Nevada Football Offensive Preview

Nevada comes in with a highly-touted QB and a heavy-hitting RB named Taua. Wait, why does that sound familiar?

Welcome back Bears fans to the start of the 2021 football season! Cal kicks off the season with a stern test in Nevada, who narrowly missed the Mountain West Championship Game last year after losing to eventual champs San Jose State.

Cal leads the overall series 22 wins to 3 wins for Nevada, but Nevada has won the past two matchups. You may remember a rather ugly loss in 2010, when Nevada had a highly-acclaimed quarterback named Colin Kaepernick and a heavy-hitting running back named Vai Taua. But that was many years ago now, and this Nevada team is totally different. For instance, this team is lead by a highly-acclaimed quarterback named Carson Strong, a heavy-hitting running back named Toa Taua (who happens to be the younger brother of Vai Taua), and Vai Taua is now Nevada’s RB coach. See? It’s a totally different situation now.

Jokes aside, I think Nevada will be a good bellwether for Cal’s season. Cal actually matches up pretty well with Nevada and is the favorite to win this matchup, but a loss to Nevada might indicate some serious underlying deficiencies for Cal. Sure, Carson Strong is a good quarterback, but Cal has an even better secondary. Sure, Romeo Doubs is a good receiver, but Cal still has members in the secondary who have locked up the likes of DK Metcalf, Laviska Shenault, Jalen Reagor, Brandon Aiyuk, N’Keal Harry, various USC/NFL receivers too plentiful to name, and so on. As we have seen year in and year out from this Cal defense, it takes more than one great receiver to beat the Cal secondary, and Nevada doesn’t have the type of offensive firepower that, say, USC has.

It’s a similar story on the other side of the ball. Cal’s offense may have struggled in recent years, but the core of the offense is still together with super-seniors QB Chase Garbers and WR Kekoa Crawford, seniors WR Nikko Remigio and Christopher Brooks (formerly Christopher Brown Jr.), and so on. Although Nevada has a good defensive line, there is a clear talent disparity between Cal’s receivers and Nevada’s secondary.

This is why I believe Nevada is a good test for Cal. If Cal’s offense struggles against Nevada, it spells big problems once Cal starts facing elite defenses like Oregon or Washington. If Cal’s defense struggles against Nevada, it might be a sign that the Cal defense has taken a big step back from years prior, and that too spells trouble.

Now let’s take a more detailed look at Cal’s opponent.

Quarterback

The big story that you’re going to hear over and over and over again is Carson Strong. Nevada plays in an Air Raid offense (their OC is Matt Mumme, son of Hal Mumme, the founder of the Air Raid offense with Mike Leach) and (like most Air Raid QBs) he puts up some big stats. When I heard things like “first round draft pick” bandied around in the offseason, I have to say that I was expecting a lot more. I can’t say whether he will or will not be a first round draft pick— the 2021 QB class is very thin and there’s always some NFL teams willing to take a gamble (Paxton Lynch?)—but I have to say that I don’t think he’s there yet. He did make big strides from his [redshirt] freshman to sophomore year, and maybe he’ll make equally huge strides again in his junior year and start earning some of that NFL Draft buzz… but to me, anyone saying he’s a top draft pick now is just doing so for clicks (especially since no one watches Nevada games anyway enough to dispute that).

What I saw on tape from Carson Strong after watching the entire 2020 season was that he “has the physical tools"… in that he has a big arm, and… not much else. Can he throw it deep down the field? Yes. Is he mobile in the pocket? No. Does he throw accurately under pressure? Absolutely not. Does he progress through his reads? No, I often caught him staring down his receiver, and it came back to bite Nevada in the latter half of the schedule when they finally started playing decent Mountain West teams— Nevada started the season 5-0, but their first four opponents ended the season a combined 5-20. That receiver would be Romeo Doubs, who had 778 yards through the first 5 games (155.6 yards/game, 9 TDs), but only 224 yards through the final 4 games (56 yards/game, 0 TDs). I’m not saying Strong is or isn’t going to make it in the NFL, but to me it’s like looking at a 7 foot tall guy and saying he’s a future NBA star. Is that true? Maybe or maybe not, but let’s see some NBA-caliber basketball first before we make those kinds of claims.

A big part of Nevada’s offense is designed around trying to coerce the opposing secondary into making a mistake (which is another reason why I think Cal will be a tougher test for Nevada than most Nevada fans probably realize). A corner might think he has safety help, but the safety gets pulled away by another route, leaving that corner on an island against someone blazing fast like Romeo Doubs.

The Nevada offensive line isn’t particularly good, but they only need to give Strong good protection just a handful of times in order to allow him to make deep shots like this. A very big percentage of Strong’s yards come through plays like the one above. Nevada will throw a screen pass, screen pass, bubble screen, tunnel screen, then BANG - a 60 yard bomb. As long as the offensive line can hold up for a couple seconds and give Strong a clean pocket, he can sometimes deliver an accurate strike down the field.

And sometimes he does:

QB Carson Strong has great protection against a 3-man rush, deep TD to WR Romeo Doubs - the slot WR was covered by the safety instead of giving inside help as the CB expected. Well-designed play.

Sometimes he doesn’t:

“Carson Strong has the longest active streak of pass attempts without an intercepti— oh, oops.” Strong feels the pocket collapsing on him and he underthrows his receiver deep.

Earlier I mentioned that Carson Strong isn’t particularly mobile. Apparently he is still fighting through some sort of knee injury, and might be even less mobile now. Strong isn’t the type to break off a first down run when a play breaks down, and he nearly injured himself a few times trying.

I also didn’t like the way that Strong’s mechanics would break down when he began to feel pressure:

And although I did highlight a number of times that Strong was late on throws, there were some other times he showed some good anticipation with his timing on throws:

I think Wilcox defenses have shown enough times that they have the ability to frustrate Air Raid offenses. In the back-half of Nevada’s schedule, teams found success only rushing 3 and dropping 8 into coverage. Teams like San Jose State were able to generate pressure even with a 3-man rush, and Strong struggled against the extra defenders in coverage. Against Leach Air Raid teams, only rushing 3 defenders was often a mistake, because Washington State at least had a decent offensive line and enough talent at wide receiver (they had 21 WRs on the roster at one point) that there would always be someone open eventually if you gave the QB all day to throw. It will be interesting to see if Cal reaches into their bag of tricks to confuse and frustrate Strong, or if Cal plays a more vanilla defense in order to prevent putting too much on tape for later conference opponents.

Running back

At running back, we will see the 1-2 punch of Toa Taua (5’9” 210 lbs) and Devonte Lee (5’9” 235 lbs). Both are obviously compact, power RBs, but Lee is actually a bit better as a receiver out of the backfield. Taua has low top-end speed, but he will gain yards by initiating contact with defenders to both wear them down and pick up yards after contact. In other words, these Nevada backs will run through you, not around you. The running backs took on a bigger role later in the season once competent MWC teams started talking away the deep ball from Nevada.

Although Toa Taua isn’t the fastest back, he’s still a capable runner in the open field:

Nevada is an aggressive team on 4th down (and Strong can pooch punt if need be), and one of their most common plays in short yardage situations is the wildcat:

Here’s another wildcat play, but this time Taua hands it off to RB Devonte Lee:

I really enjoy watching Devonte Lee run. This is a guy that just keeps his legs moving forward no matter how many people are hanging onto him.

And just because I mentioned how often Nevada would run the wildcat in critical yardage situations, I just want to throw this trick play in here:

Wide Receiver

When you watch this game on TV, the focus of the announcers will undoubtedly be Romeo Doubs, Carson Strong’s favorite receiver last year. You already saw him on the receiving end of Strong’s long-bomb highlights above, but it can’t hurt to mention him again. Romeo Doubs is tall, lengthy, and has fantastic top speed. A lot of Nevada’s offense was designed around getting him in one-on-one matchups, because Doubs can win a footrace deep down the field.

WR Romeo Doubs burns CB Donte Martin for a 59 yard TD. Note the safety was slow to react as he was initially pulled by TE Cole Turner’s route across the middle (and he was also wide open there).

It’s worth noting that at least part of the reason that Doubs was Nevada’s leading receiver last year was because 2019’s leading receiver, Elijah Cooks, suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season. From what I did see, though, was that he displayed some nice hands:

While Doubs was the receiver that Strong would look for to get open deep down the field, he had a different target entirely for contested catches and short field situations: tight end Cole Turner. Turner is a 6’6” converted wide receiver (and he does still line up in the slot, as you may have noticed in earlier clips), and so he has some nice route running skills and a very good set of hands:

Even though QB Carson Strong stares him down the entire way, the 6’6” TE Cole Turner is too tough to guard on the fade, even for a 6’2” CB. Turner is a constant mismatch on the field… reminiscent of a certain (ugh) Stanford player, WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

Again, this is one of their most common redzone plays. Throw it up to TE Cole Turner:

Turner is tough, he can jump, he can high-point the football, and he’s just a difficult player to guard overall. He’s definitely worth keeping an eye on Saturday, especially if Nevada is facing a condensed field.

Since I’m already way over the article length limit anyway, I figure I have room for a couple more honorable mentions. The younger brother of former Cal (then Hawaii, now Pitt) WR Melquise Stovall, Melquan Stovall, didn’t have a huge role last year, but he did show off some athleticism:

And as a true freshman last year, WR Tory Horton made some nice improvements over the course of the season, displaying some good speed and an ability to make contested catches:

Cal’s secondary will face a real test against Strong and these receivers.

Special Teams

Normally I would gloss over special teams, but I actually feel like Nevada’s are worth mentioning: both the place kicker Brandon Talton and punter Julian Diaz have some serious leg. Talton nailed a 56 yard FG in his freshman year, and Diaz consistently boomed punts way over returners’ heads. However it’s also worth mentioning that despite this, Nevada had some trouble last year at the holder position— the holder would frequently mishandle snaps, turn the laces the wrong way, etc. Just something to keep an eye on.

Conclusion

Hopefully the Bears don’t get off to a slow start, because Nevada is a capable team and Cal can’t afford to still be “figuring it out” against them. This may be the delusional Cal fan in me speaking, but this is Cal’s game to lose. I expect Cal’s defensive line will make Strong uncomfortable in the pocket, and I expect Cal’s secondary to lock up Nevada’s best receivers. I’m sure they might get off one deep pass to Doubs/Cooks and one endzone fade to Turner, but I am a lot more confident in Cal’s defense than I would be in Cal’s still unproven offense. Tune in next time to hear me explain why Cal’s still unproven offense is still way better than Nevada’s defense in tomorrow’s Nevada Defensive Preview.

Go Bears!