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Young Wolf Pack looks for bowl three-peat

Young Pack looks for bowl three-peat

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a preview series of football teams in the Western Athletic Conference. Today, the Appeal takes a look at the University of Nevada, which started practice Monday afternoon.)

BY DARRELL MOODY

Appeal Sports Writer

RENO – Chris Ault is in the fourth year of his third tour of duty at Nevada, and his message the last three years has been the same – get better.

“We are proud of what we have accomplished, but there is so much more to do,” Ault said. “The past is the past. We live in the present. We had a very good off-season, and now we can focus on getting better in every phase of the game.”

That’s the mantra of probably every college football coach in the country, and anybody who knows Ault, knows he is driven to do just that.

In the past two years, Nevada has compiled a 17-8 record, including a co-championship in 2005, and consecutive bowl appearances in the Sheraton Hawai’i Bowl and the MPC Computers Bowl. Certainly nothing would please the Wolf Pack than a third straight bowl appearance.

There are a few things that stand in the way of a bowl three-peat, namely a tough schedule which features away games at Nebraska and Northwestern to open the season.

Also, the Pack must replace some key seniors on both sides of the ball – quarterback Jeff Rowe (1,907 yards, 17 touchdowns), running back Robert Hubbard (996 yards, six TDs), wide receiver Caleb Spencer (56 catches, 570 yards, two TDs), defensive end J.J. Milan (9.5 sacks) and cornerback Joe Garcia (six interceptions).

The offensive holes are probably the most critical. Not only does Ault have to find suitable replacements for the aforementioned trio, but the offensive line has been shuffled once again, and the Pack will have two brand-new starting tackles.

Given the complexity of the pistol offense, now in its third year of existence, replacing Rowe, a fifth-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals, might be the most difficult task.

The task of replacing Rowe falls to either sophomore Nick Graziano or redshirt freshman Colin Kaepernick. Graziano saw action in eight games, completing 9-of-17 passes for 92 yards and a score. True freshman Luke Collis is at No. 3 going into camp.

Despite the fact that Graziano has an extra year in the system, Ault stresses that the job is up for grabs.

“He (Graziano) has grown up with the system,” Ault said. “He’s a good athlete. Colin is a terrific athlete. He had a great spring. He has a very strong arm. Both of these guys can run the football, which we’re going to expand a little more.

“I’m anxious to see the competition. I want to see them manage our offense and understand their place in the offense. They just need to be productive. I think the offense is going to be exciting.”

The past two years, Nevada has played with essentially five guards on its offensive front. Chris Klenakis, the Pack line coach, believes in putting the best five linemen on the field.

Klenakis has moved Dominic Green from tackle to center and Charles Manu from tackle to guard. Greg Hall remains at guard. The two new starting tackles are expected to be sophomore Alonzo Durham, who started the MPC Computers Bowl last season, and 6-foot-8 325-pound John Bender, a redshirt freshman.

“We haven’t had that big guy with long arms (before),” Ault said. “John had a nice camp. Alonzo played an awful lot the last four games of the season.”

That group won’t get to play together for a while, as Green broke his foot two weeks ago, and is expected to miss at least another month before returning. That time frame means he could miss both the Nebraska and Northwestern games. His spot will be taken by senior Kyle Robertson, who has played center and guard for the Wolf Pack.

Mike Gallett, a redshirt freshman, and junior college transfer Clayton Johnson are the backups at tackle. Josh Catapano and Brad Eskew are the backups at the middle three positions. Until Green returns, Catapano will be the No. 2 center.

Luke Lippincott (456 yards, nine TDs) leads the returnees at running back. Sophomore Brandon Fragger, who rushed for 146 yards and two scores against UNLV, returns after shoulder surgery. Mike Kanellis (108 yards, one TD) and Dwayne Sanders (82 yards, one TD), who moved over from wide receiver. All saw action last year.

“Luke is a tough, strong runner,” Ault said. “We want him to be an every down back for us.

“Brandon showed some spark when Hubbard was hurt (early) and he started four games. Sanders had a nice spring and continues to improve. He’s that quick guy. Quietly he had a nice spring.”

Ault is high on two redshirt freshman and one true freshman-Courtney Randall, Vai Taua and Lampford Mark, who runs a 10.7-second 100 (yard dash) and a 21.8 200.

Anthony Pudewell is gone at tight end, but senior Adam Bishop finally gets a chance to start. Ex-Hug star Junior Puloka, a walk-on, will battle Bishop for time after enjoying an outstanding spring. Bishop, who caught 11 passes for 129 yards and a TD last season, is a heavy contributor on special teams.

“He’s (Bishop) probably a better athlete (then Pudewell),” Ault said. “He can be a difference maker. Junior walked on two years ago. He’s a good athlete. Last spring without question he was the most improved lineman on either side of the ball.”

Ault told reporters at the recent WAC Media Day that he was disappointed with the production of his wide receiver corps last year.

“There was a certain undiscipline in terms of route running,” Ault said. “I felt they should have done better. The receivers had a heck of a spring. It’s very competitive. We have good athletes. We need to be five or six deep.”

Marko Mitchell (39 receptions for 493 yards and four touchdowns) is the leading receiver returning. Also back are Mike McCoy (23 catches for 346 and nine TDs), Jack Darlington (16 for 218 yards and a score), Arthur King (seven receptions for 72 yards) and Andy McIntosh (four catches for 36 yards), the former Douglas High star.

The wild cards at receiver are Kyle Sammons. who missed last year with a shoulder/collarbone injury, speedy Brian Fludd, who had an impressive spring, and Chris Wellington, a speedy redshirt freshman.

The defense, meanwhile has eight starters back, and 14 different defensive players have started games in the last 1 1/2 years.

“This is the most experienced group,” Ault said. “My expectations are high. They did an excellent job in spring football.”

Ault has spent time building up the defense. The Pack has gotten more athletic each year since Ault came back.

The front seven in Nevada’s 3-4 base scheme is a veteran group led by nose tackle Matt Hines (33 tackles, 4.5 for loss) and outside linebacker Ezra Butler, who led the team in tackles last season with 71, including 18 for loss and 7.5 sacks.

“He (Butler) came on last year,” Ault said. “He did a nice job and he can run. He is one of the finest players I’ve coached, one of the most consistent players.”

Hines isn’t huge (only 6-1), but he plays with a big heart and is one of the strongest players on the team. He has the unique ability to play two gaps and hold his ground on a consistent basis.

Erics Clark (19 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is expected to start at one end, and the other end spot is a battle between Mundrae Clifton (seven tackles) and Jay Dixon (eight tackles), both of whom saw limited action last season.

The linebacking corps may very well be the strength of the team. The only loss was run-stopper Jason DeMars. Besides Butler, Josh Mauga (56 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and Jeremy Engstrom (41 tackles, one interception, two fumble recoveries) both started last year. Kevin Porter (18 tackles) is expected to start in DeMars’ old spot alongside Mauga.

“Josh started as a true freshman at outside linebacker,” Ault said. “He’s one of the best linebackers we’ve had.”

Nick Fuhr, Jerome Johnson, Jared Silva-Purcell and Dontay Moch are fighting for time at linebacker.

The secondary is loaded.

Safety Jon Amaya, a former walk-on, finished the season as a starter at free safety. Amaya, who had 42 tackles and an interception, is backed up by Justin Jackson (22 tackles), who was a part-time starter last season. Sergio Villasenor, a redshirt sophomore who played as a true freshman, also is back.

Uche Anyanwu (29 tackles, three forced fumbles) is the projected starter at strong safety to replace Nick Hawthrone. Mike Samples, a redshirt sophomore, and Adam Liranzo, a redshirt freshman, will battle for time behind Anyanwu.

Paul Pratt (24 tackles, one interception, six break-ups), Devon Walker (18 tackles, one forced fumble) and Shannon Sevor (seven tackles) go into camp as the starting candidates at cornerback.

“They have all started (at times) the last couple of years,” Ault said. “Walker and Pratt had a lot of starts I like the potential of the secondary. We have some good, young talent.”

Ex-Manogue star Kenny Viser is listed No. 2 on the depth chart at one corner, and he’s being pushed by JC transfer Doyle Miller.

Nevada also returns its top specialists – punter Zach Whited (39.1 yards per attempt) and Brett Jaekle, who converted 8-of-11 field-goal attempts, including four in last year’s 21-20 bowl loss to the University of Miami.

This is another young team – 66 players are freshman, redshirt freshmen or sophomores – and they will have to mature quickly.

Time will tell.

NOTES: Safety Luke Rippee, the two-time Northern Nevada Player of the Year and Douglas High School graduate, decided recently not to play this season, and tight end Brent Keaster has left the team to help care for his ailing father. Ault said that Keaster has an invitation to return … Seven of Nevada’s games will be shown on television this year, including the nationally televised home game against Hawai’i on Nov. 16… There are several number changes this year. Pratt has switched to No. 3, Mitchell to No. 4, Samples to No. 9 and Fragger to 24 … Lineman Ken Ackerman, who left the program after a family tragedy, has returned to the team. Defensive lineman Chris Slack, who left the team briefly, also is back.

• Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281