2014 CFN Preview - Nevada Wolf Pack
Nevada QB Cody Fajardo
Nevada QB Cody Fajardo
Posted Jul 22, 2014

Preview 2014 - The grace period is over. Nevada has to start winning again. (Getty Images)

Nevada Wolf Pack

Preview 2014

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Brian Polian
2nd year: 4-8
Returning Lettermen
Off, 15, Def. 21, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 21
Ten Best Wolf Pack Players
1. DE Brock Hekking, Sr.
2. QB Cody Fajardo, Sr.
3. CB Charles Garrett, Sr.
4. RB Kendall Brock, Sr.
5. LB Jonathan McNeal, Sr.
6. RB Don Jackson, Jr.
7. WR Richy Turner, Sr.
8. CB Evan Favors, Sr.
9. DT Rykeem Yates, Jr.
10. PK Brent Zuzo, Soph.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 30 Southern Utah
Sep. 5 Washington State
Sep. 13 at Arizona
Sep. 27 at San Jose State
Oct. 4 Boise State
Oct. 11 Colorado State
Oct. 18 at BYU
Oct. 25 at Hawaii
Nov. 1 San Diego State
Nov. 15 at Air Force
Nov. 22 Fresno State
Nov. 29 at UNLV

There was bound to be a reboot and a grace period, but 2014 needs to be it.

Defense might have been optional at times under Chris Ault, but his teams were always players in conference seasons and went to bowl games on a regular basis. 2004 was the last time the program suffered a losing season without going to a bowl game – the Wolf Pack went 6-7 in 2007 after getting shut out by New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl – making the 4-8 first season under Brian Polian all the more alarming.

To be fair, there were a ton of injuries to deal with offensively, and it’s not like there were any cheap losses with all eight defeats coming to teams that went bowling including Florida State, UCLA, Fresno State and BYU, but Nevada is supposed to be at the point where it’s dominating the UNLVs and Colorado States of the world, not losing to them.

Fortunately, there’s no Florida State on the slate this year and it shouldn’t be too hard to be two wins better to at least get back to 6-6, but again, that’s not where Nevada football is supposed to be.

As the Colin Kaepernick-led 13-1 campaign of 2010 showed, the program can be really good, really strong, and be one of the true contenders for the conference championship on a regular basis. But first, Polian has to find a defense that can stop a decent offense after finishing second-to-last in the nation against the run, doing nothing against the pass, and allowing 505 yards of total offense and over 34 points per game.

That’s not totally unusual for the program – the 2012 team didn’t play any D and there were big problems in 2007 and 2008 – but the offense usually made up for the problems by running wild in the funky Pistol attack that everyone seems to be using some form of now. This season, expect an improvement on both sides of the ball.

The coaching staff has its first season in the post-Ault era under its belt, and there’s more depth and better options now then there were throughout last year. There should be a better rotation on the defensive front, the offensive backfield is loaded with weapons, and the West division of the Mountain West should be a bit more manageable with Fresno State likely to take a step back and San Diego State, San Jose State and UNLV all beatable.

The Mountain West got a year off from the Wolf Pack. It shouldn’t get the same sort of a break this season.

What to watch for on offense: The running backs should do more and Cody Fajardo should run a little bit less. The Wolf Pack quarterback is tough, dangerous, and never afraid of contact or a tough play, but he was dinged up a bit too much throughout last year. He fought through a slew of bumps and bruises, but that’s the nature of playing quarterback for Nevada. This year, though, there’s no reason to make him a primary weapon for the ground attack early in the season with veteran backs Kendall Brock and Don Jackson to work with. The Pistol offense should provide more open spaces to work through and areas for the speed and quickness of Brock and Jackson to shine through. Fajardo will have his moments when he takes over on the ground, but he’s too good a passer and player not to have at close to 100% late in the year.

What to watch for on defense: A big improvement against the run. There will be some big plays allowed now and then by the 4-3, but this is a stronger, more experienced group that should be far more cohesive. Going against a banged up offensive line this spring helped the cause, but the front four was far tougher when the Wolf Pack offense tried to power it and the tackling was better. The problem is that the D will almost certainly be inconsistent – but it shouldn’t be as miserable from game to game as it was last year. At the very least, there shouldn’t be so many manageable second and third down plays for opposing offenses. The Pack D knows what it’s doing, and now it’s a question of execution.

The team will be far better if … the defense can get off the field. This is a problem for most Mountain West teams, but it was a particular issue for a Wolf Pack D that didn’t have many excuses. The offense did its job in terms of grinding out the clock – Nevada was 14th in the nation in time of possession and was able to keep things moving – but time and time again there weren’t enough key stops. Starting off with a rough go against UCLA, who converted 9-of-12 chances, Nevada allowed the chains to move 50% of the time or more five times and finished the year allowing teams to convert close to 48% of their tries. It starts on first downs with a front seven that can’t get gouged so easily, and that might change early on.

The schedule: The big tests come early with measurement-stick games against Washington State at home and Arizona on the road, and right after kicks off Mountain West play with a showdown at San Jose State and with back-to-back home battles against Boise State and Colorado State. Throw in a road game at BYU, and it’s a busy first half of the season before making the long trip to Hawaii as part of a run of three road games in four dates. And that’s the problem – the second half is a wee bit easier, but four of the final six games are away from Reno, including the regular season finale at UNLV.

Best offensive player: Senior QB Cody Fajardo. The season hinges on his health. There might be good skill players, the defense has to improve, and the backfield is full of solid running back options, but as long as No. 17 is under center, the Wolf Pack should be rolling. He had to bomb away in keep-up mode throughout last year, but he’s smart and savvy with the ability to manage the game as well as come up with the spectacular. This is his team and his season, and if he comes up with a Mountain West Player of the Year-like performance, he might carry his team into the title game.

Best defensive player: Senior DE Brock Hekking. If you’re going to have a top-shelf, Brian Bosworth-like blond mullet, your game had better rock. One of the nation’s best pure pass rushers with 17 sacks over the last two seasons, he’s a quick-off-the-ball blur when he gets a shot at a quarterback, and with the fire and motor to always keep working, he’s a regular in the backfield against the run, too. He might not be all that huge at a thin 6-4 and 255 pounds, but he plays tough and doesn’t stay blocked for long. For a defense that needs to make a massive improvement, it all works around him.

Key player to a successful season: Senior NT Jordan Hanson and junior DT Rykeem Yates. The defense that gave up 259 rushing yards per game, 6.57 yards per carry and 34 touchdowns has to be night-and-day better, and it starts with the two tackles. The linebackers are solid, and the ends should be fantastic. Now the interior of the defense has to do its job against the teams that like to power the ball up the gut a bit. Yates is a strong interior pass rusher and a possible all-star if he can hold up better against the run, while the 6-2, 280-pound Hanson needs to be a rock.

The season will be a success if … the Wolf Pack win the West. Yes, it really is possible for this team to go from 4-8 to the Mountain West title with all the skill parts there on offense and a defense that can’t be any worse. The schedule is a wee bit daunting, but with Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and Fresno State at home, if Nevada can own Reno, it should be good enough to handle the not-that-bad conference road slate.

Key game: Oct. 4 vs. Boise State. As long as everyone can stay healthy, the offense should have the punch and the fight to give Boise State a battle in what might be a preview of the Mountain West title. More than anything else, and more than anything that could be gained with a win over Washington State or Arizona, the Wolf Pack have to come up with a defining victory. Lose this, and then there’s no margin for error with San Diego State, Colorado State and Fresno State still to deal with.

2013 Fun Stats:
- Average Yards Per Carry: Opponents 6.6 – Nevada 3.8
- Second Half Scoring: Opponents 245 – Nevada 157
- Time of Possession: Nevada 32:25 – Opponents 27:35

- 2014 Nevada Preview - What You Need To Know