strong’s 69.2 percent and Solano, who completed 76.4 percent of his passes.
Prior to playing at ICC, Henry was committed to Florida State. Henry played for the Seminoles for just one season before deciding to transfer out of the program. He didn’t appear in a single game for the Seminoles that year.
Coming out of high school, Henry was regarded to be in the top 300 high school athletes for the 2016 class. He was rated as a four-star athlete and was considered one of the standouts’ in Florida State’s No. 1 nationally ranked recruiting class.
The walk-on quarterback presents the most likely competition for Solano out of everyone in the position group. However, it’s redshirt freshman Strong, who shouldn’t be overlooked.
Strong performed well in the Silver and Blue scrimmage. He finished the game with 195 yards through the air while leading the offense to the endzone twice. Out of three quarterbacks, he was second in both passing yards and completion percentage for the game. Edging out Solano in total yards, and Henry in competition rate.
His day was highlighted by a 25-yard dime to wide receiver Elijah Cooks. This was his first of two touchdowns on the day. Strong’s final score came off a 20-yard pass, again to Cooks.
Strong is the most underdeveloped of the three, but what he lacks in experience he makes up for in talent. He has a bright future with this team, but it’s unlikely that the Strong-era begins at the start of this season.
With training camp starting shortly, the answer to who is the starter will be answered soon enough. That being said, everything points to Solano leading Nevada to begin the season.
2. How high is the ceiling for sophomore Toa Taua?
Entering his second season, Nevada running back Toa Taua has already garnered some national recognition.
Taua was added to the Doak Walker Award watch list for the nation’s top running back. He also was named to initial watch list for The Maxwell Award given to the nation’s all-around best player of the year. Taua’s presence also spread to the Mountain West Conference. He joined linebacker Lucas Weber as the lone Wolf Pack members named to the MW Preseason All-Conference Team.
As a freshman last year, Taua led Nevada with 872 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, he added 202 receiving yards on 22 receptions and one touchdown.
Taua’s versatility on the ground and out of the backfield makes him a threat every time he steps on the field.
“I’m gonna have to be a dual-threat for our offense,” he told the Nevada Sagebrush during spring practices. “One of the things I’m working on is my releases off the ball and yards after the catch to eat up some yards.”
Workload won’t look to be an issue this upcoming season for the 205-pound thumper. Taua holds the reins to the backfield ahead of running backs Kelton Moore, Devonta Lee and Jaxson Kincaide. He led the team last season with 178 carries and his emergence in the receiving game points to his potential down the road.
The sky’s the limit for Taua heading into his sophomore season. He will look to be the focal point of the offense following a breakout freshman year.
3. How effective will the Wolf Pack’s pass rush be this season?
Heading into 2017, Nevada was coming off their worst pass-rushing season under former head coach Brian Polian. In the season prior, Nevada totaled 13 sacks, which ranked them 123rd out of 128 teams in the nation. Norvell was brought on prior the ‘17 season to replace Polian.
Fast forward a couple of seasons, and Nevada’s defense looks to be writing a very different story.
After switching to a 3-3-5 scheme under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, the pass rush has steadily improved. The Pack soared up atop the Mountain West rankings last season, totaling 35 sacks and ranking T-27 in the nation. This was their highest mark since 2010, when they totaled 35 sacks led by Dontay Moch, 8.5 sacks, and Brett Roy — 8.0.
Entering the 2019 campaign, the Pack are down two of their leading sack leaders from a season ago. Malik Reed, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Denver Broncos, amassed 8.0 sacks in his final season with Nevada. Also, now-departed is Korey Rush, who was second on the team with 6.0 sacks. However, they will retain key pieces to their front seven, including Gabe Sewell, Dom Peterson and Lucas Weber. The trio combined for 11.5 sacks last season.
Nevada allowed 245.5 passing yards per game last season — an improvement from 263.1 yards the previous season. The familiarity with the defensive scheme, along with their staunch ability to get to the quarterback, has translated to the year-to-year success in the Pack’s pass defense. Additionally, Nevada has plenty of depth in their front seven. Look for Peterson and Sam Hammond to take a jump this season, as they will be relied on the help lead the defensive front.
4. Will Nevada continue to improve following a strong 2018?
The Wolf Pack’s historic 2018 season has them hungry for more.
Following its first eight-win season since joining the Mountain West Conference, Nevada is ready to make a run at another postseason appearance. The Wolf Pack topped the Arkansas State Red Wolves 16-13 in the Arizona Bowl on Dec. 29.
So far, Norvell is impressed with what his team has shown.
“It’s awesome, loving the intensity,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys ready to compete and some younger players jumping at the opportunity … We want to build upon the success off last season.”
In a preseason poll by the Mountain West Conference media panel, Nevada was picked third in the West Division behind the Fresno State Bulldogs and the San Diego State Aztecs.
As last season came to a close, the Wolf Pack used momentum to push for a bowl berth. They finished their last five games with a 4-1 record, including a season-high four-game winning streak to put them back into bowl game contention.
Heading into the 2019 campaign, the Wolf Pack’s schedule is packed with tough non-conference opponents including Purdue and Oregon. UTEP and Weber State also make an appearance to round out the regular season. Weber State finished first in the Big Sky Conference with a 10-3 record overall and 7-1 in conference play.
The rest of Nevada’s conference foes haven’t taken a step back either. The Aztecs and Bulldogs sit atop the MW with plenty of depth and returning seniors on both sides of the ball. Fresno State took down Boise State, 19-16, in the Mountain West Conference Championship a season ago.
Despite the tougher schedule, the Wolf Pack have the ability to return to a bowl game and compete for a MWC title. Nevada has some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but they remain a competitive squad with plenty of talent. Under Norvell, the Pack has taken a tremendous step up in their development as a program.
The Pack have the personnel and explosiveness on both sides of the ball to rise in the regular season standings. Nevada scheduled up to their competition coming off a postseason victory, and it may just pay off when the season is all said and done.
5. With Jomon Dotson gone, will the secondary improve in 2019?
Nevada finished last season ranked 88 in the nation for their pass defense per CBS Sports. The group will look to rebound and improve in 2019, but with Jomon Dotson departing the program to pursue his NFL dreams, is this doable?
If Nevada’s secondary does indeed take that next step, it will fall upon the shoulders of Daniel Brown and EJ Muhammad to lead them.
Brown, who started each of the Pack’s 13 games a season ago, will be asked to fill the hole left by Dotson. Last season, Dotson was Nevada’s leader in solo tackles, with 63. In addition, he was second on the team in both interceptions and forced fumbles, having two in each category.
Dotson signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears following the 2019 NFL Draft. Currently, Dotson is on the team’s injured reserve list due to an undisclosed injury. It is unclear if he will see the field this season.
At the end of last season, Brown received praise for his stellar season. He was named to the All-Mountain West Honorable Mention list and was rated by Pro Football Focus as one of the top two cornerbacks in the MWC.
According to PFF, Brown allowed 47.5 percent of balls thrown in his direction to be caught. In the sub 50 percent of the time Brown did give up a pass, it wasn’t much. He was ranked second in the conference among cornerbacks, surrendering 0.76 yards per coverage snap.
Completing the starting cornerback tandem, is Muhammad. An injury sidelined the senior in 2018 after just the first two games of the season. However, it was in these first two games that Muhammad flashed his talent. Between the matchups against Portland State and Vanderbilt, Muhammad racked up eight total tackles and two pass breakups.
The pair are set to lead Nevada’s pass defense going into the 2019 season. They will have to get ready quick though, as their first test will be marching into Mackay Stadium on Aug. 30. On that day, the Purdue Boilermakers will descend on Reno.
Last season, Purdue finished the year with the 11th nationally ranked passing attack per CBS Sports. Since the end of last season, Purdue has gone through a changing of the guard at quarterback. Former quarterback David Blough entered the NFL and is competing for a roster spot with the Cleveland Browns.
Replacing Blough will be redshirt senior Elijah Sindelar. Sindelar previously saw the field in 2017, when he rotated at the position with Blough. While splitting time, Sindelar accumulated over 2,000 passing yards and 18 touchdowns. Last season however, he was sidelined with two injuries, an ACL and a midsection injury.
Despite coming off an injury, Sindelar and the Boilermakers will provide a tough early season test for Nevada.
With the season just a few weeks away, the depth chart will begin to take shape very soon. Norvell, along with his coordinators Casteel and Matt Mumme, will be tasked with improving on the team’s 8-5 record from a season ago. Thus far in the Norvell-era every season has had a higher win total than the last. Hopefully for the Pack, that trend will continue.
The Sports Desk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SagebrushSports.