Joe Santoro: Did Nate Cox throw away his shot?

Nate Cox

Nate Cox
Washoe County Sheriff's Office

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Has Nate Cox thrown away his first and only opportunity to be the starting quarterback for the Nevada Wolf Pack? Winning the starting job, though, is not Cox’s biggest concern right now. There is a real chance the 6-foot-9 quarterback won’t even be a member of the team this fall after his arrest last Sunday morning for driving under the influence. Whether Cox is on the team or not this summer will give Wolf Pack fans the first indication of what type of disciplinarian Ken Wilson will be as a head coach. The last thing a rookie head coach needs, after all, is for his potential starting quarterback to have legal troubles.
If Cox was a nameless, faceless special teamer we probably would never hear about him again. But he’s a quarterback and, well, coaches tend to overlook a lot of things when it comes to quarterbacks. But this is not a good look for the Pack and Wilson, let alone Cox. DUI is a serious charge and needs to be taken seriously by everyone involved, especially a rookie head coach. Wilson says he is trying to build a new culture at Nevada, promising to bring back the discipline, high standards and work ethic of his mentor Chris Ault. The starting quarterback is the face of every program’s culture. And right now the Pack’s face is captured in a police mug shot.
Nobody, even before last weekend, was certain Cox was ever going to start for the Pack this fall anyway. He only started one season in high school (as a senior in 2016) and one in college at Garden City Community College in Kansas (2019). He completed 27-of-45 passes for 289 yards and two touchdowns as Carson Strong’s backup at Nevada the last two years, with nearly half those numbers (121 yards, one touchdown) coming in a strange emergency start in the Quick Lane Bowl against Western Michigan after nearly the entire starting offense abandoned the program for Colorado State or the NFL.
Cox as the Pack starter doesn’t really make sense for a rookie head coach like Wilson trying to build a program. Cox, after all, has just one year of eligibility left. Why would Wilson want to start all over next summer trying to find another starting quarterback? Shane Illingworth, one of the top quarterback recruits in the country in 2020 out of Southern California, has three years of eligibility remaining. He also has experience playing for Oklahoma State (939 yards, seven touchdowns). He’s talented enough to be the best newcomer in the Mountain West this fall.
Cox’s troubles last weekend might have made Wilson’s quarterback decision a whole lot easier. But it might have been a decision Wilson had already made before last weekend.
Illingworth, the Pack hopes, is more John Dutton than David Cornwell or Malik Henry, three other Pack quarterback recruits from Power Five programs in recent memory.
Dutton came from Texas and ended up being one of the best quarterbacks in Pack history in 1996 and 1997. Cornwell came from Alabama in 2017 and Henry came from Florida State in 2019 and were coach Jay Norvell’s biggest headaches, blunders and mistakes as Pack head coach. Neither one lasted a full season at Nevada. Cornwell quit the program and Henry was kicked off the team during Norvell’s frustrating musical chair era at quarterback at Nevada.
But there’s no reason why Illingworth cannot establish himself as one of the best quarterbacks on the west coast in the Mountain West this season. Google “prototype quarterback” and a photo of the 6-6 Illingworth just might pop up on your screen.
As a senior at Norco High in 2019 Illingworth passed for seven touchdowns in a game twice. At Oklahoma State he passed for 265 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas in 2020 and 315 yards against Missouri State just last season. And now he gets to play in a Wolf Pack offense made famous at Oregon by Justin Herbert. Illingworth, odds are, didn’t leave Oklahoma State to merely stand on the sideline and watch Nate Cox. Illingworth could be just the quarterback Wilson needs to start his Nevada program the right way.
Former Wolf Pack kicker Ramiz Ahmed set a USFL record with a 61-yard field goal last week for the Pittsburgh Maulers in a 29-18 loss to the New Jersey Generals. Ahmed, a walk-on, spent two seasons at Nevada in 2017 and 2018 under coach Jay Norvell. He handled only kickoffs in 2017 and then made 15-of-20 field goals in 2018. He had a 50-yarder against Toledo and a 46-yarder against Portland State, though he did miss 3-of-4 from 50 yards or longer that season. Ahmed, who is 3-of-6 from 50 yards or longer this season for the Maulers, did miss a 49-yarder later in the game against the Generals.
He is the second former Wolf Pack kicker to ever play in the USFL after Tony Zendejas. Zendejas made 47-of-64 field goals for the Los Angeles Express in 1984 and 1985 before going on to a long (1985-95) NFL career with four teams.
Former Reno Aces manager (2014-16) Phil Nevin is now the interim manager for the Los Angeles Angels. Nevin was an Angels coach for manager Joe Maddon, who was fired this week after losing 12 games in a row.
Nevin had a record of 227-215 in three seasons in Reno and finished first in 2014. Among the future major leaguers Nevin managed in Reno were Nick Ahmed, Archie Bradley, Didi Gregorius, Brandon Drury and Mitch Haniger. The 51-year-old Nevin also managed three Triple-A seasons in Toledo for the Detroit Tigers and has been a major league coach ever since he left Reno. So, yes, he clearly has deserved a shot as a big league manager.
Nevin is a Southern California native and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 major league draft by the Houston Astros out of Cal State Fullerton, just down the highway from Angel Stadium. He then played 12 seasons in the big leagues with 208 homers and 743 RBI. He will certainly get the respect of the Angel players.
“People know I’ve wanted this opportunity (to be a manager),” Nevin said this week. “But this isn’t how I envisioned (getting) it.”
As predicted, Nevada Wolf Pack coach Steve Alford has found enough warm bodies to fill his roster after the loss of Grant Sherfield, Warren Washington and Desmond Cambridge and others via the transfer portal. The transfer portal, after all, gives and it takes.
The two prizes of this incoming group of Pack players, at least right now, appear to be guards Jarod Lucas of Oregon State and Hunter McIntosh of Elon. The 6-4 Lucas has been one of the better free throw and 3-point shooters in the Pac-12 while the 6-2 McIntosh seems to have the same skill set. Freshman Trey Patterson (6-3) from Chicago and Darrion Williams (6-6) from Sacramento (and one year at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas), are intriguing. Also competing for playing time will be the 6-5 Tyler Powell from Seton Hall and the 6-11 Michael Folarin from Eastern Washington.
How competitive will the Pack be in the Mountain West in the 2022-23 season? After last year’s 13-18 disappointment, it’s difficult to say. Nobody, after all, saw 13-18 coming last year. Alford has a difficult job this summer and fall, trying to blend the new players with the holdovers (namely Tre Coleman, Kenan Blackshear, Daniel Foster and Will Baker).
All of the important roles are up for grabs. The willingness of the returning players to allow some of the new players to grab featured roles might be the key to turning the program around after last year’s mess. It’s doubtful, for example, that Lucas left Oregon State to watch Coleman, Blackshear and Baker take all the big shots.
Coleman just might be the most interesting player on the Pack roster with the most untapped potential. The 6-7 Coleman could be one of the best two-way players in the Mountain West. He’s already one of the best defenders in the conference but he’s struggled to find any sort of offensive consistency. Coleman has averaged just 5.1 points a game over two seasons at Nevada, making just 44-of-142 3-pointers (31 percent). Last year he shot just 37 percent from the floor. Coleman’s development as a reliable offensive threat is one of the big keys to this team’s success.


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