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Justin Lockhart steps into starring role after Nevada receiving room gets hit by injuries

Justin Lockhart
Wide receiver Justin Lockhart runs for yardage after a catch during a game against UNLV last season. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Entering Nevada’s game last week at Boise State, one member of the Wolf Pack after another talked to wide receiver Justin Lockhart.

Head coach Jay Norvell pulled him into his office for a pep talk. Offensive coordinator Matt Mumme had a brief chat with him after a practice. And star quarterback Carson Strong and star receiver Romeo Doubs pulled him aside, too. They all had the same message.

“We need you and your teammates need,” they repeated.

The Wolf Pack knew it would be without All-Mountain West receiver Elijah Cooks, who suffered a season-ending foot injury. And Nevada knew Cooks’ backup, the explosive Tory Horton, was banged up and unlikely to play a major role in the Wolf Pack’s upset effort.

That meant Lockhart, who slots in no higher than fifth among Wolf Pack’s pass-catchers, would need to play well for Nevada to beat Boise State on the blue turf for the first time in 24 years. And he did just that, which wasn’t a huge surprise to the Wolf Pack despite him being a key piece in Nevada’s 41-31 victory.

“Justin Lockhart's plays in the game really gave us a shot in the arm,” Norvell said.

The junior wideout caught five balls for 94 yards, the second most in his career, including a 39-yard bomb and a 35-yard catch. Both of those big-gainers were on series that resulted in Nevada scoring drives.

“We were on the field last Wednesday at practice," Mumme said, "and I pulled him aside and I said, ‘Look, you're a great football player. Just go out and be who you are.' You look at Romeo and he's a great practice guy and he's great in games. And some guys aren’t great practice guys but are really good in games. I think Lockhart is learning a lot from it, but I'm proud of him for holding his head up high and keeping his focus. And when his name was called, he delivered.”

Lockhart has earned a reputation as being better in games than practice, which has limited his field time to a degree due to Nevada’s depth at wideout, a position that boasts two All-MW players (Doubs and Cooks) as well as a probable future all-conference honoree (Horton). Toss in one of the nation’s best pass-catching tight ends (Cole Turner) and in-game reps for Lockhart weren't plentiful to start the season.

“My playing time was my kind of low this year, so my confidence wasn't all the way there, but throughout the game as the game progressed, I got more and more confident,” said Lockhart, who earned his sixth college start in the Boise State win. “I feel like my whole confidence just built up.”

Lockhart has had glimpses of great play before, including a six-catch, 95-yard game against Utah State and an eight-catch effort against SDSU last season. He also scored against rival UNLV and in a bowl win against Tulane in 2020. But he fell behind Horton on the depth chart at outside receiver, in part because Horton’s practice production was elite while Lockhart’s practice production was inconsistent. A native of Los Angeles, Lockhart admits he's always been better in games than practice.

"I just feel like in the games I have more energy,” Lockhart said. “When the lights come on and stuff, I flip the switch in my head. Throughout high school and my whole life, when the game comes on, it’s just a different adjustment. The adrenaline is pumping. The adrenaline is going crazy.”

At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Lockhart looks like a lot of the Wolf Pack’s wide receivers given his long and lanky frame. Norvell said he wants his wideouts to look like basketball players, and that group is headlined by Doubs. But as defenses have rolled their coverages toward Doubs, others on the team have been asked to do more to penalize opponents who constantly double team Doubs.

"Romeo gets so much attention and people try to make it hard for Romeo to go deep at times, and our receiver on the other side really has opportunity," Norvell said. "Justin is a big receiver, he can run, he's got long arms and Carson loves throwing the ball deep to him. Quarterbacks love receivers that get open and make plays, and he's had a lot of success with Justin. Justin hasn't been a starter consistently, but he's made a lot of big plays in games.”

After Norvell and others spoke with Lockhart last week, they saw a noticeable uptick in his practice habits. And with Cook out for the rest of the season and Horton still nursing bumps and bruises, Lockhart has a chance to stay in the starting lineup if he continues to practice and play well in games. Mumme wasn’t surprised by Lockhart’s effectiveness against Boise State. Now it comes down to whether he can be consistent.

"He’s made plays in games before and he's scored for us,” Mumme said. “I mean, he knows where the end zone is. It’s just a matter of plugging him in and making sure he's executing the plays in the right way and getting to where Carson really wanted him to be, so he did a really nice job.”

Lockhart is somewhat familiar with the spotlight as his father, Anthony Hall, starred in the cult classic film “Blue Chips” alongside NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway. O’Neal is Lockhart’s godfather and has given him social media shout-outs throughout his Nevada career (in addition to Lockhart serving as a ball boy for some of the Boston Celtics games when Shaq played for that franchise in his final season in the league in 2010-11). After his game-changing efforts against Boise State, Lockhart was getting love from Wolf Pack fans, too, and said he hopes he proved to Nevada’s supporters, staff and his teammates what he’s capable of.

“That I'm capable of pretty much of anything,” Lockhart said. “My team also helped me along the way. Carson and everyone kind of kept me up, kept me going throughout the week. Romeo was there keeping me up to get ready for the game. I just need to step up, do me and give it my all every play.”

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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