Nevada Head Coach Chris Ault took his team to the top last year, guiding the Wolf Pack to a sterling 9-3 record, a Western Athletic Conference Championship and a thrilling 49-48 bowl win over Central Florida. It was the eighth conference championship for Ault at Nevada. The Pack finished the 2005 season ranked 27th in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and 29th in the Associated Press poll. Nevada led the nation in time of possession (33:12), averaging a full 21 seconds better than second-place Notre Dame.
Nevada has not been shut out for 304 consecutive games, the longest streak in the nation. They have put together a fine 10-2 mark at home the past two years, and the nine full-time Pack assistant coaches have a combined 138 years of experience. Ault and that experienced staff are pleased with the recruiting class that followed, signing five junior college transfers with three years of eligibility remaining. The Reno area is excited for the 2006 season to begin.
Headlining the offense is 2nd team All-WAC quarterback Jeff Rowe, who returns for his fourth year of running Ault's "pistol" offense. Rowe has professional size (6-5, 220) and ability. He completed 62% of his passes for 2,925 yards and 21 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions for an impressive passing efficiency rating of 137.8. Rowe also scored six touchdowns on the ground and was second in the league in total offense. Barring injury, Rowe will move into the all-time Nevada top three in nearly every career category.
The bad news is that backups Nick Graziano (6-1, 220, Fr.) and Travis Moore (6-2, 215, Sr.) suffered spring injuries limiting their work. If Rowe were to go down, it could be a long season for the Pack.
WAC Offensive Player of the Year B.J. Mitchell is gone, taking his 1,399 rushing yards with him. Robert Hubbard (5-10, 195, Sr.) has battled through injuries but still ran for 719 yards (6th in the WAC) and 11 touchdowns last season. Kyle Eklund (5-8, 190, Sr.) has been hurt a lot as well, so look for freshmen Brandon Fragger (5-9, 195), Courtney Randall (5-10, 215) or Via Taua (5-11, 220) to make an immediate impact.
Senior Caleb Spencer (6-0, 180) is one of the league's best receivers, grabbing 67 passes for 889 yards and seven TD's in '05. Lacking great speed, opposing defenses can double team him and be effective. Thus, Ault needs others to step up this fall. Unfortunately, no one else has experience. Kyle Sammons (6-0, 195, Sr.) and sophomore Mike McCoy (6-0, 190) are the other projected starters. Chris Wellington (6-1, 185) is one of those JC transfers that could make a play for a starting spot, and Ault felt he hit a home run when sophomore Marko Mitchell (6-4, 190) signed.
The offensive line has some question marks with the loss of both tackles. Dominic Green (6-3, 285, So.), who started at both guard and center, will shift to one of those open tackle spots to reduce the damage. Charles Manu (6-3, 300, Jr.), another part-time starter at guard, will also make the move to tackle this season. Senior Jimmy Wadhams (6-3, 285) is tall for a center but will be counted on for leadership. Barrett Reznick (6-1, 280, Sr.), another member of the All-WAC second team, will be the strong guard with sophomore Greg Hall (6-3, 280) set to go on the other side. Members of the media are questioning this unit, and without a solid, dependable line, Rowe and the other members of the pistol will be hung out to dry.
Matt "Dump Truck" Hines (6-0, 285, Jr.) has secured the starting nose tackle job. His steady play helped Nevada to go the final eight games of the regular season without allowing a 100-yard rusher. Going against the great quarterbacks of the WAC, such as Hawai'i's Colt Brennan and Idaho's Steve Wichman, it is essential to have a pass rush; Nevada does not. Senior end Charles Wilson (6-4, 275) played the entire season and posted a grand total of 2.5 sacks. Junior Erics Clark (6-5, 260) and senior Jay Dixon (6-2, 265 are fighting it out for the other position.
The linebacking crew is a strength this fall for Tim DeRuyter and Barry Sacks, who serve as Co-Defensive Coordinators. Jeremy Engstrom (6-1, 235, Jr.) is the unquestioned leader with 132 tackles in two seasons. Ezra Butler-Beaton (6-2, 255, Jr.), who ran a sub-4.5 40 this spring, will join Engstrom on the outside of the 3-4. Ault is counting on freshman Joshua Mauga (6-2, 235) to be a stopper at inside linebacker this year. Expect Mauga to be all over the field making plays. Jason DeMars (6-2, 245, Sr.) or J.J. Milan (6-5, 265, Sr.) will play the other side. Milan was hurt last year but in 2004 he led the team with 4.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss.
Another area for concern for Nevada is in the secondary, as the Pack allowed a whopping 269 yards a game through the air. The main reason for the inflated numbers was torn ACL's to 3/4's of that secondary. Cornerback Paul Pratt (5-10, 185, Jr.) and safeties Nick Hawthrone (6-0, 200, Sr.) and Matt Virden (6-0, 180, So.) all went down with knee injuries last season. The saving grace was the outstanding play of corner Joe Garcia (6-0, 182, Sr.) who was not only All-WAC but second in the nation in passes defended. He was the third leading tackler on the team with 72 and his four interceptions ranked 23rd in the country.
Placekicker Brett Jaekle (6-4, 210, So.) was an Honorable Mention Freshman All-American, and third in the WAC in scoring with 86 points. He is accurate (12-15 field goals) but is a short distance kicker, as only one of those came from over 40 yards. Walk-on Thomas Barcia (5-7, 160, So.) will do the punting for the Pack this fall. Hubbard will be the key man on kickoff returns and Garcia will drop back to field punts. As Garcia is the most experienced defensive back for Nevada, that move could leave the team vulnerable to fake punts.
The first six games include challenges from four bowl opponents and four games in the road. The Pack has that monumental game at Fresno State in the season's first game. Did Nevada catch Fresno in their usual late-season nap or have they truly replaced the Bulldogs as one of the league's top two teams? Four tough non-conference games follow that one at Arizona State, home against Colorado State and Northwestern, followed by a road trip to the eastern part of the state and a game against UNLV. If they survive that brutal schedule, Nevada then plays one of the WAC's most improved teams in Hawai'i on Oahu. Nevada also has home games against San Jose State, New Mexico State, Utah State and Boise State. They will travel to play Idaho and Louisiana Tech.
Nevada will lose a lot of talent next year with Rowe, Hubbard, Ecklund, Spencer, Sammons, Wadhams, Reznick, Wilson, DeMars and Hawthorne all running out of eligibility. The bullseye this season will be huge--teams will be focusing on the defending WAC co-champions. Outside of Boise State, the Pack must play most of the league's contenders on the road. This is a big negative in a league where travel is so difficult. Athlon Sports magazine predicts four losses with toss-ups against UNLV and Hawai'i. A 1-5 or 2-4 start would certainly damage the built-up confidence on this team and it would be hard to imagine them being able to recover from such a situation.
However, in simulations at EA Sports, the Pack emerges with a 7-1 WAC record and 9-3 overall. Two of those wins are close battles on the road against Fresno State and Hawai'i. The Pack will have to win both of those to contend for the title. Their offense is talented and the defense is improving, and Nevada will once again be a strong force in the WAC.