Jay Norvell isn’t about to predict how many games his Nevada Wolf Pack football team is going to win this season.
“Our expectations are very simple,” the first-year Wolf Pack head coach said. “We want to get the most out of every one of our players. Each time we walk out on the field, whether it’s at practice or during a game, we want to lay it on the line. If we do that, we won’t have any regrets regardless of the result.”
As the Wolf Pack approaches the first year of the Norvell era, it’s about building a program that has won eight or fewer games in 18 of the last 20 seasons from the ground up. Right now it’s not about predicting the number of victories, conference championships and bowl game appearances.
“Our focus is to just play our best,” said the 54-year-old Norvell, who spent last season as Arizona State’s wide receivers coach. “Look, we know the bottom line is that we will be judged on how well we perform. We want to win every game we play. That’s our livelihood. But we also know that those things will take care of themselves if we do things right.”
Norvell, who has also coached at Iowa State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, UCLA, Oklahoma, Texas and the Oakland Raiders during his 30-year career, replaces Brian Polian. Polian, now the special teams coach at Notre Dame, went 23-27 as the Pack head coach over four seasons, including 5-7 a year ago.
“We have 43 new players,” Norvell said. “So we’ve spent a lot of time just trying to get to know each other. As coaches we want to love our players and we want our players to love each other and to be great teammates.”
That philosophy seems to be working.
“We have a bunch of guys that love each other already on this team,” said quarterback David Cornwell, one of the newcomers. “We’re playing a game we all love and we’re doing it with a bunch of guys we all love. I joke around with everybody on this team already. That’s what this coaching staff has tried to teach us, to love each other as teammates, and everyone has bought in.”
Cornwell was the first player Norvell and his new coaching staff brought in last January. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound Oklahoma native spent the last three years redshirting (2014) and sitting on the bench (2015-16) at Alabama and has two years of eligibility remaining.
Cornwell is expected to start this season over returning starter Ty Gangi,. Gangi, the Wolf Pack’s most experienced quarterback at the Division I level, took over last year after starter Tyler Stewart suffered a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game. Gangi started the final four games, beating Utah State and UNLV in the final two games. He finished the year with 1,301 yards and eight touchdowns.
Cornwell, who joined the Wolf Pack in the second semester last year and participated in spring practices, has had to learn offensive coordinator Matt Mumme’s pass-happy spread offense known as the “Air Raid.”
Cornwell has a lot of options at wide receiver. Wyatt Demps (53 catches for 686 yards and nine touchdowns last year) is back as is Andrew Celis (23-318-0) and others. The Pack has also flooded the roster with new wide receivers. Kalen Fossum, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior transfer from Washington State where he played in coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense and Brendan O’Leary-Orange (6-4, 210), a sophomore from Toronto, are also expected to have a big impact right away. Justin Brent, a junior transfer from Notre Dame, will also compete for playing time.
Cornwell says there are plenty of passes to go around in the Pack’s new offense.
The running backs are expected to have a reduced role in the Pack’s new offense, though, Mumme won’t come right out and say it. James Butler, who rushed for 1,336 yards last year as a junior, transferred to Iowa, leaving sophomores Jaxson Kincaide (334 yards last year) and Kelton Moore (just two carries) and junior Blake Wright (seven carries) as the most experienced returning backs off last year’s roster.
“We want to have 85-90 plays every game,” Mumme said. “That means even if we throw it 50 times, that leaves 35-40 carries for our backs.”
Does Mumme really expect to run the ball 35-40 times?
“We hope so,” he smiled.
The Wolf Pack offensive line will be led by returners Austin Corbett (senior right tackle) and Sean Krepsz (junior center). Veteran Wolf Pack offensive lineman Ziad Damanhoury is also back.
Corbett said he kind of felt like a freshman again last spring and this summer, learning a new offense and getting to know new coaches and new teammates.
Norvell, who has written books on the subject of playing wide receiver, made sure to put his stamp on the Pack offense right away. “We have to execute on offense,” he said. “We want to play fast and spread the ball around.”
The Pack’s new no-huddle offense is based on tiring out opposing defenses.
The Wolf Pack defense has also undergone drastic changes. Jeff Casteel, the former defensive coordinator at West Virginia and Arizona, takes over at Nevada and will use a three-man front that’s based on speed and aggression.
The Wolf Pack returns the bulk of last year’s defense.
The defensive line returns sophomore Hausia Sekona (6-foot, 290 pounds), juniors Malik Reed (6-1, 250), Kalei Meyer (6-0, 290), Jordan Silva (6-4, 260) and Korey Rush (6-0, 265) and senior Patrick Choudja (6-4, 250).
Gabe Sewell (5-11, 235-pound sophomore) and Travis Wilson (6-1, 220-pound junior) are the most experienced returning linebackers. The defensive backfield returns juniors Dameon Baber (5-10, 205) , Asauni Rufus (5-11, 190), Elijah Moody (5-11, 175) and Ahki Muhammad (5-9, 175), sophomore E.J. Muhammad (5-11, 190) and seniors Kendall Johnson (6-0, 190) and Jaden Sawyer (6-0, 200). Junior college transfers Vosean Crumbie (6-1, 195) and Brandon Brooks (6-1, 180) are also expected to contribute right away. Experienced senior Ryan Mack, a transfer from Kansas State, will also add depth to the secondary and special teams.