NCAA Football Preview - Nevada Wolf Pack

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Updated: 12:50 pm

In his third stint as the Nevada head coach Ault, who had spent the better part of his adult life linked to the Wolf Pack in one way or another, decided it was time to leave the sidelines, making way for Brian Polian in the process.

Polian, a special team coordinator with Notre Dame, Stanford and most recently Texas A&M, was given his first shot at a head coaching gig and for the most part was in over his head. Since graduating from John Carroll in 1997, Polian made a total of eight stops during his coaching career before landing the big one in Reno, but one has to wonder just how prepared he was for this significant move.

The son of former NFL executive Bill Polian, the 39-year old was a respectable 3-2 after the first five games of the season, but it should be noted that those victories came against UC Davis (36-7), Hawaii (31-9) and Air Force (45-42), the latter two programs being fellow Mountain West Conference members who finished with a combined mark of only 3-21.

The Pack started off the month of October with a disappointing 51-44 overtime loss to San Diego State on the road and from there it was all down hill. A five-game slide was finally ended with a surprising 38-16 victory over a resurgent San Jose State group at home, but then Nevada took another step back in the regular-season finale versus BYU in a 28-23 loss.

Nevada finished the season just 4-8 overall and 3-5 in conference, placing the squad fifth in the West Division standings of the reconstructed MWC. The overall losing record was the first for the program since 2007 when it went 6-7, following a loss in the New Mexico Bowl. The four wins were the fewest since head coach Chris Tormey took the group to a mere 3-8 mark as a member of the Western Athletic Conference back in 2001.

The Wolf Pack had some serious issues on the defensive side of the ball a season ago, allowing 34.4 ppg which was 102nd in the country. The biggest problem came when trying to stop the run, with Nevada giving up a staggering 258.5 ypg, ranking the group not only last in the MWC but 122nd in the country as well. As a result, Polian opted to make a change in coaching and brought in Scott Boone to be his defensive coordinator. Boone was a finalist for FCS Coordinator of the Year while at William & Mary.

"Scott brings a wealth of football knowledge to our program and his defenses have produced at a high level in one of the premier conferences at the FCS level," Polian said of the hire. "He is a fit within our coaching staff and his philosophy of 4-3 defense will provide some continuity for our players."

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: As was the case last season, the Nevada offense will again revolve around quarterback Cody Fajardo. A dual threat who can pick apart a defense with his arm and also make things happen with his legs, Fajardo appeared in 10 games last season, missing out on both the Hawaii victory and the blowout loss to Florida State (62-7) due to a sprained right knee.

A candidate for both the Davey O'Brien and Maxwell Awards this season, Fajardo threw for 2,668 yards and 13 touchdowns, as well as placing second on the unit with 621 yards on 141 rushing attempts last season when he tallied eight scores on the ground. Fajardo is one of two players nationally who has rushed and passed for at least 30 touchdowns in his career, and it doesn't hurt that he carries a career completion percentage of .678.

Unfortunately, the offense did take a serious hit with the loss of leading receiver Brandon Wimberly (97 receptions, 989 yards, eight TDs), but on a more positive note, the squad does bring back Richy Turner, a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, who accounted for 61 catches, 755 yards and four scores a year ago. Tight end Jarred Gipson is also a returning starter who should figure more prominently into the offense this time around.

In addition to Fajardo carrying the ball quite often, the Pack also has the luxury of welcoming back Kendall Brock who was actually the leading rusher for the program with 812 yards and 10 score on 185 attempts. Don Jackson (332 yards, four TDs) will be a solid backup when Brock and Fajardo are in need of a break.

The other good news for the offense has three starters back along the front line in Jeremy Macauley, Matt Galas (a candidate for the Rimington Trophy) and Kyle Roberts. The team, which for a number of years was a rushing juggernaut, produced only 179.0 ypg on the ground to rank 51st nationally in 2013.

DEFENSE: The defense returns the top three tackles from last season in Jonathan McNeal, Matthew Lyons and Jordan Dobrich, but the player who is garnering most of the attention on that side of the ball is defensive end Brock Hekking, who finished in a tie for seventh with 48 stops in his 12 appearances in 2013.

Hekking may not make a lot of stops, but when he does they are generally quite significant. Of his 48 tackles, 14.5 came behind the line of scrimmage, and nine of those against the opposing quarterback. He led the Pack in both TFL and sacks, and was also responsible for two forced fumbles, so you can see why he is a preseason First Team All-MWC selection and on the watch lists for the Ted Hendricks, Rotary Lombardi and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards.

In addition to Hekking, there are eight other returning starters on the defensive side of the ball for the Wolf Pack, and that should go a long way in straightening out some of the issues the group dealt with last season.

McNeal led the squad with 103 tackles from his linebacker position, while Lyons tacked on another 89 stops. Dobrich appeared in 11 games and made 80 tackles, accounting for two forced fumbles as well.

The group intercepted a total of 10 passes in 2013, but only one player (Markus Smith) had more than just a single pick and he is no longer on the roster. Then again, with the run defense being so porous opponents didn't always see the need to go over the top against the Pack, which might be something that changes moving forward.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Although he was just a freshman last season, kicker Brent Zuzo made a major impact with the Pack as he converted the first 11 field goal attempts of his college career. Overall, the youngster knocked through 14- of-17 opportunities, sporting a perfect 5-of-5 mark between 40-49 yards.

According to the most current depth chart, Zuzo also serves as the backup punter to Alex Boy. A sophomore, Boy is being thrown into the fire after redshirting last season.

In addition to being the primary target in the passing attack, Turner will also be called upon to return punts initially, while Jerico Richardson brings back kickoffs, which he did to the tune of 21 yards per opportunity last season.

OUTLOOK: For the first time since 2004 the Wolf Pack failed to make it to the postseason and that's something that the current players have been forced to live with since the end of 2013 and is now motivation for them to dial up their efforts moving forward.

"It definitely lit a fire under us," Fajardo says. "I thought it was bad to lose a bowl game -- sit a whole offseason off losing a bowl game -- try going 4-8 ... Any time you have more losses than wins, you're obviously doing something wrong."

Of the 12 opponents on the schedule, only four have losing records versus Nevada, which isn't an encouraging stat for the Wolf Pack. The MWC slate will again be a difficult one, but at least the team will have the force of the hometown crowd behind them when they suit up against Boise State and Fresno State, in October and November, respectively.

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