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Nevada position review: Wolf Pack special teams had some special moments

Brandon Talton
Brandon Talton was excellent for Nevada. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

The Nevada football season ended earlier this month with a loss to Ohio in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 7-6 overall and 4-4 in the Mountain West. We will review how each position performed in 2019 and look at that group heading into 2020. Today’s position: special teams.

Top performers

* K Brandon Talton: 21-of-25 field goals, 27-of-29 extra points

* P Quinton Conaway: 61 punts, 43 yards/punt, three touchbacks, nine fair catches, 16 inside 20, 11 50+, two punts blocked, one marriage proposal accepted at midfield

* QB/P Carson Strong: 10 punts, 36.9 yards/punt, one touchback, seven inside 20

* K Julian Diaz: 56 kickoffs, 59.3 yards/kickoff, 34 touchbacks, one out of bounds

* PR Romeo Doubs: Eight punt returns, 10.8 yards/return

* PR/KR Ben Putman: Seven punt returns, 11.9 yards/return; 12 kick returns, 19.6 yards/return

Highlight

Nevada’s season-opening win over Purdue was the high point for the Wolf Pack special teams, which recovered two fumbles on punts, which helped spark 5-0 edge in turnovers gained and led a 17-point second-half comeback, which was capped, of course, by true freshman walk-on Talton’s 56-yard walk-off field goal for a 34-31 win that earned Talton a scholarship in the post-game locker room. Talton made both of his field goals that night and Nevada averaged 47.1 yards on its 10 punts, keeping Rondale Moore in check in the return game. Nevada had some other good special teams games, including in the road upset of Top 25 team San Diego State, but the Wolf Pack’s effort against Purdue was one of the best special teams games in school history. Talton also banged a 40-yard walk-off winner to beat San Jose State.

Lowlight

Nevada didn’t have any disastrous games on special teams but the outing in a 36-10 loss to Utah State was less than ideal. Nevada’s first kickoff resulted in a 100-yard return for a touchdown by Savon Scarver, who had to be a focus entering the game given his five career kickoff return for touchdowns. Talton also saw his streak of 13 consecutive made field goals to begin his career end in that contest when he missed a 51-yarder, albeit in poor conditions. The Wolf Pack’s net punt (on 10 attempts) was 36.4 yards, which is a below-average mark. Special teams did not lose this game. Nevada’s offense struggled and the Wolf Pack was blown out, but this wasn’t the unit’s strongest effort. And while Talton was excellent all season, he would probably like back his 29-yard field goal miss early in a 33-30 overtime loss to UNLV, although he bounced back by making his final three attempts in that game.

Grade

B- – ESPN’s Football Power Index pegs Nevada’s special teams at 85th out of 130 FBS teams, which would pencil out in the “C-” or “D+” range, but I’ll go higher since I’m a nice guy (and because of the clutch kicking of Talton). Special teams breaks down to four categories for me: kicking, punting, return unit, coverage unit. Let’s break them down individually. Nevada gets an “A-” in field-goal kicking (Talton was excellent); a “C-” in punting (99th in the nation in net punting); a “C-” in return unit (86th in the nation in kickoff return average and 41st punt return average); and a “C” in coverage unit (67th in nation in kickoff defense average and 61st in punt defense average). So it was an average group except for kicker where Talton pushes the grade up. Talton had two walk-off winners – over Purdue and San Jose State – and the punt unit had some big fumble recoveries. But Nevada also had two punts blocked (one for a touchdown), gave up a kickoff return from a touchdown, had a crucial extra point blocked in the bowl game and didn’t get much from its kick return unit.

2020 vision

Talton, a midseason All-American, returns and should be one of the best kickers in the nation. He was 19-of-21 from inside the 50 and showed he has the leg to make kicks from 55-plus. He’ll be a big weapon again for Nevada next season. Conaway, a veteran punter and fan favorite, departs via graduation. Nevada did use a scholarship on prep punter Charlie Pollock in the early signing period, so he’ll battle with returning walk-on Eric Fellenzer, who has been in the program for two seasons. Where Nevada really needs to improve is in the return game. The Wolf Pack doesn’t have a history of high-level returners, but that was something Jay Norvell promised he’d add when he took over as the Wolf Pack’s head coach. Putman was Nevada’s top return man in 2019, and he’s gone due to graduation. He provided some key punt returns. But getting an electric returner would be big for the 2020 season.

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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