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Nevada set to kick off new season

by Joe Santoro
Special to The R-C

This is now, finally, Brian Polian’s Nevada Wolf Pack football team.

Now in his fourth season at Nevada, Polian no longer has to coach any player who ever played a game for Ault, let alone caught a pass, ran the football, thrown a pass or made a tackle or block for the College Football Hall of Fame coach. Also gone is Ault’s offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich and, for the most part, Ault’s pistol offense.

“Coach Ault always was a little bit different than anyone else,” said Polian, who has an 18-20 record as the Pack head coach. “We also need to be a little different and continue to try and do that.”

Things will definitely be different this season at a renovated Mackay Stadium. And it all starts with the pistol, the offense that Ault invented and gave the Pack its national identity since 2005.

“The traditionalists that want to see us line up in the pistol on every play, that’s not going to happen,” Polian said. “We’ll keep the concepts and you will still see us in some pistol looks. But we will look different.”

Rolovich, who left the Wolf Pack to become Hawaii’s head coach, has been replaced by former Montana State offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. Cramsey’s spread offense produced 41.9 points and 519.7 yards a game last year for the 5-6 Bobcats of the Big Sky Conference. The offense was based heavily on quarterback Dakota Prukop, who led the team in rushing attempts (158 for 797 yards and 11 touchdowns) and passed for 3,025 yards and 28 scores.

“We took this job because the expectation is to go score on every drive,” Cramsey said. “That’s our goal.”

The Wolf Pack offense averaged 26.2 points and 375.2 yards a game last year. The scoring output was the lowest of the pistol era and the yardage production was the second lowest, behind 358 in 2006.

“We need to become more explosive,” Polian said. “I’m looking for us to improve throwing the ball. We weren’t completely one dimensional last year but we were far better at running the ball. We need to be more balanced.”

Under Rolovich and Polian the Pistol had become more predictable and stale.

“We’re going to challenge people this year,” Polian said. “We will have more formations, more motion, more personnel groups. We’re going to challenge the defense’s eyes. It has been an exciting opportunity, stripping things down and building it back up.”

The Wolf Pack players, who have been weaned on the pistol, have welcomed the changes.

“(The new offense) makes you think and it makes football fun,” offensive lineman Austin Corbett said. “It’s always good to have changes. Some of it is the same stuff and some of it is different. But it makes you take a step back and get a new perspective,”

Cramsey, it seems, has breathed new life into the offense.

“It’s about deception,” Cramsey said. “We’re going to line up in a whole bunch of different things and challenge the defense and take shots down the field.”

Pulling the trigger on the Pack’s modified pistol-spread attack will be senior quarterback Tyler Stewart. Stewart, who took over the offense last year after eight seasons (2007-2014) of Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo at quarterback, passed for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns and ran for 322 yards and four touchdowns last year. By the end of the year, though, the Pack seemed to lose all confidence in Stewart making plays with his arm, allowing him to throw just 54 passes (no touchdowns) over the last three games combined.

“We didn’t lose any game last year because of the quarterback,” Polian said. “There are things he needs to improve on but he knows that.”

Polian has confidence that Stewart will improve dramatically from his junior year to his senior year, especially now that he is under Cramsey’s guidance. “He’s not that guy trying to replace Cody (Fajardo) anymore,” Polian said. He’s Tyler. He’s buried himself in the new offense. I have no doubt that it will project when we start playing games.”

The low-key Stewart is ready to take the next step.

“Last year was fun in its own little way,” Stewart said. “But this group of seniors wants to be better than average. We have to win more games. Since I’ve been here (he red-shirted as a freshman in 2012 and then spent two years watching Fajardo before starting last year) we’ve never won more than seven games.”

The Pack has finished 7-6 in four of the last five seasons, including the last two under Polian.

“Seven wins is not good enough at this school,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s teammates have noticed a difference in their quarterback this past spring and summer. “More confidence,” running back James Butler said. “That just comes with a season under your belt. He’s more of a leader.”

Stewart will be helped greatly by an experienced and talented group of wide receivers, led by Hasaan Henderson (52 catches, 741 yards, four touchdowns last year) and Jerico Richardson. (68-750-5). Also back is tight end Jarred Gipson (19 catches).

Butler (1,342 yards, 10 touchdowns) led the offense last year along with fellow running back Don Jackson (1,082, 8). Jackson, a senior last year, is now gone, replaced by Penn State transfer Akeel Lynch. Lynch, a senior, is 5-foot-11, 220 pounds while Butler stands in at 5-9, 215.

“They are both powerful guys,” Polian said.

Butler, though, is expected to get the majority of the carries. “There is no reason to believe that he won’t take another big step forward,” Polian said.

Despite the new-look formations and renewed emphasis on throwing the ball, the offense will have a lot of familiar faces. In addition to Stewart, Butler, Henderson, Richardson and Gipson, veteran offensive linemen Corbett, Jeremy Macauley and Nathan Goltry are also back. The biggest questions are with the defense, which lost defensive linemen Ian Seau, Lenny Jones and Rykeem Yates and linebackers Jordan Dobrich, Bryan Lane and Matthew Lyons.

“The defensive line, there aren’t many starts among them, but they’ve all played,” Polian said. “I’m not panicked about that. I think we’ll be fine there.”

Salesa Faraimo, Malik Reed, Korey Rush and Patrick Choudja are expected to become the leaders along the defensive line. The line backing group features Alex Bertrando, Gabe Sewell and L.J. Jackson.

“Linebacker-wise, we’ll have to answer some questions,” Polian said.

The strength of the defense heading into the season is the secondary with Dameon Baber, Asauni Rufus, Elijah Mitchell and Kendall Johnson. Baber, who had six interceptions last year as a freshman, is the Pack’s only player on the Mountain West Pre-season All-Conference team.

“We have the two best safeties (Baber, Rufus) in the league,” Polian said.

This is now, for the most part, Polian’s roster. There are just a handful of players — such as Stewart, Gipson, Bertrando, Richardson, Henderson, Macauley, Jackson and Randy Uzoma — that Ault brought into the program for the 2012 season as red-shirt freshmen.

“It’s been fun to see the new leadership present itself,” Polian said. “I like this team. They are fun to be around. I feel as god as I’ve ever felt going into a season.”

The Wolf Pack has assembled a very manageable schedule this season that features just three teams (Notre Dame, San Diego State, New Mexico) that finished over .500 last year.

“There’s no doubt our bowl win (over fellow Mountain West member Colorado State) gave us momentum, especially into recruiting and in the spring,” Polian said. “It was a big deal. But the next step is for us to get over this 7-6 hump that we’ve been at the last few years. I will be the first to admit that now is the time.”