Norvell: Pack football ‘light years ahead’ now
Aug. 31 Portland State, 6 p.m.
Sept. 8 @ Vanderbilt, TBA
Sept. 15 Oregon State, TBA
Sept. 22 @ Toledo, TBA
Sept. 29 @ Air Force, TBA
Oct. 6 Fresno State, TBA
Oct. 13 Boise State, 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 20 @ Hawaii, TBA
Oct. 27 San Diego State, TBA
Nov. 10 Colorado State, TBA
Nov. 17 @ San Jose State, TBA
Nov. 24 @ UNLV, 6:30 p.m.
Note: Call 775-348-PACK or visit nevadawolfpack.com for tickets or information.
It would be an understatement to say a lot has happened since May 23, 2017, when Jay Norvell spoke at the Carson Valley Inn about his vision as the University of Nevada’s first-year head football coach.
On Tuesday night, Norvell returned as part of the Nevada Coaches’ Caravan tour to update Wolf Pack fans on the program’s progress. And not surprisingly, he expects to see vast improvement from a team that went 3-9 overall and 3-5 in Mountain West Conference play.
“We’re light years ahead,” Norvell informed his audience seated in the Douglas and Sierra rooms. “Last year we had 42 players come in and they didn’t get here until July, so they didn’t have the summer prep that they needed. Now, they know what’s expected and they’re putting pressure on each other to do things right.”
Nevada will kick off its season on Aug. 31 at home against Portland State.
Norvell and his staff spent their offseason addressing the need to be bigger and stronger, especially on the offensive and defensive lines.
“Defensively, we’ve got to have physicality in our line,” he said. “We want to be able to stop the run. Last year, we were not big enough and not nearly fast enough. When you play an odd front (Nevada plays a 3-3), your nose guard needs to be big, 300-plus pounds; your ends need to be 275,280, and we were playing with 230-pound ends.”
Among the new defensive linemen are 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive end Tristan Nichols from Arizona Western College; 6-3, 315 Kevin Scott from Arizona Western (by way of the USC Trojans); 6-4, 250-pound Fanon Vines from Coffeeville, Kan.; and 6-4, 315-pound Moses Landis from American River College in Sacramento.
“One of the things we’re working toward, we want a defense that is relentless, physical and plays together as a unit,” Norvell said.
Even though the Wolf Pack employ the pass-friendly Air Raid, Norvell emphasized the importance of having a big physical line to open up the running game.
“We’ve been here (Carson Valley Inn) three times, and it just seems like yesterday when we were asked, ‘What kind of offense are you going to run?’ And one of the things going into spring practice, we wanted to improve our physicality on our offensive line,” Norvell said.
“We’ve been working on our schemes and I think we’ve really got our run game dialed in,” he added. “If we can be more physical on the run, it will help us control football games. We feel like we have a lot of big-play ability and now we want to control the trenches.”
Depth on the offensive line has been an area of focus during the ongoing recruiting season.
The list of offensive linemen who have come on board include 6-foot-4, 330-pound Jermaine Ledbetter from Tampa, Fla., by way of Coffeeville Community College; 6-8, 280-pound freshman tackle Cole Watts from Orem, Utah; 6-6, 245-pound freshman Trey Hamilton from Reno High; 6-4, 220-pound tight end Hayden Werbeckes from Galena High in Reno; and 6-7, 220-pound Ryan Smith from Granite Bay, Calif.
Among the running back recruits is Toa Taua (5-9, 220), who rushed for more than 4,600 yards and 73 touchdowns during his career at Lompoc High in Southern California (the Braves were 11-1 last year). Taua’s older brother, Vai, was a standout running back for Nevada and is now a special teams analyst for the Wolf Pack.
Another new running back is Devonte Lee who helped John Marshall High in Oklahoma City win the Oklahoma State 3A title last year.
“He’s a state champion, goes about 5-9, 220 pounds and is an extremely physical kid,” Norvell said of Lee.
Now consider what John Marshall coach and former San Francisco 49ers receiver Rashaun Woods told newsok.com after the 2017 state title game: “He’s the man. He’s a one-of-a-kind player and once-in-a-generation player.”
The Air Raid offensive philosophy is to spread the ball all over the field, from sideline to sideline and down the field.
“If we have a running back that can run the ball downhill and is physical and can finish, that kid will explode in our offense,” Norvell said.
The strength of that offense still looks like a talented receiving corps. One of the points Norvell made was the contributions last year from such freshmen as McLane Mannix (Freshman All-American), Daiyan Henley and Elijah Cooks.
“We recruited a lot of receivers and skill players, and the great thing is, a lot of those kids played as freshmen, so they’re coming back for three more years” he said.
And quarterback Ty Gangi is returning for his senior season. He threw for 2,746 yards and 25 TDs last year.
“We started out the first four games of the year trying to figure out who our guy was, and once Ty Gangi settled in, he just did a fabulous job,” Norvell said. “So we’re really excited about having him back this year.”
Despite its 0-5 start, Nevada finished its season on an upbeat note by winning two of three games, highlighted by a season-ending 23-16 win over rival UNLV at Mackay Stadium in Reno.
“The most important thing that we tried to establish last year was to get the kids to play as hard as possible and eliminate selfish feelings,” Norvell said. “We played our best football game the last game of the season for the cannon because we played good defense, we played together, we ran the football and we had a team that rose up in critical moments. We had a couple of great fourth-down stops that were really the difference in the game, and I was really proud of our kids.”
Editor’s note: Read more about Norvell’s vision of Nevada Wolf Pack football in Sunday’s edition of The Record-Courier.