Wolf Pack primed for new era
Special to The R-C
Jay Norvell isn’t about to predict how many games his Nevada Wolf Pack football team is going to win this season.
“Our expectations are very simple,” the first-year Wolf Pack coach said. “We want to get the most out of every one of our players. Each time we walk out on the field, whether it’s at practice or during a game, we want to lay it on the line. If we do that, we won’t have any regrets regardless of the result.”
As the Wolf Pack approach the first season of the Norvell era, it’s about building a program that has won eight or fewer games in 18 of the last 20 seasons from the ground up. Right now, it’s not about predicting the number of victories, conference championships and bowl game appearances.
“Our focus is to just play our best,” said the 54-year-old Norvell, who spent last season as Arizona State’s wide receivers coach. “Look, we know the bottom line is that we will be judged on how well we perform. We want to win every game we play. That’s our livelihood. But we also know that those things will take care of themselves if we do things right.”
Norvell, who has also coached at Iowa State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and the Oakland Raiders during his 30-year career, replaces Brian Polian. Polian, now the special teams coach at Notre Dame, went 23-27 as the Pack head coach over four seasons, including 5-7 a year ago.
“We have 43 new players,” Norvell said. “So we’ve spent a lot of time just trying to get to know each other. As coaches we want to love our players and we want our players to love each other and to be great teammates.”
That philosophy seems to be working.
“We’re playing a game we all love and we’re doing it with a bunch of guys we all love,” said quarterback David Cornwell, one of the newcomers. “I joke around with everybody on this team already. That’s what this coaching staff has tried to teach us, to love each other as teammates, and everyone has bought in.”
Cornwell was the first player Norvell and his new coaching staff brought in last January. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Oklahoma native spent the last three years red-shirting (2014) and sitting on the bench (2015-16) at Alabama and has two years of eligibility remaining.
“I knew coach Norvell from when I was in high school (Norman, Okla., North High School) and he was at Oklahoma,” Cornwell said. “He just called me and told me, ‘You’ll play quarterback and I want you to come to Reno, learn and get better every day and build something exciting. Coach Norvell is the main reason I’m here. I didn’t know anything about Reno. It didn’t even matter if the facilities were a dump. They are not but it didn‘t really matter. I knew I was coming here before I even made my visit. He (Norvell) just sold me on a dream. He made me want to come here.”
Cornwell is expected to start this season over returning starter Ty Gangi. Gangi, the Wolf Pack’s most experienced quarterback at the Division I level, took over last year after starter Tyler Stewart suffered a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game. Gangi started the final four games, beating Utah State and UNLV in the final two games. He finished the year with 1,301 yards and eight touchdowns.
“You really have to go back to when he was in high school to see what he can do,” Pack offensive coordinator Matt Mumme said of Cornwell.
Cornwell has not played a full season since his junior year at Norman North in 2012, when he passed for 2,472 yards and 27 touchdowns. He missed the second half of his senior year in 2013 and then red-shirted for a season (2014) and sat the bench at Alabama without throwing a pass in 2015 and 2016.
“He has a great arm and can beat people all over the field and throw any route,” said Mumme of Cornwell. “You always are intrigued when you see a player with that type of talent.”
Cornwell, who joined the Wolf Pack in the second semester last year and participated in spring practices, has had to learn Mumme’s pass-happy spread offense known as the “Air Raid.”
“It has taught me skills I didn’t know I had,” Cornwell said. “But I couldn’t think of a better coach to learn this offense from than Matt Mumme.”
Cornwell has a lot of options at wide receiver. Wyatt Demps (53 catches for 686 yards and nine touchdowns last year) is back as is Andrew Celis (23-318-0) and others. The Pack have also flooded the roster with new wide receivers. Kalen Fossum, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior transfer from Washington State where he played in coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense and Brendan O’Leary-Orange (6-4, 210), a sophomore from Toronto, are also expected to have a big impact right away. Justin Brent, a junior transfer from Notre Dame, will also compete for playing time.
Cornwell says there are plenty of passes to go around in the Pack’s new offense.
“Kaleb Fossum told me that everyone eats in this offense,” Cornwell said. “Everybody gets fed.”
The running backs are expected to have a reduced role in the Pack’s new offense, though Mumme won’t come right out and say it. James Butler, who rushed for 1,336 yards last year as a junior, transferred to Iowa, leaving sophomores Jaxson Kincaide (334 yards last year), Kelton Moore (just two carries) and junior Blake Wright (seven carries) as the most experienced returning backs off last year’s roster.
“We want to have 85-90 plays every game,” Mumme said. “That means even if we throw it 50 times, that leaves 35-40 carries for our backs.”
Does Mumme really expect to run the ball 35-40 times?
“We hope so,” he smiled.
The Wolf Pack offensive line will be led by returners Austin Corbett (senior right tackle) and Sean Krepsz (junior center). Veteran Wolf Pack offensive lineman Ziad Damanhoury is also back.
Corbett said he kind of felt like a freshman again last spring and this summer, learning a new offense and getting to know new coaches and new teammates.
“So far it’s been about building relationships with new players,“ Corbett said. “I’m a senior and even I didn’t even know half the guys on the team this summer. I had to learn everybody’s name.”
“Early in spring ball the thing I learned right away is that the old rules don’t apply. Everything was completely different.”
The offensive line, Corbett said, will have to adjust from being a run-based offense last year with Butler to becoming a pass-based attack with Mumme.
“But we still want to go downhill as much as we can as an offensive line,” Corbett said. “That’s the most fun for an offensive line, when you can run downhill and knock people out of the way. But it doesn’t matter if we throw the ball 70 times a game or run it 70 times a game.”
Norvell, who has written books on the subject of playing wide receiver, made sure to put his stamp on the Pack offense right away.
“We have to execute on offense,” he said. “We want to play fast and spread the ball around.”
The Pack’s new no-huddle offense is based on tiring out opposing defenses.
“We want to play fast and we want to confuse the defense,” Mumme said.
The Wolf Pack defense has also undergone drastic changes. Jeff Casteel, the former defensive coordinator at West Virginia and Arizona takes over at Nevada and will use a three-man front that is based on speed and aggression.
“We have a good bunch of kids here,” said Casteel, who was at Arizona from 2012-15 before sitting out last year. “Our defense (three linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs) is really no different than any other defense. It’s still football. It’s about getting pressure on the quarterback, being able to tackle and cover people. Most of college football is played in space. You need people who can make plays in space.”
Casteel’s defense (he was at West Virginia from 2001-11) attacks the gaps. The defensive linemen try to control the running lanes while one of the linebackers or defensive backs usually rushes the quarterback and applies pressure. It is a defense that is based on making the right call at the right time, trying to confuse the offense.
“The key to the defense is 11 guys understanding the scheme,” Norvell said. “It is about doing the one or two things the coaches ask you to do.”
The Wolf Pack returns the bulk of last year’s defense.
The defensive line returns sophomore Hausia Sekona (6-foot, 290 pounds), juniors Malik Reed (6-1, 250), Kalei Meyer (6-0, 290), Jordan Silva (6-4, 260) and Korey Rush (6-0, 265) and senior Patrick Choudja (6-4, 250).
“Our defense is a little unorthodox,” said Reed, who had five sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss last year. “It seems like we are going to be more aggressive. The linebackers play off us (the defensive linemen). But everybody plays as a team, helping each other. It’s about not being selfish. I’ve learned so much from (Casteel). He knows this defense inside and out.”
Gabe Sewell (5-11, 235-pound sophomore) and Travis Wilson (6-1, 220-pound junior) are the most experienced returning linebackers. The defensive backfield returns juniors Dameon Baber (5-10, 205), Asauni Rufus (5-11, 190), Elijah Moody (5-11, 175) and Ahki Muhammad (5-9, 175), sophomore E.J. Muhammad (5-11, 190) and seniors Kendall Johnson (6-0, 190) and Jaden Sawyer (6-0, 200). Junior college transfers Vosean Crumbie (6-1, 195) and Brandon Brooks (6-1, 180) are also expected to contribute right away. Experienced senior Ryan Mack, a transfer from Kansas State, will also add depth to the secondary and special teams.
“It’s hard to say where we are right now,” Casteel said. “We really won’t find that out until we play a game (Saturday at Northwestern). But we’ll keep it simple at the start and hopefully we’ll get better from there.”
Casteel said he will adjust his defense depending on the ability of his players.
“The kids will dictate how we play and show us how aggressive we can be,” he said.
Reed would like Wolf Pack fans to know one thing about the new Pack defense.
“Expect us to be hungry,” he said.
Norvell also has a message for Pack fans.
“We expect our players to improve each time out,” he said. “We want to improve each and everyday in practice. We’ll be a much better team in November than we were in September.”