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Murray: Thoughts on nine headline-news items that emerged during my vacation

by Staff

I’m back from a two-week vacation that included a trip to Vancouver. Thankfully, I enjoy my job, so returning to work after a long break is not soul-crushing, although I’ll admit I’d prefer to still be on vacation! Here are my thoughts on nine headline-news items that emerged during my vacation.

Nevada football completes staff: Jeff Choate completed his assistant-coaching staff with the additions of associate head coach/interior defensive line coach Payam Saadat; defensive backs coach Joey Thomas; and defensive ends coach Jacquies Smith. Here is Choate’s full 10-person staff, which is expected to be adjusted once offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Matt Lubick is fully recovered from cancer. The biggest difference between Choate’s first staff and Ken Wilson’s first staff is experience. Only three of Choate’s 10 assistants are first-time full-time FBS coaches. Wilson’s first staff included seven first-time full-time FBS coaches. Choate was not given a big bump in assistant salary pool (it’s expected to be around $1.8 million), but he was able to fill his assistant staff with many more veterans, which should be beneficial.

Wolf Pack adds a transfer: Texas’ loss to Washington in the College Football Playoff semifinal might end up being a good thing for Nevada as Choate was able to turn his full attention to Nevada after sticking with Texas, where he was co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, through the Longhorns’ playoff run. Choate and the Wolf Pack staff held recruiting visits last weekend that produced one commitment in Florida TE Andrew Savaiinaea (full story here). Another player to keep an eye on is New Mexico State QB Diego Pavia, who has a Nevada offer with there being mutual interest. Pavia was Conference USA’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2023 after throwing for 2,973 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also rushed for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. His addition would provide immediate competition for returners Brendon Lewis and A.J. Bianco.

Wolf Pack hires volleyball coach: Nevada made its second coaching change from the fall season by hiring Washington State assistant Shannon Hunt to replace Lee Nelson, who was fired after going 93-158 overall and 47-112 in the MW over nine seasons. Hunt was an assistant at Washington State since 2011 and helped the Cougars enter the NCAA Tournament at No. 10 in the nation this season, which included a Sweet 16 berth. Hunt also was a standout player for Washington State in the 1990s. Interestingly, Washington State’s head coach, Jen Greeny, left for West Virginia on Dec. 21 with Hunt being named Nevada’s head coach on Dec. 27 and Washington State promoting its other assistant, Korey Schroeder, to head coach on Jan. 5. Hunt takes over a Wolf Pack program with little success outside of the Devin Scruggs era. Scruggs went 225-187 with five NCAA Tournament berths from 1997-2010; the program has won 33 percent of its games in all other seasons.

Nevada hoops nearing Top 25: For the first time since January 2013, the Mountain West has three teams in the men’s basketball AP Top 25 — No. 17 Colorado State, No. 19 San Diego State and No. 20 Utah State. Nevada earned 77 points and is fifth among “others receiving votes” among AP voters. It did better in the coaches poll, placing second among “others receiving votes” with Colorado State at No. 18, San Diego State at No. 19 and Utah State tied for No. 23. The Wolf Pack is likely two wins this week (against Air Force and Boise State at home) from getting into the Top 25 for the first time since the final 2018-19 poll. I’ll post a full column late this week on why Nevada (14-1) isn’t ranked yet, but the MW is getting major respect.

Mountain West’s bowl flop: Before I left for vacation, I wrote a column about the MW having a “football problem.” As I returned from vacation, the MW went 3-4 in bowl games for the second straight season. The MW, which isn’t known for having strong bowl opponents, had not been below-.500 in the postseason since 2014. Now, it’s done that in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2011 and 2012. MW bowl wins came from Wyoming (over Toledo), Air Force (over James Madison) and Fresno State (over New Mexico State). MW bowl losses came from UNLV (to Kansas), San Jose State (to Coastal Carolina), Utah State (to Georgia State) and Boise State (to UCLA). Given the prevalence of bowl opt-outs, I’m not sure we can put a ton of stock in bowl results. But the MW had a chance to save face after a poor 2023 football season and didn’t do so. The MW failed to produce a double-digit-win team (non-COVID season) for the first time since its inaugural season in 1999.

Joel Bitonio’s Pro Bowl streak continues: Wolf Pack alum Joel Bitonio was named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl despite battling injuries this year, which included knee surgery and a back ailment. He still played in 15 of 17 games and helped Cleveland reach the playoffs for the third time since being reinstated as a franchise in 1999. The Browns went 11-6, with the last time the franchise won more games being 1986 when it went 12-4. Bitonio’s sixth straight Pro Bowl berths are the fourth most consecutively in franchise history behind OT Joe Thomas (10), RB Jim Brown (nine) and OL/K Lou Groza (nine). Each of those players is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with Bitonio building a similar gold-jacket résumé.

Brandon Aiyuk’s big snub: While one local got good news on the Pro Bowl front, another did not. Aiyuk, the McQueen High alum, was arguably the biggest Pro Bowl snub in the NFL. “This guy’s a Pro Bowler in my mind,” 49ers general manager John Lynch told Bay Area radio station KNBR. “He’s an All-Pro in my mind. And I’m so proud of him, and I felt sick for him that he didn’t make it.” Aiyuk finished seventh in the NFL with 1,342 receiving yards, his 17.9 yards per catch ranking second. He added seven touchdowns with his 61 first downs ranking eighth in the NFL. Additionally, Aiyuk is one of the league’s top wideout blockers. Injuries or opt-outs could push him into his first Pro Bowl, but he was a notable omission on the initial picks.

Nevada soccer adds Marshall transfer: Wolf Pack soccer signed Marshall transfer Cassidy Bell, a junior midfielder from Trophy Club, Texas who started all but three matches during her Thundering Herd career. Bell tallied four goals, three assists and 11 points at Marshall and is the fifth addition to Nevada’s 2024 newcomer class, including the first transfer. Last season, Bell scored a career-high two goals with an assist. The Wolf Pack lost three of its top-four scorers — Luz Arreaga, Gabby Brown and Brooklyn Blake, who combined for 12 of the team’s 24 goals — from the 2023 season, so finding some goal-scorers this offseason was a top priority, and Bell should fill that role.

Boise State lands top QB prospect: Boise State landed USC QB transfer Malachi Nelson, giving the Broncos their highest-rated player ever. Nelson was rated by 247Sports a 99 (out of 100) recruit in the 2023 class. He was the No. 13 national recruit and No. 5 quarterback. Nelson attempted only three passes in his first season at USC, but the potential is massive, and Boise State needed to replace QB Taylen Green, who transferred to Arkansas this offseason. 247Sports listed Nelson as the No. 4 quarterback transfer in this year’s class above guys like Kansas State’s Will Howard (who is going to Ohio State), Duke’s Riley Leonard (who is going to Notre Dame), Oklahoma’s Dillon Gabriel (who is going to Oregon), Ohio State’s Kyle McCord (who is going to Syracuse) and Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei (who is going to Florida State). I gave Boise State’s hiring of coach Spencer Danielson a “C,” but if he keeps landing recruits like Nelson, I will look silly.

Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @ByChrisMurray.

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