For as below average as the Wolf Pack defense was last season, their offense was borderline elite in production. In total offense, Nevada ranked 8th in the nation at over 514 yards per game. Especially impressive was their rushing offense, led by Stefphon Johnson and his phenomenal season. The Wolf Pack in 2012 ended up 7th in the NCAA in rushing at over 270 yards per game.
Offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich returns for his second season in control of the offensive play-calling and, while it is unlikely that the Wolf Pack exceed their production from last season, the Wolf Pack will once again be a potent offense in 2013.
Nevada runs the Pistol offense, but not the mediocre version that Bruins' fans had to suffer through. The good version, where the team can effectively pass, run and give a defense multiple looks and formations. This is the offense where Colin Kaepernick flourished in college and where Chris Ault made himself a College Football Hall of Famer, retired in 1995 and then came back to be even more successful from 2004-2012. While Ault is once again retired and Kaepernick is turning heads in San Francisco (or Santa Clara, not sure where the 49ers play this year), the Pistol remains and it is an offense that I always enjoy seeing on Saturdays.
The Pistol masks a lot of flaws in an offensive line if run correctly. There is a bit of turnover at this spot for the Wolf Pack (losing three starters and three other players were dismissed from the team in the spring), but there is also some talent returning.
Last season's starting right tackle senior Joel Bitonio (6'4" 315) moves over to start at left tackle. Bitonio is probably the best offensive lineman the Wolf Pack have on the roster, having started 26 games in a row heading into his senior year. He's backed up by redshirt freshman Jacob Henry, who is a little undersized at only 265 pounds.
The other returning starter is junior Matt Galas (6'1" 280) at center. Galas was named to the Rimington Award watchlist this preseason, along with Bruins' center Jake Brendel and other top centers across the NCAA. Galas is backed up by sophomore Abel De Haro, who transferred from Valley College in Los Angeles last season.
Those two guys should be solid for Nevada, the question marks are at the other three spots across the front line.
At right tackle, redshirt junior Kyle Roberts has the size of a D1 tackle at 6'6" 305 pounds and saw playing time in 9 games in 2012. He'll be backed up by fellow junior Braxton Isaac, another JC transfer from a Southern California school at Foothill College.
The right guard spot will be manned by senior Fred Lavulo, who was a defensive tackle at the start of Nevada's fall camp early this month. Lavulo has decent size at 6'2", 305 and is yet another transfer from a Southern California junior college, having attended Cerritos College before transferring to Reno. Redshirt sophomore Zach Brickell backs up Lavulo.
Finally, junior Connor Talbott is listed as the starter at the left guard spot. Talbott actually started one game last season for Nevada, against Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl. Talbott has good size at 6'4" 290 and gives the Wolf Pack a more experienced left side of the offensive line. He's backed up by redshirt freshman Jeremy Macauley.
Overall, this is a line with two potential All-Mountain West players and three question marks of varying degrees. It'll be a real test for them to go against the depth and talent UCLA features in the front-seven on defense.
This is a weird spot because Nevada's offensive coordinator is best known for his work at Hawaii, where the tight end spot is not even truly recruited because it's a non-factor in their scheme. Last year, Rolovich had an NFL tight end at Nevada in Zach Sudfeld (who is Aaron Hernandez's replacement in New England).
This season, the starter is senior Kolby Arendse (6'3", 250). Arendse was the starter for Nevada in 2011, but was surpassed by Sudfeld last season. In a backup role, Arendse contributed 13 catches for 196 yards. His backup redshirt freshman Jarred Gipson is more of a strict blocking tight end and isn't a huge threat in the passing game.
Outside of quarterback this is probably the strength of the Nevada offense, which could be a concern for the inexperienced Bruin secondary. The Wolf Pack return all three starters from the X, Z and F spots in the Pistol.
The star is at the X spot in sixth year senior Brandon Wimberly (6'3" 225 pounds) out of Los Angeles. Wimberly had 70 catches for 845 yards last season along with 4 touchdowns garnering First Team All-Mountain West honors. He is a big target and will likely get the redzone looks that went Sudfeld's way last season (a very similar situation to Shaq Evans and Joseph Fauria for UCLA last year). He's backed up by a true freshman in D'Andre Fuller (5'10" 160 pounds).
The returning starter at the Z spot is junior RIchy Turner (5'11", 180) who caught my eye in their bowl game against Arizona last year where he put up 96 yards and a touchdown. Overall, Turner had 60 catches for 752 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2012, his first season in Reno after transferring from Fullerton College. He's backed up by senior Joseph Huber (5'11", 185) who had 3 catches for 44 yards and a touchdown in 4 games last season.
The F spot is held down by a very talented player out of Gahr High School in redshirt junior Aaron Bradley (6'1", 200). Bradley is the third returning starter for Nevada, having put up 467 yards on 45 catches and 4 touchdowns last season in his second year as a starter.
Bradley's backup is one of Nevada's most intriguing players in redshirt freshman Hasaan Henderson. Henderson is a giant target at 6'5", 230 pounds and was converted from quarterback to a wide receiver this offseason. Anytime a team has a player with that kind of size, he's going to be a potential threat in the red-zone and a constant mismatch while on the field. Keep an eye on him on Saturday night.
Having to replace a player that put up the kind of season that Stefphon Jefferson did in 2012 might seem as difficult as replacing Johnathan Franklin does for UCLA. That isn't really the case for Nevada though, as Jefferson for some reason declared for the NFL Draft early and went undrafted and was cut early after being picked up by the Titans as an undrafted free agent.
(Side note: Why do these guys declare early? You had to know that you didn't have the measurables to get drafted, you get grades on your skills back before you declare. Just never makes sense to me)
The talent level at running back isn't that important in the Pistol offense, similar to the plug-and-play running backs of Mike Shanahan's old Denver Bronco teams. Pretty much any marginally talented halfback can rush for 1000 yards in this offense.
Junior transfer Don Jackson is the guy at the top of the depth chart for Nevada to start with and he is more than capable of being successful at Nevada. Jackson has decent size at 5'10", 210 pounds and led junior college players in yards per carry last season.
Behind him are 5'9" 195 pounds junior Kendall Brock and senior Nate Lytle (5'11" 200 pounds). I would expect for all three to get over 5 touches unless one has a lot of success against the Bruins early on.
This is where the real headliner of the offense (and really the whole team) is for the Wolf Pack. Redshirt junior Cody Fajardo is probably the best quarterback in the Mountain West Conference, at least on a pure numbers basis. Fajardo is a guy who I actually played against in summer passing league before my senior season in high school. A local player out of Servite High School, he didn't get a ton of looks as a QB from big time schools for some reason. He has good size (6'2", 215), decision making skills (20 touchdowns to 9 interceptions last season while completing 67% of his passes) and running ability (190 carries for 1121 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012). Fajardo is on basically every watchlist that Brett Hundley is on at quarterback, so he is a guy worth keeping an eye on even after Saturday.
If any other quarterback than Fajardo sees the field on Saturday, that is likely very good news for UCLA. For the sake of being thorough, he is backed up by junior Devin Combs and redshirt freshman Tyler Stewart.
This offense is one that will test the question marks on UCLA's defense.
The young, inexperienced secondary will matchup against big, experienced and talented receivers.
The running game of Nevada and the Pistol is always tough to stop and the athleticism of Fajardo is the best warmup to Taylor Martinez of Nebraska that a defense could ask for.
Talent wise, UCLA should have the advantage across the board, especially in the front seven against the Wolf Pack offensive line. Missed tackles and poor execution could lead to big plays against Nevada, so discipline and aggressiveness will need to be balanced out throughout the game on Saturday.