Don Jackson, who began the season as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s starting running back, might return to the field Saturday at Mackay Stadium against the Air Force Falcons.
“He’s getting closer,” Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian said. “He’ll have a limited role in practice and he’s 50-50 for the game.”
Jackson has not appeared in a game since he carried the ball 12 times for 35 yards in the season-opening 58-20 loss at UCLA on Aug. 31. He sprained his ankle in practice the week after the UCLA game and has missed the last three games for the 2-2 Wolf Pack.
Kendall Brock and Chris Solomon have taken over the bulk of the running duties in Jackson’s absence. Brock has rushed for 217 yards and two touchdowns and Solomon, who has been given the starting running back job, has rushed for 183 yards and no scores.
Polian said that Solomon and Brock will continue to be the top two choices in the backfield even if Jackson returns Saturday. Solomon, though, did struggle in a 31-9 win over Hawaii last Saturday night with just 35 yards on 21 carries.
“If he can go, we’ll play him,” said Polian of Jackson. “But Chris Solomon and Kendall Brock deserve to keep playing. There are worse things to have than three guys you can trust. But we’re not all of a sudden going to feed him the ball 30 times at the expense of Chris and Kendall.”
The Wolf Pack running game has struggled the season. The Pack has averaged just 3.6 yards a carry this season and has scored just five touchdowns in four games on the ground.
Polian, explaining why one running back won’t receive the vast majority of the carries this year, said the Wolf Pack does not have a back who is “special and a difference maker” like Stefphon Jefferson was last year. Jefferson ran for a school record 1,883 yards and scored a school-record 25 touchdowns (one receiving) in 2012.
“If one guy is special and is a difference maker then you feed him the ball,” Polian said. “That was the case last year. Stefphon was a talented and very special running back. I don’t fault anyone for feeding him the ball.”
FAJARDO UP IN AIR AGAIN: Polian, once again, is keeping the status of starting quarterback Cody Fajardo a mystery.
“Cody will be an end of the week decision,” said Polian, who doesn’t talk to the media after Wednesday.
Fajardo has missed the last two games after suffering a sprained knee against UC Davis. He did practice on a limited basis last week leading up to the Hawaii game and did practice earlier this week. Redshirt freshman Tyler Stewart replaced Fajardo against Hawaii and passed for 202 yards and three touchdowns.
“I don’t look at him as a wide-eyed newbie anymore,” said Polian of Stewart. “I’d like to think that we wouldn’t have to tailor our game plan so much anymore and that we could run more of our stuff. He proved he could handle some more.”
Polian said he thought Fajardo would play against Hawaii.
“I expected him to play,” Polian said. “I really thought he’d play. But he’s just not there yet. We will never put a player in there who can’t physically protect himself.”
SAVING DANTE MAYES: The Wolf Pack is hoping it doesn’t have to use true freshman quarterback Dante Mayes this season.
Mayes, from Pittsburg, Calif., is currently red-shirting this season and has not appeared in a game. He is, however, one of just three quarterbacks on scholarship on the active roster behind Fajardo and Stewart. Dustin Treick, from Novato, Calif., is a walk-on and is also available.
The Pack used former wide receiver Hasaan Henderson in a wildcat formation for a couple plays against Hawaii. Henderson, now a backup wide receiver, ran the ball twice for seven yards.
“Dante Mayes is the third quarterback but we are trying not to put him in the game,” Polian said. “We would prefer not to burn his red-shirt year if we don’t have to.”
Polian said he held some brief quarterback auditions last week, looking for someone who could take a few snaps. He said Henderson, as well as wide receiver Cody Tuttle and tight end Kolby Arendse, were looked at as relief for Stewart if needed against Hawaii.
“The only way we would use (Mayes) and pull his redshirt is if we had to get through a game or two,” Polian said. “We won’t do that if all we have to do is get through two or three plays or a quarter. But hopefully we won’t have to make that decision.”
Tuttle played quarterback as a sophomore at Westlake (Calif.) High . Arendse played quarterback at Burlington-Edison High in Burlington, Wash. Linebacker Gabe Lee played quarterback at O’Dea High in Duval, Wash., and wide receiver Joe Huber played quarterback at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas.
“I’d like to (play quarterback,),” smiled Arendse. “That would be fun. It would bring back the old days.”
WIMBERLY GLAD HE’S NOT AT AIR FORCE: The thought of playing wide receiver for the Air Force Falcons frightens Wolf Pack senior Brandon Wimberly.
Wimberly, who has caught at least one pass in all 44 games of his Wolf Pack career, would rather not spend his career blocking in the Falcon’s running offense.
“I definitely wouldn’t go there,” Wimberly said. “I have nothing against blocking but it’s a little easier to block when you know you are going to get the ball now and then.”
Wimberly has more touchdown catches this season (three) than the entire Air Force roster (two). He has 19 catches for 151 yards from three different Wolf Pack quarterbacks. Air Force’s leader in receptions (Ty MacArthur) has just seven catches for 99 yards.
WIMBERLY COACHES STEWART: Wimberly thought Stewart was being a bit too shy in the huddle early in the game against Hawaii.
“He was speaking kind of softly,” Wimberly said. “I just told him, ‘Man, speak up. This is your team. You have to lead us.’”
Stewart impressed his veteran wide receiver.
“He was excellent,” Wimberly said. “He was poised.”
OFFENSE NOT CLICKING YET: Wimberly, who has been with the Wolf Pack since his red-shirt season in 2008, said the Wolf Pack offense has yet to find its rhythm.
“If we were clicking you’d see us scoring 50, 60 points,” Wimberly said. “I’m looking forward to that. We’ve had a lot of guys hurt and we’re looking forward to getting everybody back. But we haven’t even scored 40 points in a game yet. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t get 40 in one game at least once in our first four games. That hasn’t happened since I’ve been here.”
Much of the Pack’s problems on offense stem from the absence of Fajardo, who has played just a game and a half this season. The Wolf Pack is just eighth in the 12-team Mountain West at 23.5 points a game this year. The last time the Wolf Pack has not scored at least 40 points once in its first four games was 2011. That was the season, though, that Wimberly was forced to sit out because he was recovering from a gunshot wound.
The Pack has not reached 40 points in at least one of its first four games in just one other season (2006) since 2003.
HEKKING HONORED: Wolf Pack defensive end Brock Hekking was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week and the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week by the Football Writers Association of America this week.
Hekking filled up the stat sheet against Hawaii with three sacks, eight tackles, 4.5 tackles for a loss, two forced fumbles and an interception.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around too many performances that were that productive,” Polian said. “His motor has been great. He’s a leader and he’s just fun to be around. He’s one of those guys you just like to coach.”
THIS AND THAT: Wolf Pack running backs have caught just four passes in four games . . . The Wolf Pack leads the Mountain West with seven interceptions this season after picking off just six all last season . . . The Wolf Pack defense has given up an average of 60 points a game on the road (against UCLA, Florida State) and just eight points a game at home (against UC Davis, Hawaii) this season . . . The Wolf Pack is last in the Mountain West in net punting average at 33.7 yards per punt . . . Wolf Pack opponents have been flagged for a Mountain West-high 35 penalties this year . . . The Wolf Pack leads the Mountain West with a plus-seven turnover margin.