Joe Santoro: Norvell mystery wrapped up in an enigma
September 14, 2017
The first two-plus weeks of the Jay Norvell era have been, well, interesting. Norvell's performance so far as the Nevada Wolf Pack's head football coach has been only slightly less confounding as the decision to hire him was last December. The question back in December was "Who the heck is Jay Norvell?" We still don't really know. About all we know is he likes to wear hoodies (Norvellicheck?) on the sideline. His performance on and off the field has been all over the charts. One minute he's preaching patience and understanding and the next he's changing his quarterback. And all of this is after two games (Northwestern and Toledo) when the Pack had almost no pressure on them to win. What does this all mean as far as the success or failure of Norvell as the Pack coach? Maybe nothing. Or maybe everything. We'll find out. But it has been fun to watch.
Kaymen Cureton, a true freshman, is now the Pack's starting quarterback. Cureton was third or fourth on the depth chart just one or two weeks (days, hours?) ago. Excuse our uncertain, nebulous and vague timeline. It's difficult, after all, to get a straight answer concerning the status of Pack quarterbacks at any one time. David Cornwell, the only quarterback pictured on the Wolf Pack media guide, was the starter at the beginning of fall practice, Ty Gangi was named the starter a day or so before the season opener and now three weeks into the season Cureton is going to start. Again, this has been awfully exciting and intriguing to witness. After nearly two seasons of watching Tyler Stewart bore us to tears at quarterback, we now are getting a clown car and wondering who's going to emerge first. Or last.
Cornwell, a redshirt junior who spent the last three years learning at the feet of Nick Saban, lost the starting job without throwing a pass in a game. Cureton, a freshman who basically spent the last three years transferring from one high school to the next, earned the starting job without throwing a pass in a game. And we thought going for a 4th-and-3 on your own 45-yard line on the first drive of the game and then attempting an onside kick after tying the game at 3-3 later in the same quarter was a bit surprising last week against Toledo. Say what you want about Norvell as a coach. All of it might be true or all of it might be false. We don't know yet. But the one thing we do know is he's unpredictable. That, alone, makes him a breath of fresh air up on north Virginia Street. When was the last time the Pack had a head football coach who wasn't predictable? Never? Wolf Pack football under Norvell, we are reasonably certain, will never be boring.
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Cureton, Norvell said this week, "thinks like the coaches think." Again, we don't know if that's a good thing or not. We'll assume, for now, it's good. We'll also assume Cureton is everything the coaches have told us he can be. Athletic, smart, a leader. He can run and throw. He's tough, bold, competitive and determined. In short (or should we just say shorter?) he's a 5-foot-11 version of Colin Kaepernick. When Norvell announced last February Cureton was part of the Wolf Pack recruiting class, he said Cureton was the future of Pack quarterbacks. We didn't know he meant the third game of the season.
Norvell also said this week the best thing for Cureton right now is that he plays. Hopefully, for Cureton's development and the sake of this 2017 Wolf Pack season, that's true. Our fear is the opposite proves true, this is the absolutely worst thing for Cureton right now. Oh, he'll play well on Saturday against an overmatched Idaho State team. The Bengals only goal, after all, is to pick up their participation check without leaving too many of their players in Reno hospitals on Saturday night. Gangi and Cornwell would play well, too, on Saturday (and just might). But what about the Air Raid shootout next week at Washington State? Is Cureton ready for that? Is it fair for his development he be tossed into that fire? Also, by playing Cureton now, is the Wolf Pack getting the best four years Cureton has to offer? Why not redshirt him this year and trade it for a senior year in 2021? If Chris Ault would have played Kaepernick as a true freshman in 2006, maybe the amazing season of 2010 never happens.
Despite the 0-2 start, the confusion at quarterback and the ill-advised play calling, there has been a lot of things to be encouraged about after Norvell's first two weeks. The defense has been refreshing to watch. Nevada still gives up a ton of yards, points and first downs, but the effort and energy is there. There's an amazing amount of talent in the secondary and it will only be a matter of time before it blossoms. The other area that has been exciting to watch is the wide receivers, led by freshman lightning bolt McLane Mannix. Wait until Mannix, Brendan O'Leary-Orange, Wyatt Demps and Kaleb Fossum are all on the field at once. And there are about five or six more who will be in the mix. Norvell is a wide receiver whisperer and he's already worked wonders at Nevada. There's no Alex Van Dyke, Nate Burleson, Rishard Matthews or Trevor Insley in the bunch (not yet, at least) but this just might be the deepest group of receivers the Pack has ever had.
The Wolf Pack football team can still accomplish all of its realistic goals this season. The 0-2 start didn't change anything. The quarterback quandary didn't change anything. Norvell going for fourth down on his own side of the field on the game's first drive and trying an onside kick in the first quarter in a 3-3 tie didn't change anything. This Pack team can still win 6-8 games and go to a bowl game. If Cureton plays like a true freshman and the Pack has to go back to Gangi or finally give Cornwell a chance, then we're probably looking at six wins. If the freshman quarterback proves to be the "cure" to all that ails the Pack, then eight wins are a possibility. Going into the season we thought there were four games the Pack would likely win easily (Idaho State, Fresno State, San Jose State and UNLV), four they were likely to lose (Northwestern, Washington State, Boise State, San Diego State) and four that were up in the air (Toledo, Hawaii, Colorado State, Air Force). None of that has changed.
This Saturday against Idaho State is all about building confidence. Idaho State is a struggling Division I-AA team that barely survives financially by taking body bag games against teams like Colorado, Utah, Washington, BYU and Nebraska. And, yes, Nevada, Utah State and UNLV. The woeful Rebels, by the way, beat the Bengals two years ago, 80-8. Idaho State has lost 27 games in a row against Division I-A schools dating back to 2000 and, well, it may never beat one again. But the Bengals aren't worrying about winning. They just want their check. That's why it's important Nevada plays extremely well. The Pack will have the better athletes, the home field advantage and the motivation of knowing a loss would rock the entire program. Heck, the Pack hardly lost to Idaho State when both were in the Big Sky Conference together, winning their last 11 against the Bengals. Something along the lines of 48-7 Nevada sounds about right. And that's only if "Cure All" Cureton plays reasonably well. If he plays lights out, it could be 80-8.
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