BOISE, ID - OCTOBER 01: Head Coach Chris Ault of the Nevada Wolf Pack talks with his players during the game against the Boise State Broncos at Bronco Stadium on October 1, 2011 in Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)
Chris Ault's Nevada Wolf Pack took on a rough early schedule and some serious personnel losses and cranked out yet another winning season in 2011. With an exciting, young quarterback in place and an underrated secondary returning almost intact, can UNR overcome long odds and fight for a conference title in their first season in the Mountain West? Related: Nevada's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
For more on Nevada football, visit MWC blog Mountain West Connection.
Long odds are nothing new for Nevada football.
- Recruiting rankings are all about odds of success, but the Wolf Pack don't do "recruiting rankings" -- in 11 seasons, they have landed just 31 three-star players according to Rivals.com, and of their three 2011 NFL Draft picks, only one received even a three-star rating (second-rounder Colin Kaepernick received the lowest three-star rating).
- Coaches who return from retirement aren't known for succeeding at a high level, but Nevada coach Chris Ault not only returned after a hall-of-fame career, but has produced seven straight bowl seasons and went 13-1 in 2010.
- New formations don't typically take off -- usually, there is a reason why a new formation hadn't yet been invented -- but Ault's Pistol formation, and the concepts behind it, have been adopted by a healthy portion of the country at this point.
Still, even for a program known for bucking odds, one had to assume that, when Nevada receiver Brandon Wimberly was shot in the abdomen outside of a Reno nightclub last June, odds of him returning to the football field were minimal. Hell, at first, the odds of him WALKING were far from fantastic. He was in intensive care for 10 days and in the hospital for three weeks. Even three months later, it felt a bit outlandish for him to be defiantly talking about playing again. But there he was, taking hits over the middle and bolting right back onto the first-string offense this spring.
Nevada overcame some interesting odds of its own in 2011, advancing to the aforementioned seventh straight bowl game despite taking on a brutal September slate and losing an incredible amount of talent from its all-time great 2010 squad -- Kaepernick, running back Vai Taua, defensive playmaker Dontay Moch, Wimberly, etc. But with a new batch of playmakers, and an intriguing young quarterback, the Wolf Pack won six of eight to finish the regular season.
Ault is one of the most underrated coaches in college football. He doesn't need recruiting rankings, and he doesn't need retirement; he's just going to keep winning games one way or another. And this fall, he'll have an incredible motivational figure in Wimberly on his side.
Chris Ault has won 219 games as head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame for his accomplishments during his first stint in Reno, then returned to the job, invented a new offense and, in his 26th year on the job, just enjoyed his most successful season. He has raised Nevada from an iffy 1-AA team, to a 1-AA power, to a Big West power, to a WAC power ... and he's about to oversee UNR's move to the Mountain West (assuming Conference Realignment Armageddon doesn't leave large swaths of vapor over much of college football).
So why, then, does the 64-year old Ault always look so unflinchingly, mesmerizingly miserable on the sidelines? Look at the above picture. That's him happy. When he's less than happy, the corners of his mouth tuck down, the posture rolls up, and Ault generally looks like a dour cross between Chris Cooper's character from American Beauty and Fire Marshall Bill. […]
There will be an inevitable step backwards this season, simply because a) the Wolf Pack must replace a lot and b) that's what typically happens after you have your best season ever. But in their final season in the WAC, there's still a solid chance that they are the class of their conference. In the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, we give Nevada a 90% chance of finishing 6-1 or 7-0 in conference (other teams: Hawaii 28%, Fresno State 16%, Louisiana Tech 4%) and a 99% chance of finishing better than 6-6. It's amazing what a worse conference can do for your win totals, eh?
That said, 2011 will certainly still offer quite a few challenges. Never mind the money woes, which will continue to weigh over everything ... Nevada starts the season with four consecutive road games against Oregon, San Jose State, Texas Tech and Boise State. Even last year's team would have likely started 1-3. The Almanac doesn't account for cumulative frustration, and a 1-3 start could make some teams implode, or at least fray at the edges. Survive that with their ego intact, however, and Nevada should destroy the rest of their schedule. Fresno State and Hawaii both visit Reno, and the only remaining road trips are to New Mexico and Utah State. The future may be uncertain for the University of Nevada-Reno's athletic department, but fans should at least have another winning team to root for in 2011 while they wait to see if the hammer drops.
Nevada did indeed regress offensively following the loss of so many stars, but two bright spots gave them momentum:
- The Wolf Pack defense was rock solid. Nevada ranked 60th in Def. F/+, fielding their best D in recent history despite the loss of Moch. Seven players recorded at least four tackles for loss, and an aggressive secondary ranked 10th in the country in Passing Success Rate+. The unit started slowly -- seven touchdowns in the first eight possessions versus Oregon in Week Two -- and suffered some glitches along the way, but the Wolf Pack held Southern Miss to just 336 yards (4.1 per play), Boise State to 329 (4.6), Hawaii to 307 (5.0), Idaho to 306 (4.9), New Mexico to 257 (4.0), and UNLV to 110 (2.1).
- Cody Fajardo happened. Splitting time with senior Tyler Lantrip, he announced his presence with 139 rushing yards in just 10 carries versus Texas Tech and fought through nagging injuries to offer plenty of interesting moments -- 20-for-25 passing with 86 pre-sack rushing yards versus New Meixco, 313 passing yards and 69 pre-sack rushing yards versus Fresno State, 290 passing yards and 97 pre-sack rushing yards versus Hawaii, 212 passing yards and 123 pre-sack rushing yards versus Louisiana Tech.
The defense suffered some losses in the front seven this offseason, and Fajardo has to prove he can stay healthy and take on the full weight of the offense (without Lantrip as a safety net), but 2011 proved that Nevada can take on serious turnover and still produce a good product. They will probably prove the same in 2012.
By now, we know the basics of the pistol formation. It's a quick-hitting, downhill running formation that utilizes large splits and allows smaller linemen to thrive in zone blocking. It gives you both power-running and sideline-to-sideline passing capability. It makes enough sense that other schools have incorporated it into their offenses. Hell, even Norm Chow tried it at UCLA. But even though it is a much more familiar concept than it was a few years ago, Nevada still does it better than most schools. In part, this is because it is their OFFENSE, not just a novelty, keep-the-defense-off-guard formation for occasional use. But beyond that, Ault and company have consistently made adjustments and figured out ways to stay ahead of defenses. Here's what Smart Football's Chris Brown wrote about it a couple of years ago:
When the offense is rolling (which it is most of the time these days), the pistol gives a team the best of both worlds: It has at its disposal all the Urban Meyer/Rich Rodriguez spread offense stuff, like the zone read and other gadgets, as well as the advantages of a "traditional" I-formation or pro-style single-back attack. Among these are that the runningback, aligning as he does behind the quarterback, tips no hand to the defense on the direction of the play, and the offense can get both good downhill running and play-action off those looks. […]
Old school with a new school twist. That's how Nevada puts its spin on the spread offense stuff, but what really makes Nevada different is its emphasis on old school plays in the context of its new school offense. […] When the pistol works, it's the best of both worlds for Nevada: Both I-formation and spread, both old and new school. Ultimately, however, there's only so much magic in simply putting your running back behind your quarterback -- that's not exactly a novel proposition. What has made Nevada dynamic offense go has been Ault and his staff's ability to teach these schemes and to adjust week-to-week. Without getting all Bill Callahan in a restricted space, Nevada actually has one of the most diverse playbooks in terms of the number of different blocking schemes; it's something they have developed to stay ahead of the game.
The larger question, though, is why no one else runs it except as an occasional novelty -- can this stuff work outside of the WAC? I would say so -- but not because the "pistol" is magical. Only because an offensive mind like Ault could coach it.
Colin Kaepernick was, quite simply, the perfect Pistol quarterback. He had the best play fake of the last decade -- when he kept the ball on a zone read, you didn't actually know it until he had taken a few steps up field, and with his ostrich legs, "a few steps" occupied about 12 yards -- and he had a good enough arm to spread the ball horizontally or vertically when the need arose. But Ault proved once again that his offense is bigger than just one player. With Lantrip and, eventually, Fajardo taking the reins in 2011, the offense certainly regressed, but the Wolf Pack still ranked sixth in the country in yards per game. Lantrip was a better, more decisive passer (Lantrip: 8.3 yards per pass attempt, 2.2 percent sack rate; Fajardo: 7.1 yards per pass attempt, 5.2 percent sack rate), but Fajardo offered quite a bit more on the ground (6.6 yards per carry), and the offense functioned a little bit better when Fajardo was healthy.
Nevada Offense With Lantrip: 27.8 Adj. PPG
Nevada Offense With Fajardo: 29.8 Adj. PPG
If he can remain healthy -- a decent-sized "if" considering he missed three games with injury and was severely limited in a couple of others -- Fajardo offers nearly a Kaepernick-esque ceiling for the Nevada offense. He is a lovely runner and decent enough passer. But with Lantrip gone and interesting third-stringer Mason Magleby off to Sacramento State, the supporting cast is devoid of any experience behind Fajardo. There is less of a safety net, especially if Ault cannot find suitable replacements for departed running backs Lampford Mark and Mike Ball, who combined for 1,615 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2011. Nevada is a bit of a running backs factory, of course, so one just assumes that Stefphon Jefferson, Nick Hale and company will suffice, especially running behind an experienced offensive line that ranked 26th in Adj. Line Yards and returns two all-conference linemen (Chris Barker and Jeff Nady) and 76 career starts.
A healthy Fajardo should also find some decent options in the receiving corps, as well, despite the departure of three of last year's top four receivers. Wimberly is not quite as explosive as since-departed Rishard Matthews (at least, he wasn't in 2010), but he should be able to handle the No. 1 spot, and sophomore Aaron Bradley should make for a decent No. 2. The pickings are slim after that -- the next leading returning wideout is beautifully-named Necho Beard, who caught one pass last year -- but Stefphon Jefferson offers a nice target out of the backfield, and two tight ends (Kolby Arendse and enormous senior Zach Sudfeld) could play pivotal roles. There are enough interesting weapons surrounding Fajardo that the Wolf Pack should once again thrive if he stays healthy. If, if, if.
Last year, Nevada replaced an incredible defensive playmaker (Dontay Moch, who had 22 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in 2010) and improved. This year, they must replace another one: tackle Brett Roy, who logged an explosive-for-a-tackle 18.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and six passes broken up. His is not the only departure worth noting -- in all, five of the starting front seven are gone. Last year's second string returns intact, however, and overall production might not slip too much; but Roy's absence is a significant one.
Anticipating the need for extra help up front, Ault is bringing in a pair of highly-touted junior college linemen: tackle Cortez Woods, an undersized (260 pounds), high-three-star signee, and end Shane Pennix. If Woods, returning starter Jack Reynoso and a youngster like redshirt freshman Rykeem Yates can at least approximate Roy's production, everything else could fall into place nicely. The return of linebacker DeAndre Boughton, who missed 2011 with a broken leg, should offset the departure of playmaker Brandon Marshall. Boughton was one of Nevada's best performers this spring. He could be a nice complement to active strongside linebacker Jeremiah Green, one of the best pass-defending linebackers in the country.
There are certainly some question marks on the front seven. But if the linemen and linebackers can avoid serious regression, the secondary should thrive. Seven of eight from last year's two-deep return, and while the lone departure -- corner Isaiah Frey and his 21 passes defended -- was a weighty one, his absence is surmountable with depth. Safeties Duke Williams, Marlon Johnson and three-star sophomore Charles Garrett are among the Mountain West's best, and Khalid Wooten still gives Nevada a strong No. 1 corner. With only a decent pass rush (52nd in Adj. Sack Rate), Nevada fielded one of the best mid-major pass defenses in the country last year. They should do so again.
Nevada takes a step up to the Mountain West this year, but while the MWC doesn't feature teams like New Mexico State and Idaho, it still has its share of dead weight. Home games against Northwestern State, Wyoming, San Diego State and Fresno State and trips to Texas State, UNLV and New Mexico should get the Wolf Pack most of the way toward bowl eligibility, so we'll say that matching last year's record (7-6) will constitute a successful season, even if they slip up to the bigger names on the schedule (at California, South Florida, Boise State, etc.).
It would be easy to focus on losses -- two good running backs, Rishard Matthews, Brett Roy, two good linebackers, Isaiah Frey -- and predict some gloom for Nevada, but the job they did in stabilizing themselves last year after huge departures and a 1-3 start told me what I needed to know: Chris Ault still has his program in solid shape. With the Mountain West in transition -- TCU is gone, Boise State loses everybody, San Diego State loses everybody you've heard of -- Nevada enters with high aspirations and a reasonable chance to win quite a few games.
The key, of course, as I mentioned approximately 26 times above, is keeping Cody Fajardo healthy. There is no proven backup (of course, Fajardo himself was unproven 12 months ago), and while Ault will always field a decent offense, if his goals include "winning the Mountain West," he needs high upside at the quarterback position. A healthy Fajardo could mean a 9-3 season; a dinged-up Fajardo could result in a struggle to reach 6-6 or 7-5.