2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: While former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick was fast becoming a household name in his second year with the San Francisco 49ers, the Wolf Pack were trying to improve upon their 7-6 season from 2011, their last as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
Now a member of the Mountain West Conference, Nevada had to get used to a handful of new rivalries and relationships for league play and also get off on the right foot in non-conference action as well. The team began the 2012 campaign with a win over California, but then suffered a heartbreaking 32-31 setback to South Florida at home. The Pack was able to put that defeat behind them and rattle off five straight wins in order to stand at 6-1 with five games remaining in the regular season.
Unfortunately, a 39-38 overtime loss to San Diego State the third week of October began a difficult stretch for Nevada as the team lost four of five. Nevertheless, the Wolf Pack received an invite to the postseason and faced off against Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl, a game which the team led by 13 points with under a minute to play. The victory seemed to be in the bag, but a strange thing happened on the way to the trophy presentation, namely two touchdowns by the Wildcats in the final 46 seconds to steal away the 49-48 decision.
After finishing just one game above .500, head coach Chris Ault decided it was time to (again) take his leave of the program after 28 seasons as the team's head coach. A member of the College Football Hall of Fame, Ault had been associated with the school as a player, coach and administrator for more than four decades and twice came back to take over the football coaching duties when he was called upon.
The winningest coach in school history with a career mark of 233-109-1, Ault's imprint on the Nevada football team and that of college football overall, thanks to his creation and execution of the Pistol Offense, cannot be understated.
"Chris Ault truly has been Nevada Football for more than 40 years," Nevada athletics director Cary Groth said at a news conference. "He has left an indelible footprint on not only the football program, but the University as well. His legacy is one of success, honor and tradition. There is a reason that he is in the Hall of Fame and was one of the youngest coaches ever inducted. I know I speak for the entire community in congratulating -- and sincerely thanking -- Coach for his honorable service to college football and our University."
With Ault out of the picture Groth and university president Marc Johnson went to work on finding someone to fill some mighty big shoes and chose to go with Brian Polian, a relative unknown who most recently was the special team coordinator and tight ends coach with Texas A&M. A player at John Carroll between 1994-96, this is the first head coaching opportunity for Polian.
OFFENSE: Named to the watch lists for the Maxwell, Hornung, Davey O'Brien and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Awards heading into 2013, quarterback Cody Fajardo has made himself a huge target for defenses, but that's nothing new for him after combining for more than 6,000 yards of offense in his first two years with Nevada.
Following in the footsteps of Kaepernick, Fajardo's total of 3,907 yards a season ago was the fourth-best single-season effort in program history. The junior showed that he can not only throw for close to 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns, but can also stretch the defense by taking off and running for 1,121 yards and another 12 scores.
Needing to run the ball even more this season might be a necessity after Nevada lost one of the best running backs in school history in Stefphon Jefferson who gained a school-record 1,883 yards and landed in the end zone 24 times on 375 carries.
Sophomores Don Jackson and Nate McLaurin will get their opportunities to prove their worth coming out of the backfield, but don't think for a minute that Fajardo is going to let someone else get all the glory again. Primarily used as a return man last season, Kendall Brock is also listed on the depth chart as an option.
Brandon Wimberly, Aaron Bradley and Richy Turner all return to fill wide receiver positions, while Kolby Arendse gives the squad some added punch at the tight end position.
While linemen rarely get recognition, Joel Bitonio is one that has been a solid protector for the skill players during his 26 consecutive starts and the coaching staff is well aware of his value.
"I don't want to take anything away from anyone else, but he (Bitonio) might have been the best player on our team last year," Pack assistant coach James Spady commented. "If you ask the guys on our team, he's one or two. When you talk about a guy who plays consistently at a high, high level, that's Joel."
DEFENSE: As powerful as the Nevada offense can be, the defense is the area for concern right now. The group finished ninth in the MWC and 110th in the nation in stopping the run, allowing 211.9 ypg a season ago. Obviously, while the Pack runs the ball with great efficiency on offense, this side of the ball would like to become a bit more controlling.
Brock Hekking and Lenny Jones reprise their roles at defensive ends, the former being the top returning tackler for the group with 75 stops in 2012. Hekking, the only Nevada player chosen for the preseason All-MWC team by league media, was named to the Lombardi Watch List after pacing the Pack in tackles for loss (10.0) and sacks (8.0) a year ago.
Jones finished with only 37 stops in 13 games, but still he made a major impact with seven TFL and five sacks, not to mention three forced fumbles to tie for the team lead in the latter category.
Also returning along the defensive line are Jordan Hanson and Jack Reynoso, the latter coming up with four more overall tackles (44) than Hanson, despite playing in just 10 games, compared to 13 for his line mate.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Nevada is finding a replacement for Albert Rosette who tallied a staggering 135 tackles, his average of 10.4 stops per game being tops in the MWC, at linebacker. In fact, the squad has to come up with an entirely new crop of starters at the linebacker positions, and the same almost goes for the secondary where cornerback Charles Garrett is the only returning starter.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Finding a replacement for Allen Hardison might be a difficult endeavor for the Wolf Pack, especially after he nailed all but one of his 10 field goal attempts last season. Living up to his level of accuracy won't be easy, but Nevada may already have the right man for the job in Colin Ditsworth who handled kickoffs in 2012. He figures to be the man on kickoffs again, but also the one lining up the PATs and field goals for a Nevada team that will need to score points whenever it can.
Chase Tenpenny is back as the punter after averaging 43.3 yards per attempt on 46 opportunities. Tenpenny was able to land better than one-fourth of his kicks inside the 20-yard line, giving his defense strong starting position.
Brock averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return a year ago on 31 attempts, solidifying him as the go-to-guy in that department this time around as well. Early indications also have Brock taking over on punt returns as well, with the departure of Khalid Wooten.
OUTLOOK: The Nevada football program appears to have finally turned the page and moved on following the departure of Ault, but haven't we heard this same story a couple times before?
Along with a new coach, the Pack also has a couple of new opponents on the schedule in the first few weeks of the season, taking on both UCLA and Florida State in road tests. In between, the home opener has UC Davis coming to Reno, but since it has been more than two decades since these two teams have clashed, the Aggies are also close to being a new opponent for Nevada.
If history is any indication of how the 2013 campaign might play out, the Wolf Pack might be in for a rude awakening since there are just four teams on the slate against which Nevada has a winning record. One of those is San Jose State, a squad that is expected to make a huge impression in its first year in the MWC, so Nevada can forget about putting that one in the win column ahead of time.
Having a stretch of four road games during a five-game span between October and November will be hard enough, but having to take on both Boise State and Fresno State in enemy territory could be the death of the Pack.