All things considered Brian Polian was proud of what his Nevada Wolf Pack football team accomplished in 2014.
“There’s no doubt from Year One (2013) to Year Two (2014) we made significant strides,” said Polian, who will open his third year as the Wolf Pack head coach on Sept. 3 at Mackay Stadium against UC Davis. “We went from a 4-8 team in transition to a 7-5 team in the regular season with wins over BYU and Washington State.”
The Wolf Pack finished 7-6 last season for the third time in the last four years after a 16-3 loss to Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. But before the bowl loss — the Pack’s ninth loss in 12 bowl games since joining Division I-A in 1992 — the Pack also improved two spots (from fifth place in 2013 to third place last year) in the West Division standings of the Mountain West. The season also included an impressive win over San Diego State at home and a Fremont Cannon victory over UNLV in Las Vegas. “We have our set of issues like everybody else but I like the improvement I’ve seen,” Polian said.
Polian, who watched his father Bill get inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in early August, doesn’t expect the improvement to stop. “We have to continue to make strides,” the 40-year-old said. “We’re ready to take the next step.”
That next step will have to be taken without a lot of familiar faces. Gone from this year’s roster are a lot of holdovers from the coach Chris Ault era, namely quarterback Cody Fajardo, defensive linemen Brock Hekking and Jordan Hanson, defensive backs Evan Favors, Charles Garrett and Nigel Haikins, offensive linemen Kyle Roberts, Matt Galas and Connor Talbott, wide receiver Richy Turner and linebacker Jonathan McNeal. The biggest change will be at quarterback where eight consecutive seasons of Colin Kaepernick (2007-10) and Cody Fajardo (2011-14) came to an end after last year. Junior Tyler Stewart, who has started all of one game in his career, will take over as the starting quarterback, outlasting freshman Hunter Fralick and sophomore Dante Mayes in a competition that started in the spring.
“We have to replace a record-setting quarterback, which is obviously a difficult situation,” said Polian, who also understands that those eight seasons of Kaepernick and Fajardo produced only one conference title and one bowl victory (both in 2010). “But we’re better built to support the quarterback, whomever it might be. We’re going to run the ball better. We have two great backs.”
Don Jackson rushed for 957 yards and seven touchdowns last year as a junior and Butler complemented him well with 635 yards and five scores as a freshman. The two are hoping to become the first pair of Wolf Pack running backs to reach 1,000 yards in the same season since Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott in 2009. “Coach Polian called us the heart and soul of the offense,” Jackson said. “It means a lot to be the guys everyone looks up to. I just want to take my game to the next level.”
Jackson (5-foot-10, 210 pounds) and Butler (5-9, 200) are also more than willing to share the carries. “We want to pound the ball this year,” Butler said. Jackson is a big believer in his running mate. “When he (Butler) gets in the game we don’t lose too much,” Jackson said. “He’s like a little brother to me. We push each other.”
Jackson says he has learned by watching Jackson. “When Don plays well it sparks me to play well,” Butler said. “He’s like my big brother. Don really sets the tone for all of us. I think we can be one of the best (running back tandems) in the country.”
The offensive line will be anchored by tackles Austin Corbett and Joey Anglemire and guards Jeremy Macauley and Adam Khouri. “The depth of our offensive line is a concern,” Polian said. Corbett is becoming the leader of the offensive line. “We have a bunch of young guys but I think we’ll be all right,” Corbett said. The Pack backs agree. “Our offensive line is working with a chip on their shoulders,” Jackson said.
The 6-4, 220-pound Stewart won the starting quarterback job, Polian said, because of his experience. He started one game two years ago and beat Hawaii at Mackay Stadium, throwing for 202 yards and three touchdowns. The last time he threw a pass in a game, though, was Nov. 9, 2013 at Colorado State. “I’ve always been pretty confident in myself,” said Stewart, who was brought to Nevada by coach Chris Ault in 2012. “I just want to go out and lead the offense and do what I do well. I just want to stay within the confines of the offense and do what I’m asked to do.”
The rest of the team was content this summer to just let the quarterback competition play out. “We trust that the coaches will put the right guy back there,” Corbett said.
Tight end Jarred Gipson (33 catches, four touchdowns in 2014) is back as are veteran wide receivers Wyatt Demps, Jerico Richardson and Henderson (45 catches, four scores last year) and a host of newcomers who will make their Division I debut this season. “We have real good options at wide receiver,” Polian said.
The strength of the team just might be on defense, especially along the line and at linebacker. Jordan Dobrich, Matt Lyons, Bryan Lane and Alex Bertrando lead an experienced linebacker unit. Ian Seau, Lenny Jones, Rykeem Yates, Salesa Faraimo and Patrick Choudja will help give the Pack as much talent and depth along the defensive line as any team in the Mountain West. Polian also singled out freshman Malik Reed from Dothan Ala., as someone who could also make dramatic contributions along the defensive front. “We’re building from what we did last year,” Jones said. “We’re bigger, faster, stronger.”
Seau, the only Pack player along with punter Alex Boy who was named to the Mountain West Pre-season All-Conference team, is being considered as a Mountain West defensive Player of the Year candidate. “He’s ready,” Polian said. “Watching his development the last couple of years has really been a joy.”
Dobrich had 85 tackles last year, Lyons had 80 and recovered two fumbles, Lane had 70 and Seau had 39 with 10.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks and an interception. Jones had 36 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Faraimo had 33 tackles (three for a loss). “I promise we won’t disappoint,” said Jones, one of four team captains this season along with Dobrich, Corbett and Jackson. “We (the defensive line) need to change more games. It starts with us and finishes with us. If we’re great, the team will be great. It’s all on us.”
Polian is confident in his defensive line and linebackers. “We have to get the ball out of the (opposing) quarterback’s hands,” Polian said. “We are good in the front seven, especially in the defensive front. We have great depth.”
The secondary will be a work in progress. The loss of Haikins, Garrett and Favors leaves three huge holes to fill. Cornerbacks Randy Uzoma and Elijah Mitchell and free safety L.J. Jackson are the most experienced in the secondary. “There’s no secret we will be very young in the defensive backfield, no matter who is playing,” Polian said. I think we have the talent but we’re young.”
The Wolf Pack, mainly because of the questions at quarterback, was picked by the media to finish third in the West Division this year behind Fresno State and San Diego State and ahead of San Jose State, Hawaii and UNLV. Boise State was picked to run away with the Mountain Division ahead of Utah State, Colorado State, Air Force, Wyoming and New Mexico. The two division winners will meet in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 5. “The polls, for us, that is not a big deal,” Polian said.
The Pack has not won a conference title since winning the Western Athletic Conference in 2010. The Pack has won just two conference titles (2005, 2010 in the WAC) since winning the Big West Conference in 1997. “Just be ready for a big year,” Don Jackson said. “This team is tired of being disrespected.”