ENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack football team insists it has put the 2013 season firmly in the past.
“That 4-8 record is not a true indication of what type of team we were last year and what type of team we’re going to be this year,” Wolf Pack senior defensive end Brock Hekking said.
Brian Polian’s debut season as Wolf Pack head coach produced the program’s lowest win total since a 3-8 season in 2001. It was also the first Wolf Pack season without a bowl game since 2004.
“We’re moving forward,” said Polian, who will open his sophomore season as head coach on Aug. 30 at Mackay Stadium against Southern Utah. “It’s a new year with a new team. To dwell on last year for any length of time is really a waste of time.”
The Pack, which has lost 13 of its last 18 games, doesn’t have a whole lot of time to waste, not with senior leaders like Hekking, quarterback Cody Fajardo, running back Kendall Brock, center Matt Galas and wide receiver Richy Turner entering their final seasons.
“If you just look at the first half of games, I think we were a nine, 10-win team last year,” Fajardo said. “Talent-wise, we definitely weren’t a 4-8 team.”
The Wolf Pack, thanks to last year’s 4-8 record, is picked this year by the Mountain West’s media to finish third in the six-team West Division behind Fresno State and San Diego State.
“That puts a chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong,” said Hekking, the lone Wolf Pack player named to the All-Mountain West preseason team.
This Wolf Pack team clearly does not lack for motivation.
“I thought losing a bowl game makes you closer as a team,” said Fajardo, who lost to Southern Mississippi in the 2011 Hawaii Bowl and Arizona in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl his first two seasons. “But going 4-8 is something different. Nothing gives you more motivation and brings you closer as a team than going 4-8.”
The one thing the 4-8 season didn’t do was hurt this team’s confidence.
“The energy is very positive,” Polian said
“We like to be the underdog,” Hekking said. “It’s motivation. So we’re not forgetting last year. I, for one, can never put any loss out of my mind. My first game of my career when we lost at Oregon (69-20 on Sept. 10, 2011) still bothers me. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
The Pack had eight bad tastes in its mouth a year ago, losing blowout games to UCLA and Florida State as well as close games to San Diego State, UNLV and BYU. It also lost early leads at Boise State, Fresno State and Colorado State before losing.
“A lot of it was growing pains,” said Fajardo, who has just a 14-16 record as the Pack starter in his career (4-12 over his last dozen starts). “We had a lot of new players and a new coaching staff. I think it just took time for everyone to understand what was expected of them. It was just a lot of things that guys weren’t used to and that took some time.”
Losing was also something the Pack wasn’t used to, especially to rival UNLV. It was the program’s first loss to the Rebels since 2004.
“Our veteran players aren’t used to being 4-8,” Polian said. “I believe they feel they have something to prove.”
The schedule this year, at least on paper, seems a bit more Wolf Pack friendly than it was a year ago. All of the so-called tough Mountain West games, against Fresno State, Boise State and San Diego State, are at Mackay Stadium. And UCLA and Florida State, two of the best teams in college football a year ago (Florida State won the national title), have been replaced on the non-conference schedule by Washington State and Arizona.
“I love playing at home,” said Hekking with a smile.
“Our schedule is better for us this year to have a winning season than it was last year,” defensive end Lenny Jones said.
The Wolf Pack struggled in just about all statistical areas a year ago. The Pack was 11th in the 12-team Mountain West in scoring (26.9 points a game) and seventh in points allowed (34.4 a game). It was just sixth in total offense (429.2 yards a game) and 11th in total defense (505.3). The rushing offense was just sixth (179 yards a game) and the rushing defense was 12th (258.5).
“We’ve said all along that we need to run the ball and we need to stop the run in order to be a winning program,” Polian said.
Much of the offense’s lack of production was due to the fact Fajardo was fully healthy for less than two full games. He suffered a knee injury right before halftime of the second game of the year and played the final eight games with a huge knee brace.
“It was more of a confidence thing for me,” said Fajardo, who passed for 2,668 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 621 yards and eight scores last year. “I don’t think I played with the confidence that I had my first two years. I didn’t take as many chances as I used to. I didn’t have confidence that I could get to the edge on running plays so I don’t think I pushed myself as much as I might have if I wasn’t wearing the knee brace.”
The knee brace, Fajardo said, is a thing of the past.
“I’m 100 percent now,” he said with a smile. “No more knee brace. That thing is gone.”
Fajardo’s health will likely determine whether or not the Pack is significantly improved over a year ago. If all goes as planned, the senior is expected to be in the discussion at the end of the year for Mountain West Player of the Year honors.
“At quarterback we have a four-year starter that we believe in completely,” Polian said.
Gone from the offense from a year ago are wide receivers Brandon Wimberly and Aaron Bradley as well as tackle Joel Bitonio. Wimberly, who caught 97 passes for 989 yards and eight touchdowns last year, was Fajardo’s security blanket (especially on third down). He will be missed on and off the field. Bradley, who transferred from the program last spring, caught 40 passes last year. And Bitonio will likely be starting in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns this season.
But most everyone else is back on offense to help Fajardo, including running backs Kendall Brock and Don Jackson as well as wide receivers Richy Turner and Hasaan Henderson.
Brock, who played wide receiver his first two seasons at Nevada, ran for 812 yards and 10 scores last year and showed he could be a dependable Division I running back. Jackson battled through injuries in his first Pack season to finish with 332 yard and four touchdowns.
“I feel more comfortable at running back now than I did last year,” Polian said. “If we get the Don Jackson we had in the last part of last year, we’ll be in great shape.”
Polian also said Brock will get a dozen or so carries a game.
“The way I look at it, every day is a battle for me and Don to show what we can do,” Brock said. “But it doesn’t matter who starts the game. We both know that we’re going to get carries and it’s important we both get the most out of those carries whenever they come.”
Turner caught 61 passes for 755 yards and four touchdowns and Henderson, who made the move from quarterback, hauled in 29 passes for 326 yards and one score. The two could turn out to be one of the most dangerous wide receiver combos in the conference.
“We have a lot of people who can do the job at receiver,” Henderson said. “There’s a lot of talent.”
The offensive line will be led by Matt Galas at center. The guards and tackles will likely come from a group that includes northern Nevada products Austin Corbett (Reed High graduate), Connor Talbot (Bishop Manogue), Kyle Roberts (Reed) and Jeremy Macauley (Reed).
“The offensive line will be deeper but that depth is coming from younger guys,” Polian said. “When you have offensive line problems you can’t fix them overnight.”
The defense, it seems, is poised to make a huge leap. A year ago the Pack didn’t stop anybody, allowing 34 points and 505 yards a game. This year the defense will have its fourth coordinator in the last four years in veteran Division I-AA coach Scott Boone.
“Everything will look the same but we’re going to be smarter and faster,” defensive end Jones said. “Our defense is going to be better all around.”
The defensive line, with Hekking, Jones, Jordan Hanson, Rykeem Yates, Ian Seau, Dupree Roberts-Jordan and Salesa Faraimo, is as deep and talented as any unit on the team. Hekking had 14.5 tackles for a loss and nine sacks a year ago. Jones had three sacks and 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Seau had five tackles for a loss and Yates had three sacks.
“We’re very close,” said Hekking, who lives with teammates Hanson and Jones. “We have a brotherhood together. We’re out there playing for each other.”
Hekking is the first to admit the defensive line still has a lot of untapped potential.
“Last year we didn’t do as well as we should have,” he said. “But we’re going to go out there this year and shock the world. We’re going to show how good this defense can be.”
“The defensive line should be the strength of our defense,” Polian said. “But they still have to go out and play.”
The Pack also has an abundance of experienced linebackers. The group includes Jonathan McNeal, who led the team in tackles last year with 103. Matthew Lyons (89 tackles) and Jordan Dobrich (80 tackles) are also back as are Bryan Lane (55 tackles) and Alex Bertrando (48 tackles and 4.5 tackles for a loss as a freshman last year).
The secondary will be led by veterans Charles Garrett, Evan Favors, Nigel Haikins, Randy Uzoma, Elijah Mitchell and Kaodi Dike. Newcomer Duran Workman could also play a major role at strong safety, Polian said.
“Last year on defense we had a lot of self-inflicted wounds,” Polian said. “We have to do a better job of making (the opponent) earn it instead of giving it to them.”
Polian is confident the Wolf Pack will make its 4-8 season of a year ago a distant memory by the end of the 2014 season.
“I really believe we’ll be significantly improved,” he said. “What that means in terms of our won-loss record, time will tell.
“But I have a gut feeling that we’re in a better place now than we were a year ago at this time. Our goal is to keep improving week to week so by November first we find ourselves playing meaningful football games.”