As Nevada football gears up for the 2019 campaign, the Sports Desk at the Nevada Sagebrush breaks down the team and gives insight on the personnel on the field. The season is headlined by marque games across the schedule. From the opener against Purdue, to the return of a bitter rival in Reno, Nevada football is primed for a much anticipated season.
Nevada’s utmost concern on offense begins under center. Fifth-year senior quarterback Cristian Solano broke his throwing hand during training camp on Aug. 4, which required in-season surgery.
Solano’s injury opened the door for redshirt freshman Carson Strong and junior Malik Henry to compete for the starting quarterback job. Strong swooped in and took it, he was officially announced the starting quarterback on Aug. 18.
Strong is looking for his first full taste of action with Nevada. He appeared in one game for the Pack last season against Portland State, rushing once for four yards before he redshirted the rest of the year.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has turned heads throughout training camp. For now, Strong hold the reins to the Wolf Pack offense. Henry is dealing with an undisclosed injury that’s kept him away from the action over the past two weeks.
Strong put on a show during the Silver and Blue spring game on April 27, displaying pinpoint accuracy down the field and stepping up in the pocket to avoid the rush from the defense. He has the physical tools to take full control of the offense, and a huge chunk of Nevada’s season may be riding on the young signal caller’s shoulders.
Fans may recognize the name Henry, as the junior was front and center on Netflix’s ‘Last Chance U’.
Henry is still looking for a second chance. The former Florida State product walked on to Nevada from Independence Community College in Kansas. He’s showcased a powerful arm throughout his collegiate career. His longest pass of the 2017-18 season was an 83-yard touchdown.
While Henry has the traits under center, injuries have negated his ability to stay on the field.
No matter who starts under center, Nevada has the offensive firepower to give opposing defensive coordinators headaches.
Sophomore running back Toa Taua is looking to build upon an impressive freshman year where he led the team with 872 rushing yards and six touchdowns. He was added to initial watch list for The Maxwell Award, given to the nation’s all-around best player of the year this preseason. He also was named to the Mountain West Preseason All-Conference Team. The depth behind Taua offers an even mix of bulk and speed.
Devonte Lee and Kelton Moore look to solidify the second and third spots on the running back depth chart. Lee’s 230-pound frame was used as a stable goal line running back last season and brought the physicality between the tackles. Moore began the 2018 season as the starting back, appearing in all 13 games, but only started six of them. He rushed for 433 yards — second on the team — eclipsing the endzone four times on 90 carries. The senior back also posed as a receiving threat out of the backfield, hauling a career-high 20 receptions last season.
Senior running back Jaxson Kincaide rounds out the group. Kincaide spread his elusiveness and versatility all over the field last season. He rushed for 119 yards and added 111 receiving yards and two touchdowns split out wide as a receiver last year. He’ll be fighting for reps this year in a heavily crowded backfield.
The cupboard isn’t empty at wide receiver, either. Kaleb Fossum, Elijah Cooks and Romeo Doubs form an intriguing trio for the Wolf Pack.
Fossum, who led the team with 70 receptions last season, finished second on the team with 734 receiving yards. Doubs added 562 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Cooks’ 6-foot-4 size was used as a red-zone threat, hauling in six receiving touchdowns, the most among returning Pack wideouts.
Brendan O’Leary-Orange and senior wideout Ben Putman should also see time on the field. O’Leary-Orange, who missed time last season due to a concussion, added 214 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Putman had a team-high 114 receiving yards on four receptions in Nevada’s 16-13 overtime victory in the Arizona Bowl over the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Gardnerville native Reagan Roberson provides a downfield threat from the tight end position, as well.
Nevada returns two starters on the offensive line, right guard Nate Brown and left tackle Jake Nelson. Nelson, an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention last season, looks to anchor an offensive line that did a solid job protecting the quarterback. The Union—the nickname for the offensive line—only allowed 1.17 sacks per contest, 14th best in the FBS.
The Pack still has plenty of weapons and a solid offensive line, they can help take some of the load off for the new face at quarterback.
The Wolf Pack have glaring holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball. They lose four of their top five leading tacklers from last season. Nevada soared to first place in the Mountain West Conference with 35 sacks last season, which tied for 23rd in the nation. The Pack defense also put together 103 tackles for loss, tied for 11th most in the FBS and atop of the Mountain West. The departures of seniors Malik Reed and Korey Rush — who combined for 14 sacks and 14 tackles for loss — has raised some questions about getting into the opposing backfield in Nevada’s 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
Despite the absences on the line, Nevada has retained a formidable group of Lucas Weber, Gabe Sewell, Sam Hammond, Hausia Sekona, Adam Lopez and Dom Peterson in the front seven. Peterson, Sewell and Weber combined for 11.5 sacks last season. Additionally, Sewell led the team with 92 tackles last year. Peterson is expected to miss the season opener against Purdue on Aug. 30 with a supposed knee injury he suffered in practice, according to Chris Murray of Nevada Sports Net.
Putting pressure on the opposing team’s quarterback is crucial, and it can take some pressure off the secondary in the process. Nevada ranked 88 in the nation in pass defense last season, surrendering 245.5 pass yards per game, according to CBS Sports. For that number to improve, it may fall on the responsibilities of Daniel Brown and EJ Muhammad.
Former Nevada defensive back Jomon Dotson led the team with 63 solo tackles and was second with two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season.Dotson signed as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears, leaving big cleats to fill in the secondary.
Brown, named an All-Mountain West Honorable Mention last season, started all 13 games with the Pack last year and made steady improvements as the season progressed. Muhammed played just two games for the Pack last season after suffering a season-ending injury, but the lanky defensive back looks to bounce back in his senior season.
Junior Berdale Robins has an opportunity to earn a starting spot. He registered 16 tackles, one interception and three pass breakups in 10 games last season.
A new defensive approach has forced Daiyan Henley and Kaymen Cureton to change positions in order to help patch a depleted secondary. Henley is expected to move from wide receiver to cornerback. He caught a career-high nine passes for 129 yards for the Wolf Pack last season. Cureton will move from a dual-threat quarterback to safety. Cureton had three appearances under center for Nevada as a true freshman in 2017. He redshirted the following year.
Both players have a unique blend of athleticism that can help in the transition to defense. As the last line of defense, Cureton’s top-end speed can put a stop to any blown assignments in coverage. Henley’s quickness and change of direction can help him stay glued to opposing receivers step-for-step down the field.
This year’s defense can make an immediate impact, but it’s crucial for the Pack to develop an early chemistry to get off to a solid start. Nevada’s defense proved to be a turning point for a bowl-winning season, and they may have to replicate last year’s production with several new faces.
Nevada’s special teams will rely heavily on the legs of two men, Quinton Conaway and Spencer Pettit. The two have been contributors for Nevada over the last few seasons, Conaway especially.
Last season Conaway averaged 43.3 yards per punt, ranking him at fourth in the MW among punters with at least 50 attempts. This season, only two of the punters that edged out Conaway are still around, giving him a chance to edge out the competition.
Conaway is primed to compete for the title of best punter in the MW. He already has shown that he has the capability to do it, as he was nominated for the Ray Guy award last season. The Ray Guy Award is given to the best punter in the nation, named after the College Football and NFL Hall of Famer of the same name.
The punter was also able to score himself some accolades at the conference level. Last season, against San Diego State, Conaway was named the MW Special Teams Player of the Week. In the victory over SDSU, Conaway punted nine times for a total of 460 yards, averaging over 50 yards per punt.
If Nevada finds themselves backed up in their own endzone this season, look for Conaway to flip the field.
A season ago, Ramiz Ahmed was the main place kicker for the Pack. Ahmed has since graduated, and replacing is Pettit. Pettit saw action in three games last season, going 3-3 on point after attempts. However, the season prior to this, Pettit saw the field quite a bit.
In 2017, Pettit’s sophomore season, he was the team’s primary placekicker. He went 8-11 on field goal attempts, including a long of 47 yards against Toledo.
Pettit admittedly hasn’t seen much action since the 2017-18 season, but as the most experienced kicker on the roster, he’ll get the starting nod against Purdue. The other two kickers on Nevada’s roster—Steven Opella and Brandon Talton—are both freshmen.
The last position group on Nevada’s special teams unit that should be looked into is long snapper. Former starter Wes Farnsworth now plays for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL, leaving a question mark over the position, who will take his place.
The likely choice is Robert Hill, a transfer who has spent time at both Tulsa and Georgia. Not much information is out on Hill, but that goes for the other two long snappers as well.
Rounding of the position group is sophomore Karson Thomas and redshirt freshman Austin Ortega. Thomas is a local product — Wooster High School — where as Ortega is from San Antonio, Texas. Neither has seen the field yet in a Wolf Pack uniform.
If Nevada is to return to a bowl game and compete for a MW championship, all three sides of the ball need to be unison. Hopefully for the Pack, that happens.