If you’re looking for hope for Nevada’s defense, the Wolf Pack allowed just 19 points in their 2018 season opener and held the opposition to 4.5 yards per play.
But that was against an FCS team (Portland State) that went 0-11 last season, averaging 23.3 points per game and 5.5 yards per play. In those terms, the Pack’s 72-19 win doesn’t seem so impressive.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the Wolf Pack’s defense stunk in 2017. This was a unit that allowed 33.9 ppg and 6.1 yards per play last season. The best thing you can say about this defense is that it’s experienced: four of the top five tacklers from last year’s team are back, and the starting unit includes five seniors and five juniors.
Nevada uses a base 3-3-5 defense, which is probably a good idea in the pass-happy Mountain West... but Vanderbilt’s (probably) not going to be throwing the ball a ton. Why would they, when facing a defense that ranked 117th nationally in Rushing S&P+ last year? The Wolf Pack did a decent job preventing big plays last year, but also forced few turnovers (19) and didn’t do much to prevent offenses from getting 4-5 yards at a time. Basically, this was a defense that died by a thousand papercuts.
That... well, seems like a poor strategy for dealing with a Vanderbilt offense that’s content to kill you with a thousand papercuts. And like MTSU last week, Nevada is undersized at the line of scrimmage. Malik Reed had eight sacks from his defensive end spot last season, which meant that it was a great time to move him to linebacker. Stepping in at end is JUCO transfer Kaleb Meder (6’4”/260), who’s joined up front by senior tackle Korey Rush (6’0”/270), who had 2.5 sacks in 2017, and junior Hausia Sekona (6’0”/275.)
In the linebacking corps, Reed, senior Lucas Weber, and junior Gabe Sewell combined for 23 tackles and three sacks in the season opener. This is arguably the strong point of the defense, but behind an undersized defensive line, they might have some issues getting past blockers.
Senior safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus were the second- and third-leading tacklers, respectively, for Nevada last season and provided much of what little ball-hawking Nevada did in 2017: Baber had three interceptions, leading the team, while Rufus forced three fumbles (second to Reed.) The third safety — sophomore Nephi Sewell — finished fifth on the team in tackles and had an interception and forced a fumble. Starting cornerbacks E.J. Muhammad and Daniel Brown aren’t stars, and this is a unit that finished 129th in Passing S&P+ last season.
The short version of Nevada’s defense is that it’s a bend-don’t-break unit that broke all too frequently in 2017. It didn’t break much last week against Portland State, but again, that was an 0-11 FCS team they were facing. This is the first real test that the Wolf Pack defense will face in 2018; we’ll see if a cast of mostly the same players that are now a year older has really improved.