There’s a cautious optimism in the air surrounding the Nevada Wolf Pack football program.
“I can feel a buzz in the community about what we’re doing,” rookie head coach Brian Polian said. “I can also feel a buzz on campus.”
Polian, who has been an assistant at football factories such as Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M, is also well aware that a buzz can only carry you so far.
“Ultimately, we have to go win,” he said. “We’ve got to perform.”
The Wolf Pack will get its first chance to perform under Polian in its season opener Aug. 31 at UCLA. That game at the Rose Bowl is just the first of many tough challenges Polian will face in his first season as Chris Ault’s successor. The Pack also has difficult road tests in Mountain West play at Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State and must also play non-conference games at Florida State and at home against BYU.
“There isn’t anybody on our schedule that we feel we can’t beat,” wide receiver Richy Turner said. “We always feel like we can beat anybody.”
The Pack felt that way last year but lost five of its last six games to end up 7-6 overall and just 4-4 in the Mountain West. The Wolf Pack suffered late-season breakdowns in Ault’s final two years. They lost three of their last four in 2011 to also end up 7-6 overall.
Ault, though, finished his career with 233 victories and will have the field at Mackay Stadium dedicated to him during the Pack’s home opener against UC Davis on Sept. 7.
“Sometimes people in town don’t know how good they’ve had it here,” Polian said. “This program has been a consistent winner for many years.”
It’s up to Polian to continue that tradition and avoid the program’s first losing season since 2007. Ault endured just three losing seasons (1987, 2004, 2007) in his 28 seasons as head coach. The past three Wolf Pack head coaches not named Chris Ault (Jeff Horton, Jeff Tisdel, Chris Tormey) combined for five losing seasons in nine years.
“I’m not naïve,” Polian said. “This is a big deal. Before (when he was an assistant coach), my name wasn’t associated with the successes or failures. But now my name is next to it. And I’m excited for that.”
All of the change on North Virginia Street has seemingly injected the Wolf Pack football program with an abundance of excitement. Polian hasn’t been shy about putting his stamp on the program, changing, among other things, the uniforms and the locker room.
The one thing he didn’t change was the offense. Ault’s pistol offense, after all, has carried the team since 2005. Last year the Pack was eighth in the nation in total offense at 515 yards a game and averaged 38 points a game.
“It was one of the things that made the job attractive,” said Polian, who brought back Ault’s offensive coordinator (Nick Rolovich) in one of his first official acts as head coach. “The offense here has been very productive. It would have been silly to change it. It gives us an identity. To run away from that identity would have been silly.”
The face of the Pack offense is quarterback Cody Fajardo. The junior passed for 2,786 yards and rushed for 1,121.
“We’re going to lean on Cody,” said Rolovich, who joined the Pack in 2012 and left after the season for a few weeks to become Temple’s offensive coordinator before returning to Reno. “He’s been in this offense longer than I have. I learn from him, too. He’s grown so much, especially in the passing game, just in the time I’ve been here.”
Fajardo has clearly developed into a team leader.
“I’ll carry his pads if he wants me to,” smiled veteran wide receiver Brandon Wimberly.
Wimberly is one of three returning starting wide receivers along with Aaron Bradley and Turner that give Fajardo a lot of comfort in the passing game. The question on offense is whether or not the running game will be as productive as its been in the past.
The offensive line lost veterans Jeff Nady and Chris Barker and the backfield lost running back Stefphon Jefferson, who rushed for a school-record 1,883 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. Jefferson left the program after his junior year to pursue his NFL dream (he wasn’t drafted) and the Pack running game will now be handled by junior college transfer Don Jackson and former wide receiver Kendall Brock.
“What you won’t see is somebody who carries the ball 300-plus times,” said Polian, referring to the school-record 375 carries Jefferson received last year.
The offensive line is also confident despite the huge holes left by the absence of Barker and Nady.
“We’ve lost great players before and we’ve done just as well,” tackle Joel Bitonio said. “That’s what the Union (the Pack’s nickname for its offensive front) is all about. The next guy steps up and does the job. Our new guys are very talented, and they are learning and getting better every single day.”
“I always believe in the Union,” Wimberly said. “I always say that anybody can run well behind the Union. We see it every year.”
The Pack defense, which will be handled by new coordinator Scottie Hazelton, will rely on its front four led by Brock Hekking, Jordan Hanson, Jack Reynoso and Lenny Jones.
“It all starts up front,” said Hazelton, who coached last year at USC after several years in Division I-AA.
“Last year we were young and everyone had doubts about us,” said Hekking, who had eight sacks in 2012. “And we used that as motivation. But now we have to be the leaders. We have to make plays.”
The rest of the defense, except for junior cornerback Charles Garrett and senior Markus Smith, will be extremely inexperienced. Jordan Dobrich, a sophomore, will lead the linebackers in his first year as a starter.
“If there is an area where you could see some freshman on our two-deep charts, it’s on defense, especially in the defensive backfield,” Polian said.
The back seven (linebackers, secondary) could be a revolving door, especially early in the season, as Polian and Hazelton find out who can play under fire.
“Guys will rise and fall,” Polian said.
Polian said improvement in the defense is what is needed for the Wolf Pack to go from a team that wins six or seven games a year to one that wins 10 or 11 and jumps into the national spotlight.
“That is the area where we have the most to gain,” he said.
The Mountain West, now in its 15th season, will be split into two divisions and conduct a league championship game (on Dec. 7) for the first time. The conference’s media picked the Pack to finish fourth in the six-team West Division of the Mountain West behind Fresno State, San Diego State and conference newcomer San Jose State and ahead of just UNLV and Hawaii. A fourth-place finish likely would end the Pack’s string of consecutive bowl appearances at eight.
Boise State, which shared the Mountain West title last year with Fresno State and San Diego State, is picked to win the Mountain Division ahead of Utah State, Air Force, Wyoming, Colorado State and New Mexico.
“We plan on winning our division and going to a ninth straight bowl game,” Turner said.
“I can see a bounce in our players’ step,” Polian said.