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Nevada position review (RB): Wolf Pack develops two true 'Nevada backs'

Devonte Lee
Devonte Lee and Toa Taua proved to be a formidable duo in Nevada's backfield. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada football season ended last month with a 38-27 win over Tulane in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 7-2 overall and 6-2 in conference play (third in the Mountain West). We will review how each position performed in 2020 and look at that group heading into 2021. Today’s position: Running backs.

Top performers

* Toa Taua: 114 rushes for 675 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and four TDs; 31 catches for 214 yards and one TD

* Devonte Lee: 82 rushes for 427 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and two TDs; 17 catches for 96 yards

* Avery Morrow: 12 rushes for 76 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and one TD; 4 catches for 13 yards

Highlight

I'm tempted to say the game at Hawaii in which Nevada rushed 36 times for 208 yards and a touchdown. The Wolf Pack produced 5.78 yards per carry in that game, which was a season high, but it also fell into the Rainbow Warriors' trap, which was to allow Nevada to run the ball so it didn't use its potent passing attack. “Every time they ran the ball, we thought that was a good thing," Hawaii coach Todd Graham said after Hawaii's 24-21 win. Despite that being Nevada's most effective run game, it was a loss, so we're not picking that one. Instead, we'll go with the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Nevada rushed for a season-high 209 yards on 44 carries (4.75 yards per attempt) and a touchdown. The Wolf Pack opened that game pounding the ground game due to the windy conditions at the stadium. Nevada was able to take advantage of Tulane being without three starting defensive linemen, including two all-conference players, by establishing its rushing attack. Lee (105 yards) and Taua (102) hit the 100-yard mark in the same game for the first time in their careers, and Taua added a team-high 77 receiving yards while scoring two touchdowns.

Lowlight

The Wolf Pack's worst game statistically came against New Mexico when Nevada rushed 23 times for 52 yards. The backs didn't have much success against Fresno State (62 yards on 22 carries) or San Diego State (88 yards on 23 carries), either. But we're not going with any of those games. Instead, the lowlight came against San Jose State simply because of fumbles. Taua lost two crucial second-half fumbles in that loss, with the first being highly controversial as his knee appeared to be down on a 1-yard line before the ball came out. But that play, and his fumble three series later, essentially ended Nevada's Mountain West championship hopes. The Wolf Pack did run for 138 yards on 26 carries with one touchdown against San Jose State, averaging 5.31 yards per carry, which was above its season average of 4.31, but the run game was shut down in the second half (12 carries for 24 yards). Nevada's players will rue that San Jose State game for a long time, and that includes the running backs despite good numbers outside of the fumbles — Taua rushed for 96 yards on 11 carries and Lee 38 yards on seven carries.

Grade

B – Nevada struggled to run the ball in 2019, ranking among the worst teams in the nation in that category, but that seemed to be more on the offensive line than the running backs. With improved line play in 2020, the Wolf Pack running backs were able to show more of their skills. Taua's average yards per attempt improved from 4.1 in 2019 to 5.9 in 2020, a massive gain. Lee, now fully healthy after missing the first part of 2019 while recovering from a torn ACL, averaged 5.2 yards per game, up from 4.6 the season prior. Taua, despite missing Nevada's first game, earned second-team All-MW honors. Taua and Lee both proved to be physical runners who (except for the San Jose State game) could be trusted to not fumble. Former Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault created the term "Nevada back" in the 1980s to describe a physical runner who could not only take punishment but dole it out while having ball security. Taua and Lee fit that description in 2020, both in terms of their running ability and their pass-blocking willingness.

2021 outlook

Nevada returns its three main running backs with Taua and Lee leading the way entering their fourth season in Reno. True freshman Avery Morrow also returns, although he will have knee surgery following an injury in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Nevada should have one of the best 1-2 running back punches in the MW, with that time share potentially keeping the team from producing a 1,000-yard running back, something it hasn't had since James Butler hit the milestone in 2016. That's the longest drought without a 1,000-yard rusher for Nevada in four decades. The Wolf Pack's Air Raid scheme emphasized the pass game more in 2020, and thank goodness for that, but coach Jay Norvell wants to balance that with a physical rushing attack, and he now has the offensive line and running backs to do so. Taua is used heavily in the passing game, too, so he'll continue to get his touches, but I could see a 1,000-yard season in 2021. He would have gotten close this year if non-conference play wasn't canceled due to COVID-19. Whether Nevada gets a 1,000-yard back or not next season, running back will be a position of strength in 2021.

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

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