RENO - Jerome Johnson has been a big part of Nevada's linebacking rotation through the first seven weeks of the season, but his role has been enlarged.
Johnson, at least for now, is the Wolf Pack's new starting inside linebacker after ex-Fallon star Joshua Mauga tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee against Utah State, and has been declared out for the rest of the regular season.
Through six games, Mauga recorded a whopping 70 tackles and was leading the WAC and was fifth in the nation at 11.7 tackles per game. The brilliant start earned Mauga a place on the watch list for the Butkus Award, which is given annually to the nation's top linebacker.
Mauga is the second inside linebacker to be sidelined for the season. Jared Silva-Purcell is recovering from a knee injury, and has yet to play.
"Anytime you lose a key player that's tough," Nevada coach Chris Ault said. "Somebody else has to step up and play. Right now, that's Jerome Johnson."
Johnson, who has collected 29 tackles thus far, said he's ready for the challenge of getting more snaps in Nevada's base defense.
"We can't have a dropoff," Johnson said after Monday's practice. "Joshua is a great player. I want to fill in at the spot and do a good job.
"Joshua and I are pretty similar players. We can catch and run. We do a lot of the same things well. There isn't really a difference. The coaches did take me off all the special teams I play, so I can stay fresher and play more snaps from scrimmage."
Mauga's injury leaves the Pack a little thin inside. Jeremy Engstrom, who started his career as an inside linebacker and then switched to the outside, is now listed as a middle linebacker on the two-deep behind Johnson. Redshirt freshman Ryan Coulson, who has played just a few snaps from scrimmage this year, is the fourth linebacker with experience on the inside.
"I think all our linebackers can play," said inside linebacker Kevin Porter. "He (Jerome) can play.
"Obviously Josh is a key player and one of the top players on the team. Injuries like this always come at an inopportune times. Just because Joshua is out, doesn't mean we'll fall off."
Another possibility, though it wasn't mentioned by Ault, could be Nick Fuhr, who started his career as a middle linebacker, too. At 6-3 and 245, Fuhr certainly has the size and strength to hold up to the rigors of playing inside.
Running back Luke Lippincott, who rushed for a career-high 241 yards and two scores in Nevada's 31-28 win over Utah State on Saturday, was named the WAC's Offensive Player of the Week.
It's Lippincott's second career honor. He also won the award last year after leading the Pack to a win over the Aggies last year in Reno.
Lippincott carried 10 times for 73 yards and a game-tying score on the drive to start the second half, including six straight rushes at one point.
"Luke is very deserving," Ault said. "He did a nice job."
Lippincott, who has gained 792 yards rushing and scored eight times on the ground, has a solid chance at becoming a 1,000-yard rusher.
"I didn't know I had that many yards (on Saturday)," Lippincott said. "The offensive line blocked really well the whole game."
Lippincott admitted he was tired on Sunday. He probably got more work than expected because Brandon Fragger pulled a hamstring in pre-game warm-ups and was unable to play.
Lippincott did fumble twice, and one of them came because he admitted not wrapping up the ball well going through the line. Ault did sit him down briefly and went with Courtney Randall.
Fortunately, Lippincott went back into the game. In the past, Ault has benched players who fumble the ball as he did against Hawaii last season.
Nevada didn't make Colin Kaepernick available for interviews prior to Monday's practice.
The 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman has been a red-hot media request since he performed so well against both Fresno State and Boise State.
Kaepernick had some problems against Utah State, especially in the first half. He finished with 170 yards and two TDs, including the game-winner to Mike McCoy with 3:47 left in the game.
"In the first half, he didn't manage the game well," Ault said. "They were really blitzing; trying to get after him.
"In the second half, he managed the game better. We changed a lot of formations at halftime. The offensive line came off (the ball) really well. It (running the ball more) did settle him down."
In that first half, Utah State sent defenders from everywhere, including a couple of times off the corner.
'We tried to get him out of rhythm," Utah State coach Brent Guy said. "He did make a nice play on a boot where he came back and threw on the go-ahead score. We prepared for him to run the ball."