The Wolfpack were not overly impressive on defense in 2012, ranking 95th in total defense giving up over 440 yards per game (for reference, the Bruins came in at 76th) and were not much better in scoring defense ranking 99th at over 33 points per game (UCLA was 58th at 27 points). What caused the struggles for Nevada was likely their rushing defense, which was one of the worst in the NCAA, giving up over 210 yards per game.
Struggling at that level will put a job in jeopardy as a defensive coach, so, unsurprisingly, the Wolfpack's DC from last year Mike Bradeson lost his gig, but stayed on staff to coach the safeties. A mildly familiar name takes over the helm of defensive coordinator for Nevada in former Southern Cal linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton.
Hazelton, who has a lot of experience as a coordinator, has installed a Tampa 2 base defense. This is the defense that SC ran under Monte Kiffen, so, if nothing else, the Bruins should be used to seeing it once Saturday rolls around.
Despite the struggles, there was talent on the defensive side of the ball for the Wolfpack in 2012. Both corneback Khalid Wooten and strong safety Duke WIlliams are on NFL rosters after solid senior seasons.
With the loss of those two, Nevada also lost all three of their starters at linebacker and their free safety as well, returning just 5 starters on a defense that was not very good last year.
The Tampa 2 relies heavily on the ability to get pressure from the front 4 without committing extra defenders to the pass rush. They have the experience to be able to do that and will have to produce to help the inexperienced secondary. Though it is not a group that excelled last season, so the question of that experience being helpful or not will seen on Saturday.
The Wolfpack's best player on defense is junior defensive end Brock Hekking (75 tackles, 8 sacks, 10 TFL). Hekking was All-Mountain West last season and some view him as the best pass rusher in the conference. On the opposite edge is another returning starting in sophomore Lenny Jones (7 TFL, 5 sacks). Both the ends are listed at 255 pounds and around 6'4".
Backing up Hekking and Jones at defensive end in the two-deep are seniors Jake Peppard (a local kid from La Habra and Cerritos College) and Tyler Houk. Peppard is listed at exactly the same size as the starters at 6'3" and 255 pounds and Houk is the same weight but an inch taller at 6'4".
How all 4 DEs in the two deep can be almost the exact same size is curious to me, but that is clearly the size that Nevada wants out of their defensive ends. That is a little undersized, but that can be expected across the board for a Mountain West team.
The interior is not lacking for experience either. The group is headlined by senior Jack Reynoso (6'3", 280), a 3rd year starter for Nevada. On the opposite side, another returning starter will man the nose tackle spot in junior Jordan Hanson (6'2", 280), a former teammate of Anthony Barr at Loyola High. He will be backed up by an intruiging transfer in 6'0" 275 pound junior Dupree Roberts-Jordan, who had 12 sacks in his senior season at Lakewood High School and spent the last two years at Golden West College.
Another player to watch in the rotation is redshirt sophomore Rykeem Yates, who at 6'2" and 270 pounds saw a lot of playing time as a redshirt freshman last season. Yates also was a signee for the Bruins in 2011, but ended up not enrolling and ended up at Nevada.
Perhaps the most interesting name is that of sophomore transfer Ian Seau, the nephew of the late Junior Seau. The younger Seau had a crazy season at Grossmont College, accumulating 18 sacks; but I'm not sure if he'll be at defensive end or outside linebacker for the Wolfpack. He is listed at just 6'2", 227 pounds, so outside linebacker makes more sense to me; but he is listed as a defensive end. Regardless, he should be on the field against the Bruins plenty.
This is the real problem spot for Nevada this season, despite the big losses of two NFL players in the secondary. Losing an entire starting group of linebackers is tough to overcome, especially when drastic improvement in run defense is a necessity for success.
The starter at Mike is former walk-on sophomore Jordan Dobrich (6'2", 235), who is being touted by Nevada as a potential 2nd-3rd round pick by new head coach Brian Polian. His backup from the post-spring depth chart is fellow sophomore Reggie Coates (6'1", 240), another local kid from Crespi.
From what I've researched, Dobrich should be able to handle the responsibilities of the middle linebacker in the Tampa 2. The outside linebacker spot is a much bigger question. That scheme requires super athletic linebackers that have to be playmakers in the passing game as well as forces in the run game (think Derrick Brooks, Lance Briggs)
At one outside linebacker spot, there is a competition between sophomore Burton De Koning (6'2", 225), junior Jonathan McNeal, two transfers in sophomore Matthew Lyons and junior Faigofie Faautuala, as well as true freshman Travis Wilson. Tough to analyze any of these players because they have next to zero experience as NCAA Division 1 linebackers.
The most talented potential option for the Wolfpack at outside linebacker is 6'4", 210 sophomore Bryan Lane Jr., who has practiced some at safety but should be starting or at least featured heavily at outside linebacker for the Bruins.
If this group improves on last season's group, the Wolfpack defense could be significantly better. If this group struggles, it could be a very long season in the first year of the post-Chris Ault era.
This is another position that had a lot of turnover in the offseason, similar to that of the Bruins defensive backfield. Nevada loses all but one starter from the 2012 group. That one starter, junior Charles Garrett (5'11", 205), switched from corner to strong safety this season.
Sophomore Bryson Keeton (6'2", 190), who was also at cornerback in 2012, looks to be the starter at free safety for the Wolfpack. Keeton played in six games for Nevada, registering 4 tackles and an interception in spotty work.
At the cornerback position, senior Markus Smith (6'1", 195 with 17 tackles in 11 games last year) looks to have one spot locked down. The other spot is likely to be occupied by junior Evan Favors (6'0", 185). Both of those guys have size enough to compete with the Bruins wideouts, but the question will be if they can tackle to the level necessary in the Tampa 2. Any missed tackles by corners in that scheme usually lead to big gains in the run game as well as after the catch on passes.
Options for depth in the Wolfpack secondary include talented true freshmen Tere Calloway (5'10", 175) and Elijah Mitchell (5'8", 170) along with redshirt freshman Randy Uzoma (6'1", 205). Those players figure to see the field quite a bit against UCLA and are talented enough to end up starting by the end of the season. Junior Necho Beard (6'0", 205 from Rancho Verde in Moreno Valley) also figures to play at the safety spot during Saturday night's game.
Overall, this Nevada defense is talented enough to do well in the Mountain West. They should not be able to compete with the experienced offensive line of the Bruins and the superior talent at the skill positions. In their first action against a different D1 offense, the Tampa 2 scheme Nevada employs could experience some difficulties in both the running and passing game. Look for a competitive defensive effort by the young Wolfpack defenders, but several big plays throughout the game and a lot of total yards by the Bruins' offense.