RENO - It might be a good idea to have a roster handy when you watch the Nevada Wolf Pack football team this season.
"We don't have a lot of stars," Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault said. "We have a lot of no-names who need to show up and get identity tags."
The Wolf Pack, which is coming off a disappointing 7-6 season, will open the 2012 season on Saturday at California.
"It's going to be a big challenge," said Ault, now in his 28th season as head coach (226-103-1 record). "We understand that."
Ault also understands that some of his no-name players better make a name for themselves quickly or this could be another disappointing fall down on north Virginia Street.
"We need people to step up," he said. "They are going to get the opportunity and they have to take advantage of it."
There are some familiar names still on the roster, namely quarterback Cody Fajardo, offensive tackle Jeff Nady, guard Chris Barker and safety Duke Williams. But this is a program that has lost seven draft picks to the NFL over the past two years and is left with just five players (Barker, Nady, Williams, wide receiver Brandon Wimberly and safety Marlon Johnson) who have started for more than a season.
"This team is real young," Williams said. "We're looking good but it's hard to tell right now. But we have a lot of energy. I feel we're ready."
How young is this team? Well, three of the four captains (tight end Zach Sudfeld and linebackers Albert Rosette and DeAndre Boughton) have never started more than four games in a season at their current position.
The Wolf Pack returns just two players on offense (Barker and Nady) and three on defense (Williams, linebacker Jeremiah Green and cornerback Khalid Wooten) who started all 13 games a year ago. That's why the Wolf Pack has many more questions than it does answers heading into the 2012 season.
"We have a long way to go," Ault said.
Just this past Monday, with the season opener less than a week away, Ault had to give his team a speech after practice about playing with passion and energy, the two things he has been preaching about since the end of last year's disappointing 7-6 season.
Passing and energy, the theme of many of Ault's speeches this spring and summer, was also the two things he thought he didn't have to worry about with such a young team and because of the numerous position battles going on each day at practice.
"We're still looking at things on both sides of the ball," Ault said. "We are still making sure we are getting people in the right spots."
That might be an audition process that continues all season. Just tackle Jack Reynoso and Green at linebacker have starting experience in the front seven at their current positions. And while the secondary is experienced with Williams, Johnson and Wooten, not all of that experience has been positive.
"I've heard some people talking like this is a rebuilding year," Barker said. "As seniors, we don't look at it that way. This isn't a rebuilding year for us because this is our last year. We feel we can beat anyone on our schedule."
There's a definite new-car smell around this football team this summer. Fajardo, who passed for 1,707 yards and six touchdowns last year as a freshman, is back to lead the offense. But he'll be surrounded by new faces that started, at most, just a handful of games last year in running back Stefphon Jefferson, wide receivers Aaron Bradley, Wimberly, Richy Turner and Joe Huber, center Matt Galas, guard Alex Pinto and Sudfeld.
Wimberly, who started in 2009 and 2010, missed all of last year because of a shooting incident in downtown Reno in the summer of 2011 and Sudfeld missed all but one game a year ago because of a leg injury suffered in the season opener at Oregon.
The Wolf Pack offense, though, has been through changes before and survived quite nicely. Last year, for example, Tyler Lantrip and Fajardo took over at quarterback for the departed Colin Kaepernick, there was a revolving door at running back before Lampford Mark finally settled in at starter after Vai Taua left after 2010, Kolby Arendse took over for Virgil Green at tight end, Joel Bitonio took over at tackle for Jose Acuna and wide receivers Shane Anderson, Aaron Bradley and Corbin Louks stepped in for Kaepernick targets Wimberley, Chris Wellington, Moe Patterson and Malcolm Shepherd.
Despite all the changes in 2011, the offense still produced 31.7 points and 5-6.7 yards a game. And despite all of the changes this year, the offense is still expected to produce similar numbers.
"I'm not the wide-eyed freshman anymore," Fajardo said. "I'm a lot more comfortable and I'll be more of leader. I can't wait to get started."
"He has a better feel for what we're trying to do," Ault said of Fajardo.
The defense, though, is a huge question mark. It is a unit, especially up front and at linebacker, that is even younger than the offense.
This is a defense that has lost standout players like Dontay Moch, Brett Roy, Ryan Coulson, Brandon Marshall, James-Michael Johnson, Isaiah Frey, Doyle Miller and Kaelin Burnett over the past two years as well as veteran contributors Zack Madonick, Mike Andres, Adam Liranzo, Kevin Grimes, Bubba Boudreaux and Thaddeus Brown.
The 2012 season will likely hinge on how well the new faces on defense quickly adapt to their new surroundings
Defensive ends Brock Hekking and Lenny Jones are new as is tackle Jordan Hansen. Reynoso is the veteran of the defensive line and he has just eight starts on his resume and is coming off a serious leg injury.
Green started all 13 games a year ago at linebacker but he'll be joined by a pair (Albert Rosette and DeAndre Boughton) who have never started a game at linebacker.
Williams and Wooten figure to be mainstays in the secondary but the other spots could see frequent changes all season long.
"It's about performing and producing on the field," said Ault, whose Wolf Pack will play their first home game on Sept. 8 against South Florida.
The seniors don't want to call it a rebuilding year but there is clearly a lot of construction work going on with the Pack roster right now.
"We have to find the depth," said Ault, who has taken the Wolf Pack to seven consecutive bowl games. "Right now that is the biggest issue. We need people to take hold of their opportunities."
New starters isn't all that is new with the Wolf Pack this season. Ault hired three new offensive coaches in the off-season (coordinator Nick Rolovich, running backs coach Larry Lewis and offensive line coach Darren Hiller) and promoted Mike Bradeson to defensive coordinator.
Ault, who will still have a heavy hand in the offensive play-calling, has had to coach the coaches this past spring and summer as much as he has had to coach the players.
"It doesn't happen overnight," said Ault, referring to all of the changes his program has seen in recent months.
The Wolf Pack even changed its conference this off-season, leaving the Western Athletic Conference after a dozen years (two championships) for the Mountain West.
"It's a good conference but the football part will take care of itself," said Ault, whose team was picked to finish second by the Mountain West media this summer. "We'll be able to compete right away."
"It's a step up," Barker said. "But it's not a step we can't handle."