Jay Norvell hits the ground running
The age of conviction has returned to Nevada Wolf Pack football.
Jay Norvell is a man with a plan. The new Wolf Pack sheriff, with his state trooper moustache and haircut, speaks loudly, distinctly and with the self confidence of someone who is secure in his beliefs. There’s no time for small talk and hollow clichés around Wolf Pack football anymore. When you don’t get your first head coaching opportunity until the age of 53 it’s important that you hit the ground running.
Norvell, you can be sure, is ready to run in Nevada.
“I’ve talked a lot about Nevada grit since I got here and about toughness and mindset,” Norvell said last week when he announced his first recruiting class as the Pack head coach.
That’s where it starts. But that’s not where it ends with Norvell. This is not a make believe authority figure. Norvell didn’t just look up the definition of grit and toughness in a dictionary. He’s lived those words through three decades of coaching.
“I think our staff and our players are hungry and have something to prove,” Norvell said.
Some coaches can tell their team to “keep chopping.” Norvell is the type of coach who will give them an axe, show them how to use it, tell them where to find the wood and where to stack it.
“We have an awful lot of work to do,” Norvell said.
If the results of National Letter of Intent signing day last Wednesday are any indication, that work has already started.
“This group is a real reflection of our coaches,” said Norvell of his 20-player recruit class. “We had very specific systems in mind when we looked at talent. We wanted talent that reflected those systems.”
Norvell brought in Matt Mumme, a guy who was coaching at an unknown Division III school in Georgia. But Mumme was running an offense that Norvell truly believes in, the pass-happy Air Raid that was originally designed by Mumme’s father, Hal. Norvell wanted a defense that was aggressive and flies around the field like a bunch of jet fighters. So he goes out and gets Jeff Casteel, who had been out of coaching for a year after getting fired by Arizona after the 2015 season.
One guy was in Division III. The other was out of work. Strange, out-of-the-box choices. But also intriguing and exciting. New offensive line coach Mason Miller, for example, has coached many years in the Air Raid offense. Casteel worked many years opposite spread offense guru Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and West Virginia.
Strange and out of the box, yes. But it all fits the plan. There’s nothing random about anything Norvell does. There’s probably even a reason behind the moustache and haircut.
Norvell’s first recruiting class also seems to fit his plan perfectly. Immediately after getting the Wolf Pack job, Norvell looked at the roster left over from the Brian Polian era. It didn’t take him long to figure out what was missing.
“We needed more playmakers,” Norvell said. “We wanted more speed.”
The Air Raid offense starts with the quarterback and usually ends with the wide receivers. So Norvell got two quarterbacks — one for now and one for the future — and five wide receivers. Casteel’s 3-3-5 defense needs cornerbacks who can cover, linebackers who can run and punish people and safeties who are versatile enough to play all over the field. So Norvell went out and got two linebackers, two experienced junior college corners and three safeties.
Norvell is a coach who firmly believes in a fully functional support system. All coaches talk about creating a family atmosphere. Families work when families support and nurture each other. That’s why Norvell’s entire plan is based on coaches helping players, coaches helping coaches, players helping coaches and players helping players.
“Our job as coaches is to love our players and their job (the players) is to love each other,” Norvell said. “It’s important a player is really wanted by his head coach. Kids need to know their head coach wants them.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Norvell loves any of the players who are holdovers from the Polian era.
The strength of the Pack offense the last two years was running back James Butler and it’s no secret the Air Raid offense runs the ball about as often as Polian went to a bowl game or beat UNLV. The Pack already had a talented quarterback in Ty Gangi but they went out and got David Cornwell, a transfer from Alabama, and a freshman with a world of talent named Kaymen Cureton.
The leftover Polian roster also featured plenty of skilled wide receivers with Andrew Celis, Ahki Muhammad, Wyatt Demps, Victor Gonzalez and others. But Norvell went out and added Fab Five Freshmen Tyson Williams, Ian Zamudio, McLane Mannix, Elijah Cooks and Theo Goodwin to the mix.
The strength of the Pack defense a year ago was safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus as well as a host of talented and young defensive linemen such as Malik Reed, Jarid Joseph, Kalei Meyer, Nakita Lealao, Korey Rush, Hausia Sekona, Patrick Choudja and Jordan Silva. But that didn’t stop Norvell from bringing in defensive linemen Dominic Peterson and Chris Green as well as five defensive backs.
You never, obviously, have too many players to love.
“We want kids of character,” Norvell said. “Kids of character have high ceilings. Talent sets the floor. Character sets the ceiling.”
And coaches set the character.