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Nevada position review/preview (DB): A good position that doesn't require a rebuild

JoJuan Claiborne and Tyson Williams
JoJuan Claiborne, left, and Tyson Williams both return at safety for Nevada in 2022. (Nevada athletics)

The Nevada football season ended last month with a loss to Western Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl as the Wolf Pack finished 8-5 overall and 5-3 in the Mountain West. We will review how each position performed in 2021 and look at that group heading into 2022. Today’s position: defensive backs.

Top performers

* Jordan Lee: 86 tackles, five tackles for loss, five fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles, four pass breakups

* JoJuan Claiborne: 62 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble

* Tyson Williams: 46 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack, three interceptions, five pass breakups, one touchdown

* AJ King: 40 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, eight pass breakups, two forced fumbles

* BerDale Robins: 29 tackles, three interceptions, four pass breakups, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two touchdowns

* Bentlee Sanders: 24 tackles, two pass breakups

Highlight

It'd be easy to highlight the Hawaii game considering Nevada made quarterback Brayden Schager look like the true freshman he was in a game that included four Wolf Pack interceptions, although all four of those were made by the Wolf Pack linebackers. Instead, I'll take the Cal game given the fact Nevada was playing a veteran quarterback (Chase Garbers) and facing a Pac-12 opponent on the road. Nevada held Garbers to a quarterback rating of 108.3, his third-lowest mark of the season. He had a quarterback rating of 145 or better in seven of Cal's 10 other games, so he had a good season outside of his performance against Nevada. The Wolf Pack held Garbers to 25-of-38 passing for just 177 yards, which tallies out to 4.66 yards per attempt, a paltry number. Cornerback Isaiah Essissima added a game-sealing interception in the fourth quarter, a brilliant play where he high-pointed the ball. Garbers is an NFL draft prospect; Nevada made him look much less than that in a 22-17 win.

Lowlight

This wasn't a game where Nevada gave up a lot of passing yards. It's not the 425 yards in the air allowed to New Mexico State or the 388 given up to Boise State. It's the 176 yards allowed to San Diego State quarterback Lucas Johnson. The Aztecs' passing game is generally putrid, and it wasn't much different this year. The Nevada-SDSU game was basically a "loser out" contest in the West Division title race. And the Wolf Pack lost by two points, in part because Johnson, while not throwing for a lot of yards, made a bunch of key throws to aid a rushing attack that was good but not great (186 yards on 39 carries). Johnson completed 21-of-34 passes for 176 yards, again not killer numbers. but those 21 completions were a personal best, his most important coming on a crucial fourth down on SDSU's go-ahead drive in the final minutes.

Grade

B – Nevada ranked 35th in the nation in team pass efficiency defense, third in the Mountain West behind San Diego State and Fresno State, the two teams the Wolf Pack finished behind in the West Division. This was an above-average group for Nevada despite not having a defensive back named to the all-conference team (and only one was named honorable mention). The Wolf Pack secondary was aided by a strong pass rush all year, but this group made a ton of plays, including eight interceptions, eight forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, 14 tackles for loss and three touchdowns. That's a lot of havoc plays. The Wolf Pack held opponents to 6.57 yards per pass attempt, an excellent figure, and yielded only two 300-yard games (both Wolf Pack wins where the opponent was trying to come from behind and stacked up some yardage numbers late).

Key returners

* JoJuan Claiborne: The senior put his name in the transfer portal before returning to Nevada (the only player to do that). He's a hard-hitting and experienced safety who should retain his starting position in 2022.

* Tyson Williams: Also a safety, Williams will be a fourth-year starter in 2022. He came to Nevada as an offensive player, both at running back and receiver but has been a stalwart of the defense. He's a potential 2022 team captain.

* Emany Johnson: Johnson has earned his share of starts over the years and adds depth to the Wolf Pack's safety spot. During his first four seasons at Nevada, Johnson has racked up 75 tackles.

* Bentlee Sanders: Sanders transferred in from USF last season and started in the nickel cornerback/safety position. He's eligible for a second senior season and is versatile enough to play multiple secondary positions.

* Mikael Bradford: The first outside cornerback on the list, Bradford walked on to Nevada in 2019 after playing at Division II Minot State. He's earned decent playing time the last two seasons and should fight for a starting spot.

* Isaiah Essissima: A transfer from Wake Forest who made his Wolf Pack debut last season, Essissima had that big interception against Cal but didn't get a ton of playing time. He should be in line for more snaps at cornerback in 2022.

* Jaden Dedman: Dedman is entering his fifth college season, all at Nevada. He's never locked down a starting position, but the Wolf Pack doesn't return much experience at his cornerback position.

2022 vision

This position isn't as roughed up as others on the roster. The Wolf Pack did lose three starters, those being cornerbacks BerDale Robins (graduation) and AJ King (transferred to Colorado State) and safety Jordan Lee, who had a breakout 2021 and transferred to Washington State. But it returns three players with 2021 starting experience in Claiborne, Williams and Sanders, who should form a strong safety corps. The big question is outside cornerback. Nevada must develop at least two good players there, but it has a lot of internal options before whoever first-year head coach Ken Wilson brings in via the 2022 recruiting class. Nevada's non-conference schedule isn't loaded with high-octane throwing teams, the Wolf Pack's opponents being Iowa, New Mexico State, Texas State and Incarnate Word. The FCS school, Incarnate Word, might actually be the best passing offense of that group. That will give Nevada's secondary time to develop in the early part of the 2022 season.

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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