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Defense the big question for Pack

Sports fodder for a Sunday morning . . .

The biggest question facing the Nevada Wolf Pack football team this summer is defense. The offense is loaded and experienced but the defense is a rebuilding project. The front seven has been decimated now that Ian Seau, Lenny Jones, Rykeem Yates, Jordan Dobrich, Bryan Lane and Matthew Lyons are gone. The secondary is solid with Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus and Elijah Mitchell all back. But a strong secondary in the Mountain West is sort of like driving an Indy car on city streets. Hardly anyone outside of Boise State and Utah State can throw the ball with any efficiency in the Mountain West. And the Pack doesn’t even play Boise this year. This is a running back dominated conference and your front seven needs to make plays.

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Pack coach Brian Polian says he isn’t concerned with the defensive line because the new starters all received plenty of experience in the last few years as backups to Seau, Jones and Yates. But it remains to be seen whether any of them are true playmakers. Seau, Jones and Yates had more than half (19) of the Pack’s 25 sacks a year ago. The trio also had more than half (36 of 71) of the tackles for a loss. Seau and Jones, especially, were true playmakers and now they have taken their skills to the NFL. Seau had a sack for the Los Angeles Rams last week in his NFL debut and Jones had a tackle for the Oakland Raiders. They, along with Yates, will be missed.

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Expect Wolf Pack quarterback Tyler Stewart to make huge strides this year. The Pack coaching staff showed little confidence in Stewart as a thrower last year in his first year as the full-time starter. They allowed him to throw just 54 passes combined in the last three games of the season and basically relegated him to stuffing the ball into the stomachs of running backs James Butler and Don Jackson. He never passed for 300 yards in a game last year and only once had as many as three touchdown passes. This year promises to be much different with new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. The quarterback in Cramsey’s spread offense (with some pistol sprinkled in for flavor) is a big-time playmaker and will need to throw the ball. Stewart seemed content to just blend into the background last year. Cramsey expects his quarterbacks to have Type A, Alpha Wolf, look-at-me, I-will-lead-the-way personalities. The 22-year-old Stewart, who is a better athlete than the Pack gave him credit for last year, needs to become a leader. He can handle it.

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The Mountain West needs to put Boise State and Nevada in the same conference so the two rivals can play each other every year. This will be the second consecutive year that Boise State and the Pack will not be on each other’s schedule. The Pack and Boise will have gone three years between meetings when they finally get together next season in Boise. That three-year drought between Broncos-Pack games is the longest since the rivalry started in 1971. The Mountain West needs all of the true rivalries it can find and Boise-Nevada might be the best one the fabricated conference has. But this is a conference that seems to be winging it every year and doesn’t even know what it has. Boise and Nevada, one of the most underrated rivalries in college football, needs to take place each and every year.

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Mountain West football is in desperate need of a good year. Last year was arguably the worst football season in the conference’s history. The conference was a laughable 18-30 in non-league games with 10 of those 18 wins coming against FCS schools. San Diego State, which swept through its Mountain West schedule at 8-0, lost to South Alabama. Wyoming lost to Appalachian State and North Dakota. Former Mountain West school BYU was 4-0 against the Mountain West. Fresno State, one of the league’s top programs, was dreadful last year. Hawaii was laughable. Most everyone else was simply boring. The conference’s marquee program, Boise State, lost at home on its sacred blue turf to New Mexico and Air Force in back-to-back weeks. The conference title game did not have Boise State. Only two teams in the conference were more than two games over .500 overall. Only one team in the West Division was over .500 in league games. And, to top it all off, the conference had to suffer through the embarrassment at the end of the year by having two of its schools play each other in a bowl game.

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Hanging over the Mountain West this year is the possible expansion of the Big 12. The Mountain West’s Boise State and Colorado State have been rumored among the top 20 schools on the Big 12’s shopping list. It is not likely that either one would be attractive to the Big 12. Boise’s window of opportunity for jumping into a Power 5 Conference evaporated about two years ago. And nobody really wants Colorado State, which hardly attracts attention even in its own state. The Mountain West, though, needs to watch the Big 12’s proceedings very carefully. If BYU gets snubbed, well, it’s time to invite the Cougars back to the league. Getting BYU back would elevate the Mountain West into at least the glow of the national spotlight. BYU is obviously re-thinking its decision to go independent in football and is looking for a football home. The Mountain West needs to be waiting with open arms.

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Former Wolf Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick is acting like a 38-year-old middle reliever with a tired arm this summer. Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning can muddle through his final NFL season with a tired arm and even win a Super Bowl. But it might kill Kaepernick’s chances of starting for the 49ers this season. Kaepernick did not play in the 49ers’ first pre-season game last week (a 24-13 loss to Houston) and will likely miss Saturday’s game against Denver. That will leave him just two games to show that he should be the starting quarterback over Blaine Gabbert. The good news for Kaepernick is that Gabbert is really nothing more than a NFL backup and will never fully grab hold of the position. So there is always time for Kaepernick to steal the starting job back.