Brian Polian couldn’t do anything about the dark cloud that hovered over Northern Nevada on Monday as his Nevada Wolf Pack football team went through its first practice of summer training camp.
“It figures that it’s raining,” smiled the second-year Wolf Pack head coach. ‘It never rains here and it is raining on our first day. But that‘s OK. We’re excited to be back.”
Polian, though, is determined to immediately take care of the dark cloud that has blanketed his team since the end of the 2013 season when the Wolf Pack finished 4-8.
“I get a feeling that everybody has moved past it,” said Polian of his rookie year as a head coach. “Our intent as a staff is to not bring it up anymore and not talk about it. There are no rear view mirrors. It’s a new year moving forward with a new team. To dwell on last year at length is really a waste of time.”
The Wolf Pack will conduct 24 training camp practices through Aug. 24 in preparation for its season opener Aug. 30 at Mackay Stadium against Southern Utah. All of the practices are closed to the public except a Mackay Stadium 4:30 p.m. practice on Fan Appreciation Day on Aug. 16.
“I believe we will be significantly improved,” Polian said. “Now, what that means as far as the win-loss columns are concerned, time will tell.
“But I have a gut feeling we’re in a better place. I’ll do a better job than last year on experience alone and our players will do a better job because this is their second year in our system and they have a better understanding of what is expected. We should do a better job of hitting the ground running this year.”
The schedule alone also figures to help the Wolf Pack significantly improve upon 2013. Last year’s schedule was one of the toughest in Wolf Pack history. The Pack had to play at UCLA and Florida State and hosted BYU at Mackay Stadium in its non-league schedule and had to play three of the top teams in the Mountain West — San Diego State, Boise State, Fresno State — all on the road.
This year the non-league schedule (Southern Utah and Washington State at home and Arizona and BYU on the road) is a bit more manageable and Mountain West foes Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State all have to come to northern Nevada.
Polian also admitted the Mountain West talent level overall is not as high as it was a year ago.
“The talent gap in the league has closed,“ Polian said. “It will be a little more evenly matched, not only with us but with a lot of teams.”
The Wolf Pack returns almost all of last year’s roster. The team lost just a handful of seniors — namely offensive lineman Joel Bitonio, wide receiver Brandon Wimberly, defensive lineman Jack Reynoso, defensive back Markus Smith — that saw significant playing time in their Pack careers.
This year’s team returns 15 seniors, a group that includes quarterback Cody Fajardo, wide receiver Richy Turner, running back Kendall Brock and offensive lineman Matt Galas.
“Our veterans, guys who have experienced success here, are not used to being 4-8 and at the bottom of the league,” Polian said. “I’ve gotten a sense from them that they have something to prove and they have a feeling of ‘Why not us?’”
Polian said that this will be a training camp full of competition. There are only a few areas, namely quarterback (Fajardo), running back (Brock and Don Jackson), defensive line (Brock Hekking, Jordan Hanson, Lenny Jones, Ian Seau, Rykeem Yates) and wide receiver (Turner, Hasaan Henderson) where the top tiers of the depth chart are fairly well set.
“I want to see who the third wide receiver will be,” Polian said. “And I’m anxious to see how the tight end battle works itself out. I’m also anxious to see the safety battle.”
Polian, though, did mention newcomer Duran Workman, a 6-foot, 200-pound junior from Saddleback College, as having the inside track on the strong safety role. “If he keeps doing what he’s doing he’ll start at strong safety,” Polian said.
Offensive line is also a concern this year once again. Galas leads the unit and he’ll be joined by experienced veterans Jeremy Macauley, Kyle Roberts and Connor Talbott.
“We’ll be deeper at offensive line but the problem is that depth comes from young guys,” Polian said. “When you have offensive line problems it’s hard to fix them overnight. The one area where we cannot afford significant injuries is the offensive line.”
The Wolf Pack offensive line has already had to battle through injuries this spring and summer.
Zack Brickell, a junior, has played both offensive and defensive line for the Pack but will be moved to tight end this year after an off-season knee injury. “His weight went from the 290s to the 250s so we’re going to find a place where he can make a contribution,” Polian said.
Freshman Chad Specht, a 6-5, 305-pounder from Fresno, suffered a foot injury this spring and won’t be available until the middle of next month. Brent Roling, a 6-6, 300-pounder from Murrieta, Calif., had foot surgery this spring and won’t be back until the middle of the season at the earliest.
The first day of summer camp, though, is a time for positive energy and new beginnings.
“I’m anxious to get going and I’m anxious to see the improvement,” Polian said. “The energy around here is very positive.”