Pack looking to stay on top |

Pack looking to stay on top

Defending WAC co-champions. The title has a nice ring to it, and anybody associated with Nevada football loves hearing it.

Nevada, 9-3 overall, 7-1 in conference a year ago, opened practice Sunday at 3:15 p.m. with the expectations of defending the championship it shared with Boise State a year ago. It won’t be an easy task considering the tough schedule ahead, including a season-opening nationally televised game at Fresno State.

“It’s been an interesting off-season from the standpoint of feeling confident our players understand what it takes to win a championship,” Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault said at the recent WAC Media Day in Boise. “The type of philosophy we have on and off the field, and what you do off the field parlays into what you do when you get on it.

“You build your team in the off-season physically and mentally. I think we have a nice nucleus of players coming back that played key roles. The university had not had that in nine years.”

Ault has stressed of practicing with a purpose whether it’s lifting weights or running off-season drills with teammates.

“We’re going to be more competitive,” Ault said. “The key challenge is to sustain it.”

Many coaches have said that it’s easier to climb up the ladder than to stay on top of it. Once you get to the top, the target on your back becomes huge. Every team wants to be a team that knocked off the champions.

Offensively, the Wolf Pack have plenty of talent at the skill positions, led by senior quarterback Jeff Rowe (6-5, 227), senior running back Robert Hubbard (5-11, 195) and senior wide receiver Caleb Spencer (6-0, 180).

Rowe is in the top-10 career wise in several categories. He completed 241 of 389 for 2,925 yards and 21 scores. He passed for more than 200 yards in 10 of the Pack’s 13 games.

“He has come so far from two years ago,” Ault said. “He had an outstanding spring. When we put in the pistol, we had no film, we were just doing it. You can see how Jeff has grown with this offense.

“I expect Jeff to be one of the top quarterbacks in the western United States and compete with anybody in the conference.”

Travis Moore is currently No. 2 and redshirt freshman Nick Graziano is No. 3, but Ault likes him, and he is considered the heir apparent to Rowe.

Hubbard gained more than 700 yards and scored 11 touchdowns. His best game was a 16-carry, 146-yard effort against Fresno State. Hubbard has recovered nicely from off-season sports hernia surgery.

Behind him will be an untested group. Senior Kyle Eklund (5-9, 185), sophomore Luke Lippincott (6-2, 215) and redshirt freshman Mike Kanellis (5-10, 190) plus true freshmen Brandon Fragger (5-9, 195) and Courtney Randall (5-10, 215).

Ault needs at least two in that group to step up and be able to relieve Hubbard in different situations. Lippincott runs a 4.5 40 and gained more than 2,200 yards as a running back at Palma High in Salinas. He was recruited as a defensive player out of high school.

“Robert Hubbard is more electric than B.J. (Mitchell),” Ault said. “He’s everything we want in a running back. In our offense, you’ve got to have three.

“B.J. was 5-9 and 212 and runs a 4.75, and he ends up leading the conference in rushing. He had a lot of heart. We don’t want any 4.7s back there. If they are vertically challenged like me, they better be heavy. Having Hubbard back gives us confidence.”

Spencer has caught 67 passes in each of the last two seasons. He gained 889 yards and had seven scores last season.

Redshirt freshman Mike McCoy (6-0, 190) caught 17 balls for 230 yards and one score. Senior Kyle Sammons (6-2, 195) had 27 grabs for 375 yards and two scores.

Sophomore Jack Darlington (6-2, 190) finished with 15 catches and 165 yards plus one score as a true freshman. Andy McIntosh (6-0, 185) is expected to challenge for playing time, and Roco Bene (5-11, 185) is a possession receiver.

“Obviously Caleb is the most-talented receiver,” Ault said. “He got better and better.

“Mike McCoy, Sammons and Jack Darlington all started games, and two of them were freshmen. All three got great experience. Andy had a nice spring. He’s on the depth chart.”

Spencer is the quickest, but Nevada lacked a deep threat. He’s hoping that are will be better with the addition of redshirt freshmen Dwayne Sanders (5-10, 175) and Arthur King (6-1, 190) plus JC transfer Marko Mitchell (6-4, 190) and Chris Wellington (6-1, 195).

“We’ve not had great speed at the receiver position,” Ault said. “I feel we’ve increased it two-fold. This is a much-faster receiving corp. The thing I like is that we’ve created competition.”

Up front, Nevada returns four players with starting experience in sophomore Dom Green (6-3, 290), senior Barrett Reznick (6-1, 285), senior Jimmy Wadhams (6-3, 290) and junior Charles Manu (6-3, 200).

Green and Manu, both of whom played inside last year, will be the starting tackles. Wadhams, who had knee surgery last season after suffering an injury midway through the season, starts at center. Reznick, a three-year letterman, will team with either redshirt sophomore Greg Hall (6-3, 285), junior Reid Jacobs (6-4, 295) or junior Kyle Robertson (6-3, 290).

“Pound-for-pound Dominic Green is our best lineman,” said Ault, who pointed out that Green stepped in at center when Fred White and Wadhams were injured against San Jose State.

“We have four guys that have been in the trenches, facing adversity,” Ault said. “Trying to create depth and competition is the key at this position.”

Junior A.J. Slater (6-4, 300) and redshirt freshman Alonzo Durham (6-4, 290) are the back-ups at tackle, and sophomore Brad Eskew (6-3, 295) is on the depth chart at guard.

On defense, the Pack have depth and experience at linebacker and in the secondary, but it’s a different story on the front line.

Junior nose tackle Matt Hines (6-2, 285) just underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and probably won’t be back until the second week of the season. Senior Charles Wilson (6-4, 275) and junior Erics Clark (6-4, 270) are at end.

Wilson had 38 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks, Hines had 22 stops and Clark contributed 19 stops and 2 1/2 sacks.

The 6-foot-1 280-pound White, who was switched from center to defense, is Hines’ backup at tackle. Sophomore Mundrae Clifton (6-1, 292), sophomore Sam Stewart (6-3, 275) and junior Jay Dixon (6-2, 270) are the reserves at end. Another name in the mix is redshirt senior J.J. Milan, who missed last year after breaking his foot. If he regains his form of two years ago, he’ll see plenty of time at defensive end.

At linebacker, the coaching staff has moved sophomore Josh Mauga (6-2, 245) into the middle where he will team with senior Jason DeMars, who came on strong late last season. Mauga had 32 tackles, two passes defensed and 2 1/2 sacks. DeMars contributed 39 stops and blocked a kick.

Taking Mauga’s outside spot is junior Jeremy Engstrom (6-1, 247), who started in the middle two years ago and lost his starting job last year. He’ll team with speedy Ezra Butler (6-2, 250). Butler had a second-highest 75 tackles last year and 5 1/2 sacks. Engstrom contributed 35 tackles.

Sophomore Kevin Porter (6-1, 240) and senior Scott Garrison (5-11, 240) are the inside back-ups and Nick Fuhr (6-3, 245) and Selevasio Fauolo (6-3, 225) are the reserves on the outside.

“It’s an interesting thing,” Ault said. “We have eight guys that have played and started games since I came back (to coach). Josh started as a true freshman and I moved him inside because I wanted to build this year’s defense from the inside out. Josh is about 250 pound and DeMars is 255. We want two (big) guys inside to lead the charge.

“Ezra is one of the best players (in the conference). He had a tremendous spring. Jeremy had a terrific spring. I think we found a home for him. He couldn’t have lasted inside. He didn’t have the strength we wanted.”

Joe Garcia leads the returnees at cornerback. The 6-foot 180-pound senior finished 2005 with 72 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions, and he’ll be teamed with D’Angelo Wilson, who had 11 tackles last year. Junior Paul Pratt (5-10, 185), who sat out last year with a knee injury, and junior Devon Walker (6-1, 180) are the reserves at corner.

“Garcia had an outstanding spring,” Ault said. “He got better as the year went on.”

At safety are sophomores Uche Anyanwu (6-4, 220) and Michael Samples (6-0, 195). Both started games a year ago. Samples had 24 stops a year ago. Junior Sergio Villasenor (6-1, 200) and JC transfer Justin Jackson (6-1, 195) are at the other safety.

“Jackson was a guy we asked to walk on,” Ault said. “In spring football, he was one of the most impressive defensive backs. He’ll be competing for a starting job.”

Not to be forgotten is Nick Hawthrone, who underwent knee surgery and the coaches aren’t exactly sure where he’s at in the recovery stage because he spent most of the summer in Sacramento.

Kicker Brett Jaekle, who converted 12 of 15 field goal attempts and 50 of 53 PATs, has been put on scholarship. Thomas Barcia will get a challenge from Zach Whited for the punting job. Barcia redshirted at Nevada last year and Whited punted at Reedley Community College.

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