Pack coaching change produces inspiration
December 22, 2016
Sports fodder for a Friday morning . . .
Jay Norvell has yet to step on the field as head coach of the Nevada Wolf Pack football team, let alone call a play, yell at an official or give a pep talk in the locker room. But the 53-year-old rookie head coach has already given us one of the most intriguing, fascinating and refreshing two weeks in the program's recent history. Norvell is assembling what appears to be the most eclectic, innovative, eye-popping and fascinating group of assistant coaches ever seen at Nevada. Among those joining Norvell's captivating staff this past week is a former Pac-12 defensive coordinator, the son of one of the most innovative and influential offensive coaches the sport has ever known, one of the most productive quarterbacks in the history of college football and a former UNLV Rebel who once was the head coach at Bishop Gorman High and a stand-up comedian. When introduced as the Wolf Pack head coach two weeks ago, Norvell said he was excited to think about the staff he could put together. He wasn't kidding.
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Jeff Casteel takes over the Wolf Pack defense after more than a dozen years as Rich Rodriguez's defensive coordinator at both West Virginia and Arizona. Casteel was fired by Rodriguez after the 2015 season and didn't coach last year but his 3-3-5 defense was one of the most innovative in the sport and was highly successful until injuries depleted the Arizona defense in 2015. Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault shredded Casteel's Arizona defense in the 2012 New Mexico Bowl to the tune of 659 yards, 48 points and 39 first downs in Ault's final game as head coach. But they also held the Pack to just three points in the fourth quarter with the game on the line, making the Wildcats' wild 49-48 comeback from 17 points down even possible. Casteel's presence and experience alone gives the Wolf Pack one of the most interesting defenses in the offensive-minded Mountain West.
It has taken Norvell just two weeks but he has already transformed Wolf Pack football. This is not going to be the Wolf Pack any of us has ever experienced.
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The air above Mackay Stadium with Norvell in charge is going to be filled with flying footballs. Remember the Air Wolf days at Nevada with coach Jeff Horton and quarterback Chris Vargas in 1993? Well, Norvell's pass-happy offense might make that look like the Green Bay Packers sweep. Matt Mumme, whose father Hal is one of the legendary offensive minds in college football history, is the Pack's new offensive coordinator. The younger Mumme played for his father Hal at Kentucky and coached with him at Southeastern Louisiana, New Mexico State and McMurry University. It was Hal Mumme who popularized the pass-filled Air Raid no-huddle offense in the 1990s. Washington State head coach Mike Leach, whose Texas Tech offenses dominated college football from 2000-09, was one of Hal Mumme's disciples at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State in the 1990s. Matt comes to Nevada from Division III LaGrange College in Georgia where he was 12-20 as head coach. His LaGrange teams didn't win a lot of games but they threw the ball nearly twice as many times as they ran it over the last three years. Yes, Wolf Pack football games will now last four-plus hours.
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Mumme said this week on Twitter that he wants to incorporate Ault's pistol offense into his Air Raid offense. But that likely only means that the running back will be lined up behind the quarterback instead of in front of him. The Pack, as Norvell said, is going to run a spread offense that throws the ball coming out of the locker room. A look at Leach's Washington State offense will likely be a good indicator of what to expect from Mumme at Nevada. One of Leach's assistants at Washington State is former Pack running backs coach Jim Mastro, who helped Ault develop the pistol. When you combine the Air Raid with the pistol, or any other offense for that matter, the Air Raid still dominates. Washington State threw the ball over 600 times this year and ran it just 339 times. Mumme's LaGrange offense threw it 473 times this year and ran it 240 in just 10 games. The Pack record for passes in a season is 516 in 1993. That record will likely fall in Week 10.
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Mason Miller, another Hal Mumme protege, has been hired to coach the Wolf Pack offensive line. The hiring of Miller might be the key to everything the Pack does on offense. Miller played running back for Hal Mumme at Valdosta State and coached with him at New Mexico State, Southeastern Louisiana and McMurry University. Bringing Miller to Nevada will guarantee that the Pack offensive linemen know how to block in the unique Air Raid offense, which splits its offensive linemen as much as a yard apart. One of the reasons Brian Polian failed as a head coach at Nevada is because his offenses never seemed focused, always struggling to combine Ault's pistol offense, former offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich's spread offense roots and Polian's run-first mindset. There will be no lack of focus with this new Pack offense.
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The Pack offense will also get a bit of the June Jones pass-crazy Hawaii flavor. Former Hawaii quarterback Timmy Chang has been hired to coach the Wolf Pack's inside wide receivers (the Air Raid employs two inside and two outside receivers). Chang, one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history at Hawaii from 2000-04, played for Jones and later began his coaching career under him at SMU. Pack fans know all about Chang, who played five games against the Wolf Pack (winning three) in his career, throwing for 1,558 yards and 10 touchdowns. Chang, who was the offensive coordinator at Division III Emory and Henry College this past year, got an extra year of eligibility at Hawaii because he played in just three games in 2001 (one against the Pack) because of an injury. The quarterback that replaced him in 2001 at Hawaii was Rolovich.
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One of the most interesting hires Norvell made this week is running backs coach David White. White is a former UNLV tight end who obviously knows all about the Battle for the Fremont Cannon. He played at UNLV for Horton in 1994-95 and later became head coach at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas (going 30-12). So he obviously knows how to recruit southern Nevada. He was also an assistant coach at Oklahoma (while Norvell was there) and coached NFL (Tennessee Titans) running back DeMarco Murray at both Gorman and Oklahoma. White also is a former stand-up comedian during his Vegas days. A sense of humor will come in handy for White as he tries to keep his lightly-used running backs happy in the pass-first Air Raid offense.
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It has taken Norvell just two weeks but he has already transformed Wolf Pack football. This is not going to be the Wolf Pack any of us has ever experienced. This is Norvell's program now from top to bottom and he's not afraid to do what he believes in. He has taken his three decades worth of college coaching experience and has obviously devised a very distinct and well thought out plan. And he has hired coaches, it seems, perfectly suited for that plan. Nobody knows how many games Norvell and his staff will win at Nevada. But if the last two weeks are any indication, the one thing we do know is that it will never be boring or predictable.