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Joe Santoro: Running backs will save Pack quarterback

Then-Oklahoma State quarterback Shane Illingworth during the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz.

Then-Oklahoma State quarterback Shane Illingworth during the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame on Jan. 1, 2022, in Glendale, Ariz.
Rick Scuteri/AP

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The Nevada Wolf Pack is among the 13 Division I teams with the worst quarterback situation in the entire country, according to ESPN. The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports ranked all 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams quarterback depth charts and separated them into 25 tiers.
The Wolf Pack (and UNLV Rebels) are both in Tier 24 with Tier 25 a hodge-podge group of five players (including UNLV’s Justin Rogers) still stuck in the transfer portal because nobody seems to want them. Tier 24, by the way, was labeled, “See, we told you it could be worse.” All ESPN wrote about Pack quarterbacks Nate Cox and Shane Illingworth is “Nevada’s Cox (6-foot-9) and Illingworth (6-6) at least make for an intriguing front court in any pickup (basketball) games at the local YMCA.”
Even Colorado State, with former Wolf Pack quarterback Clay Millen, is ranked higher than Nevada in Tier 22. The silver and blue lining in all of this is that ESPN, of course, knows absolutely nothing about the Wolf Pack quarterback situation because, well, neither does the Wolf Pack right now. We’re not saying that Cox and Illingworth will be in the 2023 NFL draft class but Cox did throw for 121 yards and a touchdown against Western Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl without a true starting wide receiver or an offensive coaching staff. And Illingworth did throw for 315 yards and a touchdown for Oklahoma State last year against Missouri State.
So, yes, Tier 24 is a bit harsh for the Pack quarterbacks. Then again, the Wolf Pack basketball team could use a couple guys with size.
The new Wolf Pack football coaches, it seems, aren’t all that worried about the quarterback situation. Take that, ESPN.
New head coach Ken Wilson has been going around town like it is 1990 all over again acting very much like a living, breathing, walking, talking Chris Ault Wikipedia page. The Wolf Pack Way, Wilson says, will take care of everything silver and blue just like it always has in the past. So, hey, if Ault could luck into a Chris Vargas in the early 1990s or a Colin Kaepernick in 2007 then why can’t Wilson luck into a legitimate starting quarterback this fall? Even Chris Tormey, after all, lucked into Zack Threadgill in the early 2000s and Jay Norvell stumbled into a Ty Gangi in the late 2010s.
ESPN, of course, knows absolutely nothing about a Wolf Pack history that hasn’t produced a truly awful starting quarterback at least in the last 50 years or so. Bill Mackrides and Stan Heath were the first great throwing quarterbacks in Pack history in the 1940s. Ault revived the position at Nevada in the mid-1960s as a player and revolutionized it when he became head coach in 1976. Solid quarterback play is truly a Wolf Pack tradition. It’s the Wolf Pack Way.
One reason Wilson might not be at least outwardly concerned about the quarterback position is because he is not obsessing about it. Anybody, after all, can teach a young man to sit in the shotgun and flip a 5-yard pass to one of five receivers.
Wilson, like Ault, will likely obsess over the run game. The run game is why Ault invented the Pistol offense. The run game is why Ault’s Pack teams chewed up the Big Sky, Big West and Western Athletic Conference. Everything the Pack did in the Ault era was based on the run game. Ault even came up with the term “Nevada Back” to signify greatness, toughness, competitiveness and all that is good with the human spirit. Even Ault’s quarterbacks, for the most part, were expected to run with the ball.
Wilson has already lucked into a pair of true Nevada Backs in Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, a couple of hardnosed, take-no-prisoners men that would have ran the ball a combined 40 times a game if Ault was the coach.
ESPN, like all national media these days, is obsessed with quarterbacks. That’s why we get college quarterback rankings in late April and early May. But the Pack, while everyone else is concerned with quarterbacks, will likely be fixated on the running backs this year. Taua and Lee will make Cox or Illingworth a Tier 15 or higher quarterback.
The Wolf Pack baseball season ended with a whimper at the Mountain West tournament last week with a pair of losses to San Jose State. The year that began with so much promise (the Pack was picked to win the league after going to the NCAA Regionals in 2021) never found its rhythm and finished with a ho-hum 29-26 overall record. But don’t let that mediocre record fool you.
Head coach T.J. Bruce might be just 171-168 in seven seasons but he might be the best head coach on campus among the three high-profile sports (football, men’s basketball, baseball). The 40-year-old Bruce has won two Mountain West regular season titles and has finished second twice and third once. He’s gone to one NCAA Regional. Football has never won the Mountain West and head coach Ken Wilson has yet to win a game. Steve Alford’s basketball program melted down this past season and Cox doesn’t win the starting quarterback job he might indeed play power forward for Alford this year.
Baseball is the toughest job on campus among the high-profile sports because of the harsh Northern Nevada weather, the lack of financial support from the university and the lack of respect Mountain West baseball gets nationally. Not anyone can recruit baseball players to Northern Nevada. Three games over .500 after 300-plus games might look like the epitome of mediocrity. But there is nothing mediocre about the job Bruce has done at Nevada.
If you are a Pack baseball fan the only thing you should be worried about is Bruce getting tired of finishing a handful of games over .500 each year and falling short of the NCAA postseason and wanting to ply his trade where the sun shines each day, the air is warm and the local high schools are teeming with Division I prospects.
The Mountain West needs to wake up and fix baseball. A seven-team conference in baseball is embarrassing. The ACC and SEC, by comparison, just put nine teams into the NCAA Regionals alone this year. The Mountain West, though, doesn’t seem to care that four of its schools (Colorado State, Boise State, Utah State and Wyoming) don’t even have a baseball team and another (Hawaii) puts its baseball team in the Big West.
The lone Mountain West team in the regionals this year is Air Force, a team with a 30-27 record who just happened to get lucky in three games at the league tournament. It’s not a good look for the Mountain West.
There was a time not too long ago when Air Force without question had one of the worst Division I baseball programs in the nation. If the Falcons get to the College World Series in Omaha this year it would be the greatest story in the history of college sports.
Air Force never won as many as 20 games in a season from 2003 through 2013. In those 11 seasons the Falcons won a total of 34 conference games combined. From 2003 through 2007 the Falcons went 8-125 in Mountain West games. They were 1-44 in Mountain West games in 2006 and 2007 combined. So, yes, on some sappy, cliché made-for-television broadcaster level, it is a heartwarming story that the Falcons are making their first appearance in the regionals this year since 1969.
But the rest of the country has to be wondering just what the heck happened to Mountain West baseball this year. New Mexico, and San Diego State, traditionally two of the best baseball programs in Mountain West history, each went 10-20 in league play this year. If the Lobos and Aztecs don’t turn things around soon it will be a while before the Mountain West ever gets more than one team into the regionals.
The Golden State Warriors should win their fourth NBA title in the last eight years this month. The Warriors have homecourt advantage, more scoring depth and more NBA Finals experience than the Boston Celtics. The Warriors are also rested while the Celtics are coming off two seven-game series.
If Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green avoid injury the Warriors should win in seven games with each team winning all of its home games.


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