The grades are in for the Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s 2012 season.
A position-by-position look at the Wolf Pack’s second consecutive 7-6 season reveals an offense on the honor roll and a defense that, well, needs a tutor and some summer school classes to graduate . . .
You couldn’t reasonably expect the quarterback position — Cody Fajardo and Devin Combs — to do anything more than it did in 2012. Fajardo was on a Heisman pace through the first four games, throwing for 958 yards and four touchdowns and just one interception and rushing for 418 yards and six touchdowns. The numbers quieted down a bit after that, thanks to a hip and back injury in mid-season and a Pack defense that put pressure on its offense to be perfect, but Fajardo still ended the year with a brilliant performance in the New Mexico Bowl. He finished with 2,786 yards, 20 touchdowns and just nine interceptions through the air and 1,121 yards and 12 scores on the ground. And he did all that in just 11 and a half games. Combs performed two miracles against Wyoming and UNLV and showed he will be an excellent backup over the next two seasons.
A peek at 2013: Expect Fajardo to get better and better. The more Chris Ault allows offensive coordinator apprentice Nick Rolovich to influence the offense, the more Fajardo’s passing numbers will inflate. Fajardo is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the nation and he will take dramatic steps over the next two years.
Stefphon Jefferson came out of the shadow of Vai Taua, Lampford Mark and Mike Ball to turn in arguably the greatest season ever by a Wolf Pack running back. The junior set the Pack school records for yards in a season (1,883), carries (375) and touchdowns scored on the ground (24) and overall (25). His seven touchdowns against Hawaii tied a NCAA record. If he played for a BCS school he would have been in New York with the rest of the Heisman finalists. Imagine what kind of year he would have had if he’d held onto the football. Jefferson put the ball on the ground 10 times in 2012 and capped off his year with three fumbles in the New Mexico Bowl. If he quits dropping the football he will become the perfect Nevada back.
A peek at 2013: It’s doubtful Jefferson will get 375 carries again in 2013. That’s just not healthy for a running back and, well, it only paid off in seven victories this year anyway. But he’ll probably get around 275 carries and approach 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns once again. What he did in 2012 is not a fluke. There will be a lot of inexperience behind Jefferson in 2013 (namely Tony Knight, Xavier Stephens, Chris Solomon) and it always takes running backs a while to earn Ault’s trust.
It’s difficult to argue with the numbers. The offense averaged 38 points and 515 yards a game and, of course, it all starts with the offensive line. But there are some areas that need improvement if this offense wants to get to the next level and average 40-plus points a game. The offense often failed to put away close games in the fourth quarter with key first downs this year — South Florida, San Diego State, Arizona quickly come to mind — and at one point the Pack surrendered 15 sacks over a seven-game stretch. That just shouldn’t happen in the pistol. The Pack was 3-4 in those seven games when Fajardo was under fire. The Pack struggled against blitzing defenses all year long. It must also be noted that the Wolf Pack ground game averaged just 5.2 yards a carry for the second year in a row. That’s still very good but the Pack did average 6.5 yards a carry over a three-year period (2008-10). But that was with Colin Kaepernick.
A peak at 2013: Tackle Jeff Nady and guards Chris Barker and Alex Pinto will be gone. The anchor on next year’s offensive line will be tackle Joel Bitonio. Centers Matt Galas and Connor Talbott will return as will guard Sebastian Tretola so there will be some experienced bodyguards protecting Fajardo and Jefferson. But losing Nady and Barker at the same time has to have some ripple affect.
It’s a solid, dependable group. It’s always a solid, dependable group. Chris Ault knows that a quarterback’s best friend is a solid, dependable stable of wide receivers and, well, Chris Ault always protects his quarterbacks. Brandon Wimberly had 70 catches, Richy Turner had 60 and Aaron Bradley had 45. This is a group that does what it’s asked to do — run to the first down marker, catch the ball and either hit the ground or run out of bounds. They are really not asked to do more than simply keep the chains moving. And they do it well. Wolf Pack wide receivers have not combined to score 20 or more touchdowns in a season since 2002 when Nate Burleson (12 scores) led the way. Wimberly and Bradley led Pack wideouts this year with just four touchdowns each (Turner had three). But that’s just how the pistol offense treats its wide receivers. Wide receivers supply the first downs and the quarterbacks, running backs and tight ends supply the touchdowns.
A peak at 2013: The Wolf Pack doesn’t lose anything here. Wimberly will likely return for his sixth season and continue to be Fajardo’s security blanket. Turner, Bradley and Kendall Brock each have two more years of eligibility. And there will about a dozen guys right behind them salivating for a chance to get on the field. You never have to worry about a wide receiver shortage at Nevada.
Zach Sudfeld capped his six-year Wolf Pack career perfectly, catching two touchdown passes in the New Mexico Bowl. Sudfeld had 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdown catches. It was one of the best seasons for a Pack tight end in school history and certainly the best since Chris Ault returned to coaching in 2004. Sudfeld gave Fajardo a huge (6-foot-7) target on third down and in the end zone all season long.
A peak at 2013: Sudfeld will be missed. He was an inviting target that the Pack actually should have taken more advantage of in 2012. With his height and reach, the guy just could not be covered. Tight ends Kolby Arendse and Stephen Jeffers will be back next year so the position is not void of talent. Arendse might even approach Sudfeld’s 2012 numbers next year because, well, the Pack has grown quite fond of throwing to the tight end in the pistol with Adam Bishop, Adam Pudewell, Junior Puloka, Virgil Green and Sudfeld.
Brock Hekking is the new Brett Roy. Hekking had a fabulous sophomore year, finishing third on the team in tackles (75) and leading the team in tackles for a loss (10) and sacks (eight). At 6-4, 260, Hekking will add some muscle, weight and technique in the next two years and become one of the top defensive linemen on the west coast. He appeared to wear down as 2012 progressed, getting just 2.5 tackles for a loss and one sack over his last six games as the Pack went 1-5. But that won’t be a problem moving forward. Freshman Lenny Jones also showed big-play potential with 37 tackles, seven tackles for a loss and five sacks. The Jones-Hekking combo has the potential to approach the Dontay Moch-Kevin Basped duo that terrorized quarterbacks from 2007-09. Jack Reynoso was dependable as always with 44 tackles and a sack. Jordan Hanson had 40 tackles and Rykeem Yates, Mark Avery, Sam Foster and Cortez Woods all contributed a sack each in limited duty. The defensive front, though, needs to find a way to put consistent pressure on the quarterback, especially in obvious passing downs, for this defense to improve.
A peak at 2013: The biggest loss for this group is coach Barry Sacks. But Sacks taught them well and the best is yet to come for the defensive line. All but Avery will be back. Hekking, Jones, Reynoso and Hanson are now established, experienced veterans. Yates, Woods, Coates, Foster, Jake Peppard and Tyler Houk have a world of potential. The Pack is very deep here. The 2012 season allowed them all to get their feet wet. They are ready to blossom.
Albert Rosette, at times, seemed to be the only player on this making plays this year. Rosette, in his first year as a starter at linebacker, finished with 135 tackles, the most for a Pack player since Deshone Myles had 138 in 1994. Rosette’s 135 tackles were 60 more than any other Pack linebacker (DeAndre Boughton with 75). But there just wasn’t enough big plays from this group all season long. They didn’t change the outcome of games. Linebackers Jeremiah Green, Dray Bell, Jordan Dobrich, Burton DeKoning, Boughton and Rosette combined for just three sacks and one interception all season. It is the first time since Ault returned to coaching in 2004 that the linebackers didn’t collectively have at least four sacks and two interceptions. Pack opponents averaged 5.1 yards a carry on the ground, the most the Pack has allowed since 2001 (5.4). Wolf Pack foes also rushed for 142 first downs this year, the most the Pack has allowed since 2000 (145). That’s on the front seven.
A peak at 2013: The Pack is starting over at linebacker. Rosette, Boughton, Green and Bell were all seniors in 2012. The Fab Four accounted for 36 percent of all the tackles made by the Pack defense in 2012. So the position has basically been gutted by the calendar. Returning in 2013 will be DeKoning, Dobrich, Travis Hansen, Lorenzo Devers, Danny DeCarlo and Jonathan McNeal. There’s not a lot of experience in that group. It’s also a possibility that Coates and Woods could be moved to linebacker. This position will be one of the biggest question marks on the roster in 2013.
We would have given them an F but that would have meant they’d have to come back and repeat the grade in order to graduate. And nobody wants that. The Pack secondary was supposed to be the backbone of an inexperienced defense this year. It turned out to be the biggest weakness on a bad defense. The Pack allowed 231 yards and two touchdowns a game through the air and, don’t forget, those numbers were softened by the fact that the Pack played two run-happy teams in Air Force and New Mexico. Strong safety Duke Williams had 106 tackles, corner Khalid Wooten knocked down 17 passes and corner Charles Garrett got in the way of 11. So there were some decent numbers in the group. But numbers don’t mean much when you are constantly giving games away through the air in the final two minutes of games. This was a unit — especially at safety — that seemed to vanish at all the wrong times. At times it seemed like the Pack secondary was the only group in the stadium who didn’t know the other team was going to throw the ball. Yes, the secondary certainly didn’t get any help from a non-existent pass rush but repeated blown coverages and never-ending confusion were a weekly occurrence, especially in the fourth quarters of close games.
A peak at 2013: Williams, Wooten and Marlon Johnson are finally gone. They all had big moments in their Pack careers and the threesome was the last defensive connection Pack fans had to the wonderful 2010 season. The loss of that trio leaves a huge hole in the secondary. But if there was ever a time to start over at this position for the Pack, it is now. Garrett will be back as will Markus Smith, Arthur Forrest and Evan Favors. Also returning will be corner Bryson Keeton, who made an emergency start in the New Mexico Bowl and played extremely well. Why wasn’t he playing more all season long? So there is talent on the roster here. Randy Uzoma, who is a project, Bryan Lane, Gabe Lee, Nigel Haikins and others also return and all could see the field in a big way in 2013. The Pack has had an experienced secondary in recent years and, well, it didn’t work. They seemed to get worse the more experienced they got. They might as well try an inexperienced, hungry secondary for a change.
Allen Hardison made nine of his 10 field goal tries. Chase Tenpenny finished with the second best punting average in school history at 43.3 yards on his 46 punts. He booted 11 over 50 yards and 12 that found a home inside the 20-yard line. Khalid Wooten averaged 15.1 yards on punt returns, setting a Wolf Pack single season record. Kendall Brock averaged 23.4 on kick returns. Opponents averaged 12.1 on each punt return and 23.1 on each kickoff return. All things considered, it was one of the best years on special teams in recent Wolf Pack history.
A peak at 2013: Tenpenny, who should have been named the Pack’s Defensive Player of the Year along with Rosette, will be back for his senior year. Then again, if the Pack defense doesn’t improve, Ault may never punt again. Hardison will be gone so the Pack will need to find a new field goal kicker, another area that Ault might totally shy away from in 2013. Hardison’s backup in 2012, Colin Ditsworth, is back and 2010 hero Anthony Martinez might see if his damaged hip is finally healed.
The defense just could never stop the bleeding. It never played a solid, full game all year long, allowing 21 or more points in every game for the first time since 2000. The defense just seemed to be void of any creativity, aggressiveness or answers all season long, playing soft and scared. The problems were certainly never corrected, as witnessed by Arizona’s improbable comeback in the final game of the year. The offense was its usual productive self. The Pack seemed to move the ball at will all year long through the air and on the ground, even though everyone knew the plays (Jefferson up the middle and Fajardo to Sudfeld and Wimberly on third down). The only concern on offense is that they did get a bit predictable and conservative at times, especially in the fourth quarters of close games. The decisions on offense in the fourth quarter (to punt, kick a field goal or go for it) all seemed to backfire (South Florida, Arizona, San Diego State) but that’s what happens when your defense always falls down into the fetal position when the game is on the line. One of the most disturbing things about the season-ending tailspin (five losses in the last six games) was that three of the losses came after the Pack had two weeks to prepare for the game. The coaching just didn’t seem to have any affect on this team.
A peak at 2013: Defensive line coach Barry Sacks is gone and, make no mistake, he will be missed. Players loved him and so did the other coaches. In a lot of ways he was the heart and soul of the team, a guy who always looked at the positive side of things and had a calming influence on everyone. He was also, arguably, their best recruiter. But the absence of Sacks, who went to California to coach under former Pack defensive coordinator Andy Buh, is a blessing in disguise. Ault now can make a drastic change on the defensive side of the ball without having to fire anyone. The offense also needs an injection of life. Ault needs to allow Nick Rolovich to do the job he was hired for (offensive coordinator). That will accomplish two things It will allow the pistol offense to grow and it will give Ault the freedom to go over to the defense during games and stop the bleeding.
Hardly anyone expected another 7-6 season that included a fifth place finish in the Mountain West and yet another bowl game loss. And nobody expected five losses in the last six games. That’s just never happened to a Chris Ault team before, let alone a 2-4 record at home. Winning games at home, after all, is how Ault built his Hall of Fame career. The Pack has had worse overall records in Ault’s career (5-7 in 2004 and 5-6 in 1987) but 2012 has to be the most frustrating on his long coaching resume. The year started out so promising with the win at Cal in Week One and a 6-1 record by the middle of October had northern Nevada dreaming of a big-time bowl game. But once the troubles began, they never stopped and this team seemed to invent new ways to lose games.
A peak at 2013: The things that happened in 2012 can’t possibly happen again in 2013. Right? The Pack lost three games by one point. It’s the first time in the century-long Pack football history that a season had more than a single one-point loss. So despite the sleep-inducing 7-6 season, it’s not all that difficult to see how this team could have won 10 games in 2012. In fact, they had 10 games won and simply tossed three back into the lake. The 2013 schedule right now looks a bit daunting. The Pack has to play at Florida State and UCLA and Oregon comes to Mackay Stadium. But the 2013 schedule is sort of on hold right now. The Pack is supposedly trying to get out of the Florida State game and nobody knows for sure if Boise State and San Diego State are indeed leaving the Mountain West. The Pack could have road games next year at Florida State, UCLA, Boise State, San Diego State and Fresno State. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch and, well, you get the idea. Utah State and San Jose State are joining the conference in 2013 but both teams just lost their head coaches. So who knows what to expect there? So, right now, it’s impossible to make any predictions about 2013. We don’t know what the Pack’s defensive coaching situation will be, we really don’t even know who they’ll play yet and we don‘t even know who will be athletic director. Depending on how that goes — will Ault take the job, will Ault approve of the new hire? — the football program might be looking for a new head coach. All we do know is that 2013 can’t possibly be any more frustrating than 2012. Right?