Joe Santoro: Pack needs offense before nickname

Nate Cox (16) and Cross Patton (22) during the football team’s spring game April 23 in Reno.

Nate Cox (16) and Cross Patton (22) during the football team’s spring game April 23 in Reno.
Steve Ranson/NNG

Ken Wilson hasn’t given his Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s offense a cute and catchy nickname just yet. Isn’t that part of the Wolf Pack head coach’s job description, to give the offense a nickname, something along the lines of Pistol (Chris Ault), Air Raid (Jay Norvell), Air Pistol (Norvell again) or even Air Wolf (Jeff Horton)?
Wilson, though, is a defensive coach. His identity and his ego, unlike that of his former boss Ault at Nevada and Mike Leach at Washington State, does not need a cute and catchy nickname for his offense. That, unfortunately, is because Wilson’s Wolf Pack does not yet have an offense with which to pin a nickname. So we don’t really know much about the 2022 Pack offense right now, other than 11 guys will eventually run out onto the field in the season opener and do something with the ball. The Pack offense right now is an offense without an identity, style, nickname or even a quarterback.
Our guess is that it will try to be a two and three-star version of what the Oregon Ducks and all their four and five-star athletes ran the last few years, given that much of Wilson’s offensive staff still has plenty of Oregon green in their closet. But hold off on giving this offense any stars right now. The four Pack quarterbacks at the annual spring game a few weeks back, after all, combined to complete a disturbing 20-of-50 passes. Ault and Leach’s heads would have exploded after such a disturbing performance by the quarterbacks at a glorified practice.
But that, Wolf Pack fans, is what a complete breakdown and total rebuild looks like in the spring in college football. An offense can’t earn a nickname, after all, until its players earn a starting job.
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This is just a hunch, but you can likely expect less emphasis on the quarterback position at Nevada this fall. Wilson hasn’t said much since he’s become head coach other than to spout clichés and meaningless generalities so it’s still anybody’s guess as to what this Pack team will look like. But you can likely throw away your Air Raid t-shirts and expectations. Wilson, though, did give us a brief hint after the scrimmage of what we should expect.
After mentioning the run game more in five minutes than Norvell mentioned it in five years, Wilson added, “It’s something that’s new for these guys.” Last year, with Strong eying the NFL and Norvell a Power Five job, the Wolf Pack stuffed the run game into a dark and dingy filing cabinet at Cashell Fieldhouse along with all of the old Pistol tapes. The Pack ran the ball just 337 times in 13 games and that included 45 sacks. The Pack ran for just 1,003 yards as a team all season, which is 130 yards fewer than the Pack ran for in just two games in 2009 under Ault’s Pistol.
So expect the Pack to run the ball constantly this fall with backs Toa Taua and Devonte Lee, arguably the two best players on the roster on offense.
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Taua and Lee deserve the attention and the football. The two could have jumped with both feet into the transfer portal after last season’s mass exodus but they stayed true to the silver and blue. Yes, they would never have followed Norvell to Colorado State but Taua and Lee have Pac-12 talent and wouldn’t have struggled to find a new home. Their Silver and Blue loyalty, now more than ever, needs to be rewarded.
And Wilson, maybe more than any Pack coach since Ault, understands Silver and Blue loyalty. Lee and Taua could blossom this year. Taua’s career stagnated under Norvell’s pass-happy Air Raid after a freshman year with so much promise and Lee barely got the ball at all under Norvell. That will change in 2022.
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The Pack quarterback this fall will likely be holdover Nate Cox or transfer Shane Illingworth. Cox, at 6-foot-9, has resembled a young and wild Randy Johnson so far. He’s a career backup with just one year of eligibility remaining. Think Tyler Lantrip heading into the 2011 season.
The 6-6 Illingworth, who has three years of eligibility remaining, is intriguing. He played behind Spencer Sanders at Oklahoma State (completing 69-of-120 passes for 939 yards and seven touchdowns) the last two years and likely would have done the same the next two years. But Illingworth was a big-time recruit out of high school (Norco, California, High) in the spring of 2019 so all he might need is the football to fulfill his promise.
But don’t be surprised if Cox, who completed 12-of-23 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game loss to Western Michigan in December, starts the season as the starter simply because he is more familiar with the offense. He will then likely give way to Illingworth during the season, muck like Lantrip did to make room for Cody Fajardo in 2011.
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Being compared to Lantrip is not such a bad thing. Lantrip, after all, was a backup to Colin Kaepernick and played reasonably well after Kaepernick left during the first four games of 2011. He just wasn’t Ault’s idea of the model pistol quarterback, since all of those 50-yard Kaepernick touchdowns now had become five-yard runs by Lantrip.
But Illingworth, keep in mind, also might be the next David Cornwell, another transfer with a big arm and an even bigger resume. Cornwell came to Nevada before the 2017 season after piling up rust on the bench at Alabama for Nick Saban. He was Norvell’s first noteworthy quarterback recruit heading into his first season as Pack coach, much like Illingworth is for Wilson this spring. Cornwell, though, struggled off the field at Nevada and was never trusted with the offense, save for one horrendous parting gift performance in a blowout loss at Washington State in 2017. He quit the team 48 hours later. Illingworth only needs to stay on the roster all season to wipe away the Cornwell comparisons.
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Pack fans shouldn't be all that worried about the quarterback position because the Mountain West isn’t exactly a quarterback-rich conference right now. The top three quarterbacks in the conference heading into the season are, arguably, Fresno State’s Jake Haener, Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier and San Jose State’s Chevan Cordeiro. This is the same conference that once featured the likes of Derek Carr, Josh Allen, Carson Strong, Cody Fajardo, Brett Rypien, Andy Dalton and Jordan Love.
Yes, it was nice for the Pack the last few years having the best quarterback in every conference game. But it didn't pay off in a league title, did it? If the Pack’s run game can indeed control the ball efficiently and eat up the clock, giving the defense a break, the Wolf Pack doesn’t need a dynamic quarterback to be competitive. And if Illingworth turns out to be a dynamic quarterback, well, you can then give the offense all the nicknames you can think of.
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Carson Strong, apparently, will wear No. 8 with the Philadelphia Eagles. The last quarterback of note to wear No. 8 in Philadelphia was Davey O’Brien in 1939 and 1940 so it’s not like Strong, who recently signed a 3-year, $2.56 million deal, will have the pressure of living up to a historical number once worn by a historical Eagles quarterback (such as Donovan McNabb, Sonny Jurgenson, Randall Cunningham, Norm Van Brocklin, Ron Jaworksi, Michael Vick, Roman Gabriel, Norm Snead or even Nick Foles).
Former Pack wide receiver Romeo Doubs and tight end Cole Turner will have a more difficult time than Strong living up to their new numbers in the NFL. Doubs has been given No. 87 by the Green Bay Packers, a number once worn in Green Bay by Jordy Nelson and defensive lineman Willie Davis. Turner, who recently signed a four-year, $3.99 million deal, has been given No. 85 by the Washington Commanders, a number once worn in Washington by tight ends Don Warren and Vernon Davis and wide receiver Henry Ellard.
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Strong, coincidentally, will be competing with another former Air Raid quarterback for the backup job in Philadelphia this summer behind starter Jalen Hurts. Eagles backup Gardner Minshew spent the 2018 season at Washington State playing for Air Raid guru Mike Leach. Pack head coach Ken Wilson, also coincidentally, was on Leach’s staff in 2018. Minshew, who has one year left on his contract and still might be traded before the season starts, could be a valuable resource for Strong when making the transition from the Air Raid to the Eagles offense. Or he just might help Strong style a cheesy mustache.

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