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Nevada football's final report card: Grading each position and the coaches

Fossum
Ty Gangi, right, and Kaleb Fossum celebrate a touchdown over Colorado State. (John Byrne/Nevada athletics)

Nevada football just finished its most successful season since moving to the Mountain West in 2012.

The Wolf Pack won eight games, its most since 2010; recorded its sixth bowl victory in school history; finished second in the MW’s West Division; and beat three bowls teams, including two over eight-win opponents (Nevada was 5-39 against bowl team from 2011-17, so wins over bowl teams were are for the program in recent seasons).

Still, there’s plenty of room to grow. The S&P+ Ratings ranked Nevada as the 81st-best team in the 130-team FBS. ESPN’s FPI placed Nevada at 82. And Sagarin Ratings had Nevada 88th. While much progress was made in Jay Norvell’s second season at Nevada – the Wolf Pack was 3-9 in his first season – much progress remains to catapult the Wolf Pack in college football’s upper echelon.

With Nevada finishing its 2018 season last week with a 16-13 overtime win over Arkansas State to capture the Arizona Bowl, here is a position-by-position look at the Wolf Pack’s 2018 campaign.

Quarterback

Season recap: Ty Gangi returned as Nevada’s starter and threw for 3,331 yards and 24 touchdowns while adding three more scores on the ground, missing one game with a thigh injury. He did throw a career-high 13 interceptions, tossing at least one in nine of 12 games. Gangi’s quarterback rating slipped from 138.8 to 135.7 and his QBR fell from 69.8 to 57.2, but he gutted through that leg injury and led Nevada to its first eight-win season since the program moved to the MW in 2012.

Grade: B- – Nevada got above-average quarterback play, although the group tossed 17 interceptions (one more than last year) and hasn’t had an all-conference player at the position since 2012, a six-year drought, the longest in its FBS history.

Next year’s outlook: Gangi departs after starting 26 games (he was 13-13 as a starter) and there’s no clear-cut frontrunner between Cristian Solano, Kaymen Cureton, Carson Strong and Austin Kirksey.

Running back

Season recap: Nevada added two highly acclaimed true freshmen running backs in 2018, with Toa Taua emerging as the team’s top back and Devonte Lee serving as a capable goal-line option. Kelton Moore also provided some valuable carries while Jaxson Kincaide got a few touches per game. Taua led Nevada with 872 yards and six touchdowns; Moore added 433 yards and four touchdowns; and Lee chipped in 193 yards and seven touchdowns, with Taua and Moore getting the lion’s share of the carries.

Grade: B- – Taua was outstanding as a freshman, although Nevada’s backs averaged 4.96 yards per carry last season and 4.77 this year. It did score 19 touchdowns on the ground compared to last year’s eight.

Next year’s outlook: Taua, the reigning MW freshman of the year, is back and should surpass the 1,000-yard mark in 2019. Nevada doesn’t lose anybody from this position, so it should be strong next year.

Wide receiver

Season recap: Nevada hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Rishard Matthews in 2011, but this year’s group boasted nice depth with McLane Mannix (50/875/7), Kaleb Fossum (70/734/1), Romeo Doubs (43/562/2), Elijah Cooks (22/348/6) and Brendan O’Leary-Orange (14/214/4). Little-known Ben Putman also came out of nowhere to make a huge impact in the Arizona Bowl, the walk-on hauling in two key 44-yard passes in the fourth quarter before tight end Reagan Roberson caught the game-winning pass.

Grade: B – Mannix and Fossum provided good work out of the slot and Doubs and Cooks both had some outstanding games, although consistency was not a huge plus for this group, which was fairly young.

Next year’s outlook: Mannix transferred to Texas Tech, which robs the group of its biggest game-breaker, although a quartet of Fossum, Doubs, Cooks and O’Leary-Orange is a good starting point.

Offensive line

Season recap: First-year offensive line coach Angus McClure didn't inherit an enviable situation, with Nevada coming into the season with minimal experience and without Austin Corbett, the No. 33 pick in the 2018 draft. But the group did an above-average job, allowing just 17 sacks (18th fewest in the NCAA) while paving the way for 4.5 yards per carry, up from 4.2 yards per carry last season. That was done despite being without starting C Sean Krepsz for most of the non-conference season and starting converted DT Kalei Meyer at guard.

Grade: B- – It was a good year for the Union, although this group was inconsistent in the run game, especially against bowl teams (Nevada averaged just 3.9 yards per carry versus seven bowl opponents, with 480 of the 877 yards in those games coming against Toledo and Hawaii; it was at 2.6 ypc against the five other bowl opponents).

Next year’s outlook: Nevada loses three starters for the second straight season (Krepsz, Meyer and Anthony Palomares). This will again be a young and relatively inexperienced group McClure must mold.

Defensive line

Season recap: The biggest position group success story for the 2018 Nevada football team was the defensive line, which Norvell and staff tried to bulk up by adding bigger bodies up front. It paid off as Nevada allowed just 3.6 yards per carry after allowing 4.4 in 2017 and 6.1 in 2016. Senior Korey Rush (six sacks, 12.5 TFL) was named first-team All-MW and freshman Dominic Peterson (44 tackles, three sacks, 10.5 TFL) was excellent. Hausia Sekona, Jarius McDade, Sam Hammond and Kaleb Meder all chipped in.

Grade: A- – Outside of Rush, this group didn’t have a lot of star power or name recognition, but it was largely stout and set the tone for Nevada defensively. Not many teams had success running on the Wolf Pack.

Next year’s outlook: Rush, the line’s best pass-rusher, is gone, but most of the major pieces are back. The key will be getting more heat on the quarterback while not taking a step back in the run game.

Linebacker

Season recap: Nevada moved All-MW defensive end Malik Reed to linebacker and he didn’t lose any of his productivity, placing second on the team in tackles (77) and first in tackles for loss (15.5), sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (four). Middle linebacker Gabe Sewell had a team-high 92 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, with three sacks. Senior Lucas Weber (56 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks) had his best season in silver and blue. Maliek Broady, a former running back, had some good moments, too.

Grade: B+ – The Wolf Pack’s starting three combined for 225 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss, 16.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. Those are good numbers for any program.

Next year’s outlook: Reed and Weber are gone and won’t be easy to replace, although the Wolf Pack has good depth here, so the drop off might not be that steep, but Reed’s pass-rushing skills will be missed.

Secondary

Season recap: The Wolf Pack safeties – Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber and Nephi Sewell – played like the veterans they were, with Rufus and Baber playing the best ball of their careers (they were both four-year starters). Jomon Dotson, a graduate transfer from Washington, turned out to be a huge one-year addition at cornerback. Daniel Brown broke up 11 passes and was named All-MW honorable mention. And Justin Brent, a transfer from Notre Dame playing safety for the first time in his career, had two big picks in the Arizona Bowl win.

Grade: B+ – Nevada’s pass defense numbers weren’t great – 78th in the nation pass efficiency defense; 59.2 completion percentage against; 3,192 passing yards allowed; 28 touchdowns given up (10th most in the nation); 11 interceptions – but the unit made big improvements over a season ago.

Next year’s outlook: Nevada loses four of its five starters in the secondary, including Sewell via a transfer to BYU. There are lots of holes here for 2019, especially at safety, where the depth is lacking.

Special teams

Season recap: Nevada was not good at special teams in 2017, ranking as the sixth worst in the nation, per ESPN’s FPI. It made marked improvement this season (88th in those same rankings this year). Kicker Ramiz Ahmed made 15-of-20 field goals and 40-of-44 extra points. Punter Quinton Conaway averaged 43.3 yards per punt, with the Pack’s 40-yard net average ranking 19th in the FBS. Nevada got an 80-yard punt return for a score from Romeo Doubs in the opener, and averaged a solid 7.8 yards per return outside of that. The Wolf Pack got minimal production from its kick return group and was so-so in kick coverage.

Grade: B- – Nevada basically beat San Diego State because of special teams, although it basically lost to Toledo because of special teams. Overall, this was a solid group that was more an asset than a liability.

Next year’s outlook: Ahmed departs but former starter Spencer Pettit (15-of-20 on field goals) is back. So, too, is Conaway. The next step is getting more big plays from the kickoff return game. Reliable long snapper Wes Farnsworth also graduates and must be replaced.

Coaches

Season recap: The expectation going into the season is Nevada would win six or seven games, so the eight victories and a bowl win were more than most would have pegged. The Wolf Pack defense made vast improvements, which is a big credit to coordinator Jeff Casteel and his staff. That unit was one of the best in school history. Nevada’s offense took a small step back. It did score 31.1 points per game (tagging 72 on FCS foe Portland State helped), but it was third worst in the nation in turnovers and seventh worst in third-down conversion percent. Overall, plenty to be pleased with in the 2018 season.

Grade: B+ – Some might go lower here given the loss to UNLV (after being up 23-0), but this seems fair (the grade got a little boost for the bowl victory). When you take into account the relatively little money this staff makes compared its MW counterparts, Nevada had one of the better bargains on the West Coast.

Next year’s outlook: Nevada basically got back to the level we saw from the program in 2014. Staying here in 2019 will be difficult as the Wolf Pack loses seven starters on defense and five on offense, including its quarterback. Nevada’s schedule is set up for a bowl berth next year. A West Division title run isn’t unthinkable.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.

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