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The 8 position battles to watch out for during Nevada football spring camp

Nate Cox
Quarterback Nate Cox will help run the Wolf Pack offense during spring camp. (David Calvert/Nevada athletics)

It'd be hyperbole to say starting jobs can be won or lost during spring camp, but it's still an important time for players to make impressions on the coaching staff. The Nevada football team will open spring camp next Wednesday — the start of camp was pushed back eight days due to COVID-19 contact tracing — with some starting jobs open to competition. While Nevada returns 20 of its 22 starters from last year, coach Jay Norvell has made it clear players who played a lot last season won't be grandfathered into the same amount of playing time this year. Here is a look at the eight most intriguing position battles to watch during Nevada's 15 spring camp practices, which culminate with the Silver & Blue Scrimmage on May 1.

Backup quarterback

Nate Cox vs. Jake Barlage: With Carson Strong missing spring camp after knee surgery, Cox and Barlage will run the offense. Both are junior-college transfers with almost zero FBS experience, so not having Strong for spring allows those two to get important reps with the first string. Cox is a 6-foot-9, strong-armed gunslinger who needs to improve his accuracy (51.8 percent passing in JC). Barlage is 6-1 and the more accurate of the throwers (69 percent passing in JC). These will be keys practices for both as four-star freshman quarterback Clay Millen joins Nevada in the fall and could be in line for the backup job unless Cox or Barlage impress during this 15-practice audition.

Slot receiver

Melquan Stovall vs. Jamaal Bell vs. Isaac Jernigan: Nevada is stocked at outside receiver with Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks, Tory Horton and Justin Lockhart. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if one of those guys moved to the slot this season to put the Wolf Pack's top-three receivers on the field as much as possible. But if that doesn't happen, one of the three players listed here will start in the slot. Stovall held that job last season and caught 33 passes for 250 yards. But Bell and Jernigan both had offers from most of the Pac-12 and are explosive athletes. Each was a true freshman in 2020, so after one year in the system they could compete for the starting slot job with Stovall, who is entering his third year at Nevada.

Offensive guard

Zac Welch vs. Gray Davis vs. Blake Baughman: The only offensive starter not to return for Nevada this season is Nate Brown, a three-year starter who spent time at tackle and guard. He started at right guard last season, so that position is up for grabs in 2021. Norvell has stressed the need to improve Nevada's offensive line depth, something he wasn't happy with last season. Davis is the only player among the three listed above to start for Nevada, doing so seven times, most of those coming in 2019. Welch is entering his third season with the Wolf Pack as is Baughman. A few other players could be in the mix for this position as Nevada tries to get back to the dominant Union standards of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Defensive end

Kameron Toomer vs. Tristan Nichols vs. Chris Whittaker: Nevada rotates a lot of players through its defensive line, so being the starter isn't the hugest deal. But everybody wants to start, right? Last year, Sam Hammond and Toomer started at end with Dom Peterson and Zak Mahannah at tackle. Hammond and Peterson were both All-MW picks, so they'll start for sure, if healthy. Toomer, a starter last season, has the inside track on the other defensive end job, but Nichols has shown the ability to get to the quarterback with six sacks (nine tackles) in limited snaps the last two seasons. If he's healthy, he could push for the starting job. Whittaker, a transfer from Florida International (and Kentucky before that), also will vie for the job.

Linebacker

Daiyan Henley vs. Lamin Touray vs. Trevor Price vs. Josiah Bradley: Lawson Hall is returning for a sixth season and will serve as one of Nevada's two starting linebackers. The other linebacker job rotated last season with Henley and Touray getting most of the reps. Henley finished the season as the starter and had 49 tackles. He's had a well-traveled career at Nevada, flipping back and forth between offense and defense and safety and linebacker. He had a breakthrough 2020 and enters spring camp as the guy to beat. But with Nevada playing only two linebackers in its base defense, there's going to be a lot of competition to get on the field alongside Hall, who is coming off an all-conference season.

Nickel cornerback

Bentlee Sanders vs. Jordan Lee: The only starter on the Nevada defense not returning this season is nickel cornerback E.J. Muhammad, who had the option of returning for a seventh season in college (but that's a long time to spend in college). He opted against another senior season. Nevada moved quickly to try and find his replacement him by signing grad transfer Bentlee Sanders from South Florida. Sanders is 5-foot-9, 175-pounder who had 94 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, five passes defended and three forced fumbles in 31 games for the Bulls. Lee is entering his fourth season at Nevada and has 61 tackles, including 6.5 for loss, in 34 games after walking on from Bishop Gorman High.

Outside cornerback

AJ King vs. Jaden Dedman vs. Mikael Bradford vs. Isaiah Essissima: Berdale Robins will start at one outside cornerback position next season but the job on the opposite sideline is up for grabs. That spot was a real weakness for Nevada in 2020, with the secondary being the one place where the Wolf Pack needs to make the most strides year over year, especially with a more difficult schedule in 2021. King was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season, so he has some experience. Dedman is entering his fourth year at Nevada and has started one game. Bradford shared starting duties last year, too. The wild card is Essissima, a transfer from Wake Forest who is trying to become eligible for the 2021 season.

Free safety

Christian Swint vs. Miles Hays vs. Jayce Godley vs. Emany Johnson vs. JoJuan Claiborne: Norvell specifically mentioned safety when talking about a position that must improve in 2021. Tyson Williams is entering his third season as a starter at strong safety and has generally played well during his Wolf Pack tenure. The free safety job beside him has been a revolving door of starters with several players getting a chance to start and see meaningful reps but nobody locking down the position. That job remains open this year with a transfer addition in Hays, from William and Mary. Norvell has raved about his potential, so he's a guy to watch out for as Nevada looks to improve its secondary.

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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