RENO — Brian Polian isn’t looking for anything fancy from his Nevada Wolf Pack defense.
“Scheme is overrated,” the rookie head coach said. “Defense is about energy and passion.”
So far so good.
“You can feel it every time we step on the practice field,” defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton said. “You can just see and feel the excitement.”
The players can feel it, too.
“There is just so much energy,” defensive end Brock Hekking said. “Everybody is just feeling positive about what we can do.”
The feeling was anything but positive last year for the Wolf Pack defense. Former head coach Chris Ault took a coaching position away from the defense before the 2012 season and shifted it to the offense and the Pack turned in one of its poorest defenses in Ault’s 28-year career.
The Wolf Pack was 95 (out of 120 teams ) in the nation in total defense, allowing 442.5 yards a game. It was 110th against the run and 59th against the pass. It was 99th in scoring defense, allowing 33.8 points a game. The Pack allowed at least 21 points in every game for just the third time (1896 and 2000 were the others) in school history.
“Defense is not about how many yards you give up,” said Hazelton, who was the linebackers coach last season for the USC Trojans after five seasons at North Dakota State. “It’s not about giving up yards,. it’s about giving up points.”
The Pack did both in 2012.
“After some of those games last year you just shook your head and said, ‘How did that happen?’ Hekking said.
There were not a lot of positives on the defensive side of the ball in 2012. But the few positives that did emerge — linebacker Albert Rosette, for example, led the team in tackles with 135 — are now gone except for Hekking.
The Pack lost seven of its top eight tacklers from a year ago. All three starting linebackers — Rosette, Jeremiah Green and DeAndre Boughton — as well as top reserve Dray Bell, are gone. Three starting defensive backs — Khalid Wooten, Duke Williams, and Marlon Johnson — are gone.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the changes on defense are positive or negative. The Wolf Pack last season, after all, lost five games when it scored 30 or more points. That never happened before in the 100-plus years of Wolf Pack football history.
“We need to make strides on defense,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack will go with a young and eager to please defense this season.
“It all starts up front,” Hazelton said. “Every defense starts up front. The defensive line is what makes your defense work. It’s where all defense starts.”
The defensive line just so happens to be the Pack’s strength right now.
Hekking, who led the team with eight sacks and 10 tackles for a loss, is the Pack’s emotional and physical leader on defense.
“I have to keep getting better,” the 6-foot-4, 255-pound junior said. “I have to make plays.”
Hekking is joined up front by, among others, Lenny Jones and Jordan Hanson. Jones, who is battling a knee injury this summer, is a 6-3, 255-pound sophomore. He had 37 tackles and five sacks a year ago. Hanson had 40 tackles and no sacks. Senior Jack Reynoso, a stay-at-home-tackle, had 44 tackles.
“We have a lot of guys who can make plays up front,” Hekking said. “We’re all going to get a chance to play.”
“We have to generate a pass rush up front,” Polian said.
Hazelton plans on running a Tampa 2 defense made popular by head coach Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy actually learned the defense when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s and played for head coach Chuck Noll and coordinator Bud Carson. The defense (Hazelton coached with Kiffin last year at USC) requires its players to run to the ball and gang tackle with speed and aggression.
“It’s all about the team,” linebacker Burton DeKoning said. “It’s all about the team and not the individual. We all are going to get a chance to get on the field and make plays.”
The Tampa 2 defense also requires its middle linebacker to drop into deep pass coverage at times.
“For us, Jordan Dobrich has got to play well,” Polian said.
Dobrich, a 6-2, 235-pound sophomore, had nine tackles last year. Jonathan McNeal, a 6-1, 235-pound junior, who is also expected to play a lot at linebacker, had 16 tackles. DeKoning had two tackles.
The secondary, which returns just one starter (cornerback Charles Garrett), is equally inexperienced. Randy Uzoma (6-1, 205), Markus Smith (6-1, 195), Elijah Mitchell (5-8, 170), Bryson Keeton (6-2, 190), Nigel Haikins (5-10, 210), Arthur Forrest (6-2, 210) and Evan Favors (6-0, 185) all should see playing time this season. Bryan Lane (6-4, 210), who is listed as a linebacker but can also play in the secondary, will also be on the field in some capacity.
“I think we have a pretty good idea who our playmakers are on defense,” Polian said. “Our (defensive backfield) is becoming solidified. We feel good about where we’re at right now.”
Polian, who will make his head coaching debut Aug. 31 at UCLA, listed Hekking, Jones, Hanson and a half dozen others as playmakers on defense.
“We have to remember who we are,” Polian said. “We cannot give up huge plays. Bill Walsh once said, ‘The secret to football is players make plays.’ When you have the chance to make a play, you have to make the play.”