Coming off its most successful season since 2010, the Nevada football team will look to build off an eight-win 2018 season in which it also won just the sixth bowl game in program history.
The Wolf Pack recently completed its spring camp and will go through eight weeks of summer conditioning before fall camp begins in late July. Here is the team's post-spring camp review as we look ahead to the 2019 season.
When Jay Norvell was named Nevada’s coach prior to the 2017 season, he trumpeted his Air Raid offense. But Norvell’s first two seasons running the Wolf Pack haven’t been your traditional pass-heavy Air Raid.
Nevada has tried to blend a physical run game with Air Raid principles, at times calling it the Air Pistol, hearkening back to the days of Chris Ault and Colin Kaepernick. In 2018, the Wolf Pack took a statistical step forward offensively, although most of the gains were made in the ground game, which could be emphasized even more in 2019 as Nevada replaces quarterback Ty Gangi, a three-year starter, while returning a solid cast of running backs.
Senior Christian Solano has the lead for the starting quarterback job, but he’s being pushed by redshirt freshman Carson Strong and junior-college transfer Malik Henry, a former four-star recruit who began his career at Florida State before being featured on Last Chance U. The eventual starter at quarterback will be surrounded by a talented cast.
Running back Toa Taua, the reigning Mountain West freshman of the year, is back along with Kelton Moore and Jaxson Kincaide, who both have starting experience. Also back are six of Nevada’s top seven wide receivers, the only departure being McLane Mannix, who transferred to Texas Tech. The Wolf Pack has a big and talented receiving corps led by Kaleb Fossum, Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks and Brendan O’Leary-Orange, among others.
Nevada’s offensive line will need to be rebuilt to a degree after the team lost its starting center and two starting guards. But left tackle Jake Nelson is a potential All-Mountain West honoree and a nice building block to start with.
Nevada’s defense made massive gains last season and was the driving force behind the Wolf Pack going from three wins in Norvell’s first season to eight victories last year. Staying at that level won't be easy give some key departures.
Nevada cut its yards allowed per game from 471.3 to 387.5 last year and trimmed its points allowed per game from 33.9 to 26.9. The Wolf Pack’s run defense, which ranked last in the FBS when Norvell took over, held foes to 3.62 yards per carry, placing 26th nationally. The Wolf Pack loses a lot of star power on defense, including All-MW honorees Malik Reed, Korey Rush, Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus.
Anchoring the defense will be linemen Dominic Peterson, who had a breakout freshman season, and Hausia Sekona, who will be a third-year starter at nose guard, as well as impact linebackers Gabe Sewell, a four-year starter, and Lucas Weber, who was granted a sixth season of eligibility. Weber has moved to inside linebacker this season, with Sewell moving to the outside where he can blitz more often.
The secondary is more uncertain, especially at safety, where Nevada lost all three starters: Baber, Rufus and Nephi Sewell, who transferred to Utah. The Wolf Pack has shifted a number of offensive players, including former starting quarterback Kaymen Cureton, to safety to try and strengthen the backline. At cornerback, Daniel Brown and E.J. Muhammad both have starting experience.
Punter Quinton Conaway returns for his third season as a starter. He averaged 43.6 yards per attempt last year, 26th in the nation. Nevada lost starting kicker Ramiz Ahmed to graduation, but Spencer Pettit, who started in 2017, is back. He has made 15-of-20 career field goals. Nevada is unsettled on its return man, but Doubs is a potential weapon as a punt returner.
Nevada has a manageable schedule, although it is dotted with plenty of difficult games and those start off early. The Wolf Pack opens the season against the Big Ten's Purdue and follows that with a road game at the Pac-12's Oregon. After that comes a pair of easy games, versus FCS school Weber State and UTEP, which is an FBS team in name only (the Miners are 1-23 the last two seasons).
A soft home schedule, which includes games against MW foes UNLV, Hawaii, New Mexico and San Jose State (they went a combined 16-34 last season), gives Nevada some margin for error in hitting the six wins required to get to a bowl. But the road schedule isn't a picnic as Nevada plays five 2018 bowl-eligible teams away from Mackay Stadium, including Oregon, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah State and Wyoming.
Nevada made a lot of progress last season, improving its win total by five while finishing with a winning record in MW action for the first time since joining the conference in 2012. The Wolf Pack punctuated the season with an overtime win in the Arizona Bowl to cap one of the best seasons in the school's FBS era.
With a number of key players departed, the Wolf Pack will be hard-pressed to record eight wins again, but it's not impossible. The defense is likely to take a step back, but the offense could be better. A postseason berth is probable given Nevada’s soft home schedule. Pushing Fresno State for a West Division title will be difficult, but the Bulldogs lost a lot of talent. If Nevada can find an answer at quarterback and fill those holes on defense, it could win its first MW divisional title.
* WR Melquan Stovall: The true freshman joined Nevada a semester early and showed he's a college-ready player. Stovall should play as a true freshman and could have a big role out of the slot as he battles Dominic Christian and Ben Putman for the second slot spot alongside Kaleb Fossum.
* LB Maliek Broady: A former walk-on running back from Las Vegas, Broady is now in his senior season after moving to the defensive side of the ball in 2018. Broady had 17 tackles, including five for loss last year, and will battle for a starting job alongside Lucas Weber and Gabe Sewell. Also in that mix is Lawson Hall.
* DE Jaden Lewis: Nevada returns two of its three starters on the defensive line in Dominic Peterson and Hausia Sekona, but the third spot is up for grabs. Kaleb Meder, Tristan Nichols and Lewis all could earn the spot. Lewis is a 6-foot-4, 275-pound sophomore who could see major reps in 2019.
QB Malik Henry: The biggest wildcard on Nevada’s roster is Henry, the former four-star recruit who began his career at Florida State where he was suspended before transferring. He then starred on Netflix’s Last Chance U (in largely unflattering ways) before resurfacing at Nevada this spring. Henry had a tremendous spring camp and is the team’s most gifted quarterback. The questions come off the field.
Quote to note
“Our goal at Nevada is to play on New Year's Day. To play in the Sugar Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl or the Orange Bowl or the Rose Bowl. In this day and age, Nevada can do that.” – Head coach Jay Norvell
QB: Cristian Solano, 6-1/190, Sr.
RB: Toa Taua, 5-8/220, So.
WR: Kaleb Fossum*, 5-9/185, Sr.
WR: Elijah Cooks*, 6-4/215, Jr.
WR: Romeo Doubs*, 6-2/195, So.
WR: Brendan O’Leary-Orange*, 6-4/215, Sr.
LT: Jake Nelson*, 6-4/300, Sr.
LG: Nate Brown*, 6-4/290, Jr.
C: Nathan Edwards, 6-3/290, Jr.
RG: Miles Beach, 6-4/270, Jr.
RT: Aaron Frost, 6-5/295, So.
DE: Dominic Peterson*, 6-0/315, So.
NT: Hausia Sekona*, 6-0/275, Sr.
DE: Jaden Lewis, 6-4/275, So.
LB: Gabe Sewell*, 6-0/250, Sr.
LB: Lucas Weber*, 6-0/230, Sr.
LB: Maliek Broady, 5-10/225, Sr.
CB: Daniel Brown*, 5-11/185, Sr.
CB: E.J. Muhammad, 5-11/180, Sr.
S: Jordan Lee, 5-10/205, So.
S: Austin Arnold, 5-10/195, Jr.
S: Mar’Quette Jackson, 5-11/210, Jr.
K: Spencer Pettit, 5-9/180, Sr.
P: Quinton Conaway*, 6-0/210, Sr.
LS: Karson Thomas, 6-2/230, So.
* Returning starter (must have started half of the games in 2018)