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Wolf Pack adjusts to life without Burleson

Dave Price

Anytime the University of Nevada football team needed a big play last year, there was little doubt who was going to get the call.

More often than not, quarterback Zack Threadgill threw the ball to Nate Burleson. Simple. Time to move the chains, or to line up for the PAT attempt.

All Burleson did last season was lead the nation with 138 receptions, four shy of the NCAA single-season record, gain 1,629 yards and score 12 TDs, including a 95-yard catch-and-run against BYU. The Wolf Pack’s No. 80 earned All-America honors and was a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2002, then was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the NFL draft in April.

Coupled with the graduation of Threadgill, Nevada’s passing game is now in a reloading phase, but Wolf Pack fans need not be overly concerned coming into the 2003 season. At least on the receiving end because a pack of quality receivers is waiting to step up and make some noise this season.

“That’s a group that is going to need to step up,” Nevada coach Chris Tormey said. “You lose maybe the best receiver in the nation, that’s tough to overcome, but there’s a lot of talent and a lot of potential in this group.”

Two weeks before Nevada’s Aug. 30 season opener at home against Southern Utah — the Wolf Pack’s first scrimmage will be held tonight at 6:30 p.m. — it appears the task of replacing Burleson will be done by committee. In this case, the Wolf Pack has a committee with lots of potential.

“I think it’s going to be different,” said Tim Fleming, the Wolf Pack’s No. 2 receiver in 2002 and a fourth-year veteran of the program. “We don’t have that one go-to guy like we did with Nate Burleson. I mean, it was third-and-18 and Nate was going to get the ball. The big thing is going to be getting used to not having that special player, but I think we’re all capable of catching the ball.”

Start with Fleming, a 6-foot-1, 184-pound veteran who had 39 receptions for 430 yards and three touchdowns last season. Nichiren Flowers (6-3, 202) had 33 catches for 450 yards and four TDs. Maurice Mann, a 25-foot long jumper in track and field, had 18 receptions for 233 yards and three TDs, but will miss the opening four weeks of the season due to a suspension for violating an NCAA rule. Senior Buddy Lewis (5-11, 185) caught two balls last year, but worked his way into the picture with an impressive spring.

Add to the mix a pair of highly touted junior college transfers: Willie Johnson (6-4, 195), who enrolled at Nevada briefly in 2000 before he switched to Fresno City College, and Del McGee (6-0, 195) from Glendale Community College in Southern California. Johnson owns the Fresno City College school records for 25 career touchdowns, 14 touchdowns in a season, and 13 catches in a game. McGee was a two-time all-conference pick at Glendale and averaged 22.5 yards on kick returns last year.

“Willie Johnson actually came in with my recruiting class, but he ended up going back to junior college,” Fleming said. “He’s a big, strong kid. If you’ve seen him, you can tell he’s a talent.”

Fleming’s best performance last season came at Washington State, where he caught eight passes for 58 yards in a 31-7 season opening loss to an opponent that was ranked No. 11 at the time. He also had five receptions for 81 yards and a touchdown catch that gave the Wolf Pack a 7-0 lead against No. 23 Colorado State. For good measure, not to mention toughness, Fleming threw a big sideline block that sprung Burleson on his 95-yard touchdown play against BYU, a game the Wolf Pack won, 31-28.

Against Rice, Fleming’s 31-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter and then an 11-yard touchdown reception by Flowers at the outset of the fourth quarter broke open a close game and put the Wolf Pack on track to a 31-21 victory.

Who’s going to be throwing to these receivers? The job remains undecided between three candidates competing to start at quarterback. Jeff Rowe, who came into fall camp listed No. 1 on the depth chart, didn’t hesitate when asked about the receiving corps.

“That group really has a lot of talent … and good hands,” Rowe said with a smile. “All the weapons we have, it is exciting. It makes it a lot more challenging when a defense has to try and cover a group like that.”

Chance Kretschmer, who led the nation in rushing with 1,732 yards as a freshman, returns after having his 2002 season ended in the second week by a torn ACL against BYU. The presence of a strong running game as well as a talented committee of receivers, figures to stretch opposing defenses considerably.

“With the single coverage, somebody is going to beat their man. It’s just a matter of who’s going to do it,” Fleming said.