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Murray's Mailbag: What are the biggest takeaways from Nevada football spring camp?

Berdale Robins
Berdale Robins (No. 1) huddles the Wolf Pack during the team's spring game. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

What's that old saying? Timing is everything. I learned that this week as my family went down to Markleeville, Calif., to visit Grover Hot Springs, a great idea by my wife as the scenery down there is beautiful. On the way to the hot springs, we visited my parents in Gardnerville. I went to steal my mom's $75 gift card to the Peppermill spa — because I tend to steal things from my parents that they don't use, and I had given her that gift card for Christmas several years ago. But instead of finding the Peppermill gift card, I found an old betting ticket my mom had made many months ago. It was a $100 bet on the Dodgers winning the 2020 World Series. I quickly remembered the Dodgers did indeed win the 2020 World Series. That ticket was worth $450. Quite valuable. Alas, the back of the ticket read that all bets must be redeemed within 180 days of the event. The Dodgers had won the World Series 186 days prior. We might be out of luck. But the good people at the Carson Valley Inn are "good people at Carson Valley Inn" for a reason. They cashed the $450 ticket. Big winners, those Murrays. But I never found the Peppermill gift card.

Anyway, you've got some Monday Mailbag questions, so let's answer those.

(Note: If you're not seeing the tweets, it's because you're not using Google Chrome. Use Google Chrome.)

I should start by saying I put almost zero stock in spring games. Let me take you back to spring 2017. Alabama transfer David Cornwell completed 22-of-33 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns in one half of the Silver & Blue Game. His competition for Nevada's starting job, Ty Gangi, threw two pick-sixs. Cornwell was all but anointed the starting quarterback after the game. Flash-forward to that year's season opener. Gangi was starting. Cornwell played all of one half for Nevada in his career, going 13-of-25 for 97 yards and three interceptions against Washington State. He quit the team three days later. You could say that spring game did not foreshadow the future, and most spring games don't.

But with that said, here are some takeaways from spring camp, and to be 100 percent transparent, I didn't attend a single practice due to COVID-19 restrictions (I'm typically at every practice and can gleam more from seeing all 15 sessions rather than one scrimmage).

1. The D-line looks better: While solid against the run in 2020, Nevada struggled to generate a consistent pass rush (except in the bowl game, but that was against a rag-tag Tulane group missing several starters). The Wolf Pack has made strides on the defensive line and a healthy Dom Peterson, Sam Hammond and Tristan Nichols, in addition to several other key figures, should put Nevada near the top of the MW in sacks in 2021, which has been a big offseason goal.

2. The secondary looks deeper: Nevada's main weakness last season was its secondary, specifically its third cornerback, who got picked on in several games. The Wolf Pack has infused its defensive backfield with three Division I transfers, and while I'm not ready to call the secondary a strength just yet, it has more options to choose from when setting a starting lineup.

3. Carson Strong, very important: While it was nice for Strong's backups to get some reps with the first string during spring camp as he rehabbed his knee surgery, it's clear Nevada needs Strong to be a championship team, which is its aspirations this season. He's a difference-maker who elevates the Wolf Pack from "bowl team" to "potential Top 25 team."

4. The team looks more physical: With all of Nevada's awesome offensive weapons, it's easy to overlook the line and run game, but Nevada appears to be more physical up front (it's starting four seniors on the line). That's key. As talented as Nevada is on offense, it was barely top 50 nationally in points per game and offensive efficiency last season. The Wolf Pack offensive line needs to take another step forward for this offense to get into top-20 territory, where it used to be in the Chris Ault days. And Ault always had stellar Unions.

5. The hype is high: There's a lot expected from this team. It seems like anything shy of double-digit wins, a MW title and Top 25 ranking would be a disappointment. And I get it. There are many talented players on the roster, a lot of future pros and unprecedented experience (18 of the team's 22 projected starters are seniors). On the other hand, ESPN FPI's pegs Nevada to win 7.8 games and list it as the 75th-best team in the nation out of 130. SP+ puts Nevada at 7-5 and No. 74 in the country. Nevada, Fresno State, SJSU and SDSU are all clustered close together, so simply winning the MW's West Division won't be easy. With games at Cal, Kansas State, Boise State, SDSU and Fresno State, the road to fulfilling the hype is filled with pitfalls.

They are all rehabbing injuries, but all of those players should be ready for spring camp in July. Carson Strong and Sam Hammond both had offseason knee cleanups. Elijah Cooks is coming back from shoulder surgery. Avery Morrow had surgery to fix a torn tendon in his leg. Strong pushed coach Jay Norvell all spring camp to get some in-game reps, but Nevada is taking the more precautious path.

"Carson's kind of a unique guy," Norvell said last week. "Ever since he's been a freshman, he was going into a redshirt year, he used to call me every Friday night before the game and tell me, 'Coach, if you need me, I'm ready.' He hasn't changed at all in that regard. He's super competitive. He's actually healthy enough where he could practice some, but we just want to be smart with him. I think this goes back to my time in the NFL. I have a lot of experience working with older players, veteran players and helping them get in position to play when they're not 100 percent, and that's what we're doing with Carson.

"We're trying to keep him out of competitive situations. There's not a day he doesn't ask me to go in here. But he's not quite ready yet. He gets turned loose in June, and it's our job to get him to June healthy and ready to go. Same with Sam Hammond. Same with Avery Morrow. Those are very important players to our program. We have all summer to get them ready for the fall, and that's what our intentions are."

So, everybody should be healthy for the 2021 season opener at Cal on Sept. 4.

You're looking at the 1984 supplement draft that saw Nevada's Al Williams and Tony Zendejas go in the first round and Derek Kennard picked in the second. That wasn't the real draft. That consisted of the NFL drafting college seniors who had already signed with the USFL or the CFL. Steve Young went No. 1 overall to the Buccaneers. In the common draft era (since 1970, post merger), Nevada has never had a first-round draft pick. Its highest selection was Alex Van Dyke in 1996 (No. 31 overall, first pick of the second round). Stan Heath went No. 5 overall (first round) in 1949, but that was before the modern era. So a Wolf Pack first-round draft pick in 2022 would be a first in the modern era. I'll give Nevada a 50 percent chance of making that happen since I'm high on Carson Strong. What are the odds of two first-round pick? 5 percent. That's unlikely. But I'd set the over/under on Nevada draft picks next year at 3.5. Between Strong, Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner, Elijah Cooks, Dom Peterson, Aaron Frost and Sam Hammond, there are some options. Strong, Doubs and Turner are almost locks to be picked. I evaluated all of Nevada's 2022 draft prospects in this article.

Who is saying next year's Nevada basketball team is going to be better than the Wolf Pack's Sweet 16/No. 5 team in the nation? I haven't seen that. People shouldn't be saying that. The 2021-22 Nevada team has a lot of potential and could get back to the NCAA Tournament. It should compete for a Mountain West championship. I wouldn't rule out reaching the Top 25. But placing Sweet 16/top-five-in-the-nation expectations on them is outlandish and unfair. Getting into the top 50 of KenPom is a nice, realistic goal. I see this year's team akin to Nevada's 2016-17 team, the one before the Sweet 16 squad, that broke the Wolf Pack's NCAA Tournament drought. That team finished 54th in KenPom after sweeping the MW titles. It featured Jordan Caroline, Cam Oliver, Marcus Marshall and D.J. Fenner. This year's team is similarly talented. It's not 2017-19 talented.

Wolf Pack signee Nick Davidson is averaging 16.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.0 blocks per game for Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. His team is 15-0 and ranked fifth in the state of California. He has one teammate (Harrison Hornery) going to USC and another (Wilhelm Breidenbach) going to Nebraska. Davidson's numbers are in line with those two (Breidenbach is a low four-star recruit and Hornery a high three-star recruit). I don't see Davidson's recruiting ranking changing, especially considering the 2021 class has basically been put to bed. You typically get a bump after you commit to a big-name school. Davidson committed several months ago. So he'll likely stay a three-star recruit, but that doesn't mean anything moving forward. While Nevada's big man depth chart is loaded (Warren Washington, Will Baker, K.J. Hymes, Trey Wade, DeAndre Henry), Davidson seems like a steal. It's worth noting Mater Dei is only playing California schools this season because the state moved basketball to the spring due to COVID-19. Last year, Mater Dei played 11 out-of-state opponents, so the schedule is a little softer than usual, which is going to inflate the stats to a degree. But Davidson seems like a keeper as a 6-foot-8 stretch four.

The NCAA gave all winter and spring sport athletes an additional year of eligibility for last season, so last season basically didn't count for any of the players. For example, Carson Strong is listed on Nevada's website as a junior, but he's technically a redshirt sophomore since he got an additional year of eligibility for last season. Same for guys like Romeo Doubs, Cole Turner and Toa Taua, who are all listed as seniors but actually have two years of eligibility left. Take basketball's Grant Sherfield, who will be listed as a junior next season. He actually has three years of eligibility left. Just imagine last year didn't happen for all winter and spring athletes. The NCAA also allowed all winter and spring sport teams to go over the maximum scholarship allotment for the 2021-22 season in a number commensurate with the total scholarship seniors it had on its 2020-21 roster. But teams must get back under that limit for 2022-23. That will force some scholarship squeezing (mostly of incoming high school kids), but looking at rosters and figuring out how many years of actual eligibility remaining could be difficult for the average fan the next couple of years.

7. Scorpions: Unless the mascot is the dude from Mortal Kombat, and then it's No. 1.

6. Coyotes: Unless the mascot is Wile E. Coyote, and then it's No. 1.

5. Wildcats: "Wildcats" is super generic, although it's the name of my son's elementary school, so it moves up two spots.

4. Bighorn Sheep: I've long looked for but never seen a bighorn sheep in person.

3. Rebels: RIP "Hey, Reb!"

2. Lizards: "Wizard the Lizard" is the best mascot in the state of Nevada.

1. Wolf Pack: I kind of prefer the school's original nickname, the Sagebrushers, but Wolf Pack (two words!) is good, too.

Here's the full game. (You can also get our pre-game show and the full spring game here.)

Up-and-coming programs, both on the women's and men's side. Tabitha Peterson really stepped into the skipping position during the 2019-20 season and elevated the program by not only leading the squad to a national championship but also producing the highest-ranked women’s team in the United States. Meanwhile on the men's side, Joe Polo (not related to Marco! Polo!) played an integral role on Team Dropkin as they won the Tour Challenge and became the first U.S. men’s team to win a Grand Slam of Curling event. And you're damn right I took that straight off the USA Curling website, except for the Marco Polo joke. That was my own ingenuity!

Inside info! That's funny because after @FakeMattMumme wrote a Mailbag on NSN.com in July, Zane Meeks reached out to me to see if he could write a Mailbag. I thought it'd be fun for readers and Wolf Pack fans to get some inside perspective from Meeks, so I asked Nevada's communication staff if it'd be all right since all interviews must be scheduled through them. Unfortunately, the idea was shot down. I'm sure Meeks was a little disappointed. We were in the middle of the pandemic, after all, and needed some fun stories to brighten up people's days. Also, it was the summer, so we wouldn't have been interfering with school. But it didn't work out, and was clearly the beginning of the end for Meeks at Nevada.

(That last part is a joke in case anybody thinks the parting had anything to do with a Mailbag. But I would love to do a Mailbag with a Wolf Pack athlete. That'd be fun.)

Yes, my History of Dance class. Tons of athletes in that class. And that was one of, like, four classes I didn't get an "A" in during my college career. It was supposedly an easy "A" class (hence all the athletes), and I didn't even get the "A." When I taught as an adjunct professor at UNR, I had several athletes as students. I believe all were from the swimming and diving team. All great students, too. There's a reason why that team has the highest GPA on campus year in and year out. And Nick Fazekas was dating one of my students and came in after class ended one day, and that was the first time I saw somebody who was 7-feet tall. Technically, Fazekas is 6-11, but holey moley, that's tall.

No, the Giants are not a .607 win percentage team (that's a 98-win pace), but Farhan Zaidi has done a terrific job after inheriting a mess. The Giants did the right thing by hiring a bunch of former Dodgers (Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler) to rebuild their organization. To beat the best, take some of the executives from the best. In terms of the Giants' 2021 season, it all comes down to the starting pitching. The Giants have stuck gold on its one-year starting pitcher signees, including Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez and Alex Wood. That quintet has pitched to a 2.75 ERA over 85 innings. That's not holding up. But if those four stay healthy, the Giants could remain in the mix for the second wild card spot. The Giants are giving up an MLB-best 3.21 runs per game, down from 4.95 runs per game last season. Gausman is a stud, but you're going to see DeSclafani, Sanchez and Wood revert to their old selves to a degree. Can the Giants finish around .500 and be in the playoff mix for the rest of the season? Yes, I can see that. But they're not winning the NL West. Too bad the Giants aren't in the NL Central. It'd be much more realistic to make the playoffs out of that division. Currently, FanGraphs gives San Francisco a 17.1 percent chance of reaching the postseason.

1) They forgot how to hit.

2) During this 3-10 stretch, the Dodgers lost six games by one run. One-run games are historically coin flips. The Dodgers got the raw end of the coin flip almost every time.

3) Even during their last 14 games, the Dodgers have out-scored their opponents, 60-56, so it's been a lot of bad luck.

4) Injuries have decimated the team, including IL stints for position player starters Cody Bellinger, Gavin Lux and Zach McKinstry as well as pitchers Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, David Price, Brusdar Graterol, Corey Knebel and JOE KELLY!?!?! And Mookie Betts has played through multiple injuries.

5) Despite playing like crap for two weeks of a four-week season, the Dodgers still tied for first in MLB in wins, third in runs scored per game, third in runs allowed per game, first in team WAR, third in team OPS and fourth in team ERA. All of that despite playing the league's fourth-most-difficult schedule (the Giants have played the 22nd toughest).

I am 0 percent worried. The Dodgers most likely just went through its worst stretch of the season and will only get healthier moving forward. (Except for May, who has to get Tommy John, which is hugely disappointing because he fires 100 mile per hour fastballs with regularity and has filthy stuff. He's also on my fantasy team, although I'm in first place in that league by 15 points and will win it easily without him.) Despite this little slump, the Dodgers still have a lineup of Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Chris Taylor, Max Muncy and Will Smith and a rotation of Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias. I'm not worried about a little April slump.

Don Flamenco would beat both of them, so call me when one of those two steps up and challenges him.

Well, Man U's fans rioted into the team's stadium, so that's the short-term fallout. JP Morgan, which funded the venture, was downgraded from “adequate” to “non-compliant” by Standard Ethics, a sustainability ratings agency, for failing to consider the interests of all stakeholders, including that of the fans. There has been club executive resignations, and UEFA's president is planning consequences for the 12 teams that tried to form the league. Long term? Maybe it stops an attempt at a Super League in the future, but I think they'll make a run at it again. Honestly, I don't get all the hubbub. After all, the English Premier League was founded in 1992 under a similar premise and has been wildly successful. The lack of relegation in this new Super League was a major issue, but with some tweaks I could see it returning down the road. MLB, NFL, NHL and NBA are basically Super Leagues because they don't have relegation, and U.S. fans don't seem to have a problem with it. I'd prefer relegation in those U.S. leagues because it would end tanking, which is rampant in American pro sports. Teams in the U.S. are not incentivized to win games, and that was a major issue with the Super League.

I don't have scholarship allotment figures for all Wolf Pack sports, but my assumption is all are allowed to go up to the NCAA max in their respective sports. That's easier to track in full scholarship sports like football, men's and women's basketball, tennis and volleyball. All the other sports are partial scholarship sports were athletes get a percentage of a scholarship. Back in 2010, I know Nevada football wasn't authorized to use all of its scholarships, which was an issue for then-coach Chris Ault, who also didn't have a director of operations and director of player personnel on staff, which was standard for all FBS schools. Nevada has since beefed up its budget in football, and while the Wolf Pack doesn't pay the maximum for its full cost of attendance to its student-athletes, I'd find it hard to believe it's skimping on maxing out scholarships.

Nevada leads the Silver State Series, 18-15, following the Wolf Pack men's golf team finishing second at the MW Championships, which completed a Nevada sweep of UNLV in golf, and that has to be the first time in school history that's happened. There are four sports left, including softball, baseball, women's outdoor track and field and Academic Progress Report. We can probably put APR in Nevada's corner, which would require UNLV to win the other three (softball, baseball, track) to come out on top. Nevada and UNLV play in softball and baseball this weekend, so the Wolf Pack could clinch the Silver State Series by winning both of those (UNLV is up 2-1 on Nevada in baseball entering the weekend because they played each other earlier this season). Nevada is around a 65 percent favorite to win its second Silver State Series.

Peg's Glorified Ham n Eggs for brunch if it's early enough. Other options include Zozo's Ristorante (if you want Italian), BJ's in Sparks (if you want BBQ), Mexcal (if you want Mexican), The Grill At Quail Corners (if you want American fare), Great Full Gardens (if you want something healthy), The Depot (if you want to get drinks involved), Stone House Cafe (if you want to sit in an old house), Pine State Biscuits (if you want something hearty) or Yosh's Unique Deli (if you want something unique!).

My son was dunking on a 10-foot hoop at 10 months old, so sounds like your daughter might be a little behind the curve. I'd put her on a six-days-a-week regiment with Sundays optional. But let her know if she really wants to be great, she will opt in on Sundays because champions are made when others rest. Get that fire in the belly early. And congrats on the relative newborn. Hopefully you're getting a good amount of sleep!

The Teal Pirates, my U7 soccer team, took their first loss of the season, a 4-1 defeat to the Pink Panthers. The Pirates were significantly out-coached. The Panthers had great set pieces and actually passed the ball to each other. I just tell my kids to run around and kick the ball. I did enjoy the fact the Panthers were made up entirely of girls whereas my team has seven boys and three girls. The ladies took it to us, and honestly, they should have won by more than three goals. The Teal Pirates have to take look in the mirror and be honest with the kind of effort it gave Saturday, and that starts with me, the coach. I have to get better, and I vow to get better. Accountability starts at the top. If we don't win this Saturday, I will not allow myself to have one of the post-game snack bags. It's only fair I suffer if I can't coach 'em up.

(Sidenote: The Pink Panthers may or may not have been playing a goalkeeper during the game, which may or may not be illegal in 7U Great Basin Soccer. I may or may not implement this strategy moving forward.)

(Sidenote, II: They were definitely using an illegal goalkeeper. #NeverForget)

(Sidenote, III: But I'm not making excuses. I got out-coached.)

(Sidenote, IV: By a team using an illegal goalkeeper.)

(Sidenote, V: #NeverForget)

After two weeks of wins, I got zero questions on the performance of the Teal Pirates. Now, I clearly get outcoached — by a team using an illegal goalkeeper — and I have all these inquiries about my squad! Now I know how Brian Polian felt all these years! Media always focusing on the negative and not the positive! My team has a great APR! I only recruit good kids! We're trying our best! It was the refs' faults! (To be honest, there are no refs, but whatever.)

OK, I'm off to read "Soccer for Dummies" so I can get my Pirates back in the win column next week. Aaargh! See y'all next week!

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. He writes a weekly Monday Mailbag despite it giving him a headache and it taking several hours to write. But people seem to like it, so he does it anyway. Contact him at crmurray@sbgtv.com or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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