Kaepernick, Graziano battle for Nevada's QB job

The most important award in Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick's trophy case is not the WAC Freshman of the Year trophy. It's not the conference Player of the Week award or even the honorable mention freshman All-America honors.

It's the Fireman's Award, given to Kaepernick by his Nevada teammates, for stepping in when the team needed him the most.

In the second quarter of the Wolf Pack's game against Fresno State last season, Kaepernick was called to duty after starter Nick Graziano suffered a broken foot. With the team trailing 14-6, Kaepernick, a redshirt freshman who had never taken a snap, led the Wolf Pack to a touchdown on his first drive. By the end of the game, he had completed 67 percent of his passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns. He also rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown.

"At that point in time, I was thinking that this is my chance," Kaepernick said of his first playing time "You only get one shot most of the time, so when you do get it you have to make the most of it. You can only play your best and as hard as you can, and I thought I did that. Looking back on it, there are some things I would have done differently, but you can't change that now."

Nevada lost 49-41, but Kaepernick became an overnight sensation. And with Graziano out for the rest of the season, Kaepernick's confidence grew, and so did his credibility with his teammates and the coaching staff.

So it was no surprise that coach Chris Ault said Kaepernick would run with the first team heading into fall camp despite the return of Graziano, who beat out Kaepernick in the preseason last year.

"[Kaepernick is] as good a quarterback as there is in terms of running the ball and throwing it," Ault said. "The biggest transition he's going to have to make is from being a thrower to a passer.

If we feel like the two-quarterback system is the way to go and we develop it, we develop it. I'd rather not be in that capacity.

--Nevada coach Chris Ault

"My concern with Graz is getting him back playing football. He's got that linebacker mentality. The bulldog part of the offense is fine, but the finesse of the offense, we've got to get him back into the groove."

Picking the right quarterback will be pivotal. Ault and several players think this might be the best Wolf Pack team since Ault resumed coaching duties before the 2004 season.

Kaepernick already has proved he can handle the task. He went on to finish the season with 2,175 yards, 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions in less than nine full games. He was named WAC Freshman of the Year, only the second Nevada player to ever earn that honor.

Graziano has been working hard to get back what was his. After missing more than half the season and the spring, Graziano said his foot is finally at 100 percent, but he has a lot of catching up to do if he's going to regain his starting position.

He's realistic about his expectations. Even two weeks into camp, Graziano said he's still learning his reads and getting adjusted again to the speed of the game. He knows he has a long way to go to catch Kaepernick, and despite throwing for 1,119 yards, 10 touchdowns and five interceptions in four games and a quarter, Graziano knows that what he did last year means little compared to what Kaepernick is doing now.

"It's something I've got to earn," Graziano said of his starting role. "Just because something happened yesterday doesn't mean it's going to happen today. I've got to come out and prove to the coaches again that I can play at a high level and get the respect of my teammates again."

For Ault, it's a blessing to have two quarterbacks with the ability to put up big yards and multiple touchdowns while keeping the ball safe, especially with the newfound commitment he's seen in his program.

Nevada is coming off its third consecutive bowl after not going to any since 1996. It returns 13 starters, including eight on offense. And for the first time in the past four seasons, every player, including freshmen, showed up for voluntary summer workouts.

Although Ault said he's not high on a two-quarterback system, he's confident either can win a game for the Wolf Pack if called upon.

"I think you've got to get your quarterbacks in a rhythm during a game, and you don't want one quarterback looking over his shoulder," Ault said. "If we feel like the two-quarterback system is the way to go and we develop it, we develop it. I'd rather not be in that capacity. What I'd like to be in, though, is when your offense is sputtering a little bit and you have to pull a guy and you can put the other guy in there and maybe not miss a beat."

For now, the job is Kaepernick's to lose, and Graziano isn't going down without a fight.

In the team's second scrimmage this past weekend, Graziano had a strong day, completing 6-of-15 for 143 yards and a touchdown, while Kaepernick completed 10-of-23 for 88 yards and a score.

"What can I say about Graz? I've never seen a guy come back with so much determination to get his spot back," running back Luke Lippincott said. "In his mind, it's his spot even though Kap ended the season with the honors that he did. And they're both going to make each other better. The more competitive it is, the better the No. 1 is going to get, and that's good for us as a team."

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.