On Monday we previewed the Wolf Pack offense and the abundance of returning starters. On the other side of the ball Nevada will be going through a major transformation, especially within the front seven.
Starters Returning: 5/11
Key Losses: DT Rykeem Yates, DT Kevin McReynolds, DE Ian Seau, DE Lenny Jones, LB Jordan Dobrich, LB Bryan Lane, LB Matthew Lyons, LB Faigofie Faaituala
Key Returnees: DT Salesa Faraimo, CB Kendall Johnson, CB Elijah Mitchell, S Asauni Rufus, S Daemon Baber
FEI Defense Rank: 91
S&P Defense Rank: 101
S&P Rush Rank: 92
S&P Pass Rank: 103
Turnovers Forced: 21
Rebuilding the Front Seven
Any way you look at it the Wolf Pack are in trouble on defense. They are losing 5 out of their top 7 tacklers, and 9 out of their top 14 tacklers from a year ago. In terms of backfield disruption they have to replace 22 out of their 25 sacks from a year ago, plus they're losing 56 out of their 71 tackles for loss from 2015.
Fifth-year senior defensive tackle Salesa Faraimo (9 starts) is the lone front seven player who logged regular minutes and he finished 2015 with 23 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 sack.
Beyond that it's a total rebuild. A couple of 5th-year seniors in Alex Bertrando and L.J. Jackson did combine for 50 tackles at linebacker and should provide immediate veteran leadership and experience. On the defensive line it's expected that redshirt sophomore Malik Reed (1 start, 18 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and junior Patrick Choudja (10 tackles) will step up at defensive end. On the interior expect redshirt sophomore Korey Rush (1 start, 13 tackles, 2 TFL) to start.
Also, keep an eye out for a pair of JUCO transfers in Nakita Lealoa and Adam Sagapolu.
Local Walk-on Makes Good
Lucas Weber came to Nevada back in 2014 as a preferred walk-on from nearby McQueen High School in Reno. He had a successful prep career as a running back and after sitting out 2014 played in a few games last season on special teams.
With the graduation of Don Jackson and a lack of proven options at running back it seemed as if Weber might be able to move a move up the depth chart in 2016. However, the coaching staff added Penn State transfer Akeel Lynch and decided to move Weber to linebacker this spring.
For now, the move has paid off as Weber was working with the starters during spring. At 6-0 and 215 pounds head coach Brian Polian liked Weber's size a little more on defense which probably doesn't say too much about the Wolf Pack's options in the middle of their defense.
California Sophomore Safeties
Nevada does welcome back all four starters in the secondary which is a strength they will try to build upon with so much work to do up front. It's a pair of rising sophomore safeties that has everyone in Reno so excited.
Dameon Baber didn't play in the first 3 games last year and was on schedule to redshirt. However, he started the final 10 games and earned 2nd-team All-Mountain West honors thanks to his 6 interceptions. That number of picks was tied for the per-game lead nationally and he was the only true freshman to intercept 6 passes.
Asauni Rufus took a redshirt in 2014 and started 12 games last year for the Wolf Pack while leading the team with 105 tackles. He was the first Nevada freshman with 100+ tackles in 21 years and his tally ranked him third nationally among all freshmen.
Both players are from California where the Wolf Pack heavily recruit. Baber, the second highest rated defensive recruit on the roster, is from Palmdale, California north of Los Angeles over the San Gabriel Mountains. Rufus hails from a little further up north in Bakersfield in Kern County.
One big issue with these safeties--which has to have Notre Dame licking its chops--is how small they are. Baber is listed at 5-11, 180 and Rufus a little taller at 6-0, 190 pounds.
Not too great of an outlook while having to face Notre Dame, I'm afraid. The Wolf Pack played a pair of Power 5 opponents in weeks 3 and 4 and gave up 44 points each to Arizona and Texas A&M. I don't see them getting better on defense in 2016 and a week 2 matchup with the Irish won't help things, either.
They will open with Cal-Poly who averaged a healthy 33.8 points last year and I'll be interested to see how Nevada defends against a lower-level opponent before coming to South Bend. Nevada's offense is going to be frisky which I actually think will make Notre Dame play a little bit more aggressively and keep the pedal to the floor.
A 50-point output from the Irish may be an expectation. Especially since Nevada gave up 78 rushes of at least 10 yards last year (tied for 98th nationally) and their young, under-sized front seven is going to have a heck of a time stopping the Notre Dame rushing attack.