With 11 seniors on Nevada's 2020 football team returning for an additional year of eligibility with the Wolf Pack, coach Jay Norvell also expects all of his key underclassmen to return in 2021, too.
Quarterback Carson Strong, wide receiver Romeo Doubs, tight end Cole Turner and defensive lineman Dom Peterson are all NFL draft prospects are varying degrees, but Norvell told Nevada Sports Net he doesn't anticipate any of those players to enter this season's draft. Strong had previously said he was returning to Nevada for his junior season.
“I think Romeo and Carson and Cole are all NFL prospects, but I think they all know they have a lot more to do here before they do that," Norvell said. "And I think one of the things that all three of those kids realized is the first half of the season was so easy for them and it was because they worked so hard in the offseason. But the second half of the season, those last four games, were a challenge.
"When you play in the National Football League, every day is like that. It’s a challenge that you have to overcome against great players. I think they all understand that and they know that they have more work to do before they make that jump. Have they thought about it? Sure they have. But I think all of them are really looking forward to coming back and getting better, and they need to."
Strong, Doubs and Turner were all first-team All-Mountain West players in 2020, with Strong earning the conference's offensive player of the year award after throwing for 2,858 yards and 27 touchdowns against just four interceptions as a sophomore. Doubs, a junior, caught 58 passes for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns, becoming the Wolf Pack's first 1,000-yard receiver since Rishard Matthews in 2011. And Turner, a junior, was one of the nation's most productive tight ends, posting 49 catches for 605 yards and nine touchdowns.
"Carson is still relatively young, and so is Cole and Romeo," Norvell said of the trio, who all just finished their third season in college. "With Romeo, one of the things that he realized is we did some things differently with him the last few games. I started moving him around and putting him in the slot, and it really opened his eyes about, ‘Wow, I’ve really got a lot to learn about playing inside, playing in the slot and moving in different positions of the field.’ I think that will only make him better. We will continue to do more of that with him."
After a highlight-reel start to the season, Doubs' productivity fell in the second half of the year as defenses started to focus on stopping him. Doubs hit the 100-yard mark in each of his first five games, scoring all nine of his touchdowns in those outings. In Nevada's last four games, Doubs failed to hit the 100-yard mark or score a touchdown. Doubs averaged 154 receiving yards per game in Nevada's first five games and 56 yard per game in its last four.
Norvell said Strong could be aided by another year of physical development. The MW has produced two first-round NFL draft picks in the last three seasons in Josh Allen (Wyoming) and Jordan Love (Utah State). Norvell wants to continue to develop Strong into a NFL-caliber player.
"With Carson, I deliberately wanted to play with him under center because I do think he has a chance to go to the next level," Norvell said. "It’s really interesting to hear when I was traveling and listening to the radio with people talking about Josh Allen. And Josh Allen is a really amazing physical specimen. I mean amazing physical specimen. But where Josh Allen is now in the National Football League, Josh came out of this league and you look at Carson’s numbers in only his second year player, and I think Carson would tell you, ‘Man, I can be so much better.’ One of the things he really experienced this year was people playing him a certain way for about four weeks and week five, six and seven, it was different.
"He had to adjust to that and be patient. He had to use his running game more, and that type of maturity is only going to serve him well in the future. I think Carson really should be looked upon in that group of quarterbacks that had such great years this year. Obviously going into the season he didn’t have the same exposure, but I think as he continues to play he certainly has the potential to be recognized as one of those top players in the country. But that comes from doing it multiple years, and I think he can improve by just physically being stronger in his lower body and his upper body. That physical strength just helps you in your durability."
Turner was moved from wide receiver to tight end this season and had a breakout year after sparsely playing in 2018 and 2019. The 6-foot-6, 240-pounder must continue to work on his blocking if he's going to remain at that position at the next level.
Norvell said the improvement shown by Strong, Doubs and Turner was also in part a result of the Wolf Pack's offensive line playing at an improved level under first-year position coach Bill Best. With four starters returning on the offensive line, Norvell is expecting even more growth from Nevada's offense next season.
"I can’t tell you how the improvement of the offensive line helped Carson this year," Norvell said. "Bill Best did an amazing job with our guys up front. I just think we have some of the top performances in the league in the offensive line. Aaron Frost gets a lot of attention with some of the penalties and things, but he really had a number of dominant plays this year. I just think he’s got a chance to be one of the top players in our league up front. (Tyler) Orsini and (Jermaine) Ledbetter had the same thing, and Jacob Gardner is an emerging young star. It’s exciting to see those guys come around. Carson really didn’t take many hits this year."
Strong will be the most scouted player on the Wolf Pack's 2021 roster and is focusing on physical development and being more accurate despite completing more than 70 percent of his passes last season. Norvell said taking Nevada to the next level from a wins and losses perspective would boost Strong's stock, too.
"Carson has a lot of improvement he can make in his physical development and his leadership," Norvell said. "To move into another level of respect as a quarterback, it really comes down to wins and losses. That’s what those guys get respected for. You have to find a way to will your team to win games. I think Carson really changed his whole perspective on how he looked at himself. He felt like it was his responsibility to really help the team no matter what the situation was, and that’s what good quarterbacks do.
"I think he really understands his role in the program that way, and his responsibility in the program. When we fell a little bit short (against San Jose State), he took it on his shoulders and he knew that he had to play good in games where we really had to win. That’s a completely different way than he looked at himself and his role this year, and it’s going to be even more so when we look forward.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.