Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack defense has a lot to prove to Ault
For the Nevada Appeal
What the Nevada Wolf Pack defense has here, I’m afraid, is a failure to communicate.
Head coach Chris Ault, probably starting with halftime of the Hawaii Bowl last Christmas Eve, spent the better part of the last eight months telling anyone who would listen that there are serious problems with his Wolf Pack defense.
Everybody listened, it seems, except the Wolf Pack defense.
Maybe Ault should have tweeted it, texted it or created a snappy video and put it on YouTube. Maybe he should have sewn his words on the skirts of the Pack cheerleaders or paid ESPN to scroll it at the bottom of our television screens during World Series of Poker reruns. Maybe then the Pack defense would have gotten the message. Mere verbal communication obviously does not work these days.
How else can you explain the utter lack of intensity, desire and passion the Pack defense exhibited Thursday night during a 49-24 victory (thank you, Pack offense) over Eastern Washington? How else can you explain why Ault stood at the podium during the media gathering after the game with a “tell-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one-before” look as he described how disappointed he was with his defense?
Let’s not forget that this defense was 96th in the nation (out of just 120 teams) a year ago in total defense, allowing 409 yards a game. Let’s not forget that this defense was 119th in the nation in allowing 298 yards through the air each game. Let’s not forget that the Pack was 86th in the nation in allowing 28.5 points a game.
Who could forget those grisly numbers? Well, the 11 young men dressed in silver and blue out on Mackay Stadium’s spiffy new FieldTurf last Thursday night, that’s who.
“I’m disappointed in our defense,” Ault said. “I really am. Our effort was very average, our tackling was just really poor.”
Effort and tackling. Those are probably the same two areas he preached about to his Bishop Manogue Miners in the summer of 1969 at the ripe old age of 22.
“Those are fundamental things,” Ault said.
Those are two elemental Pop Warner football things that a 63-year-old coach, now with 207 victories at the college level, shouldn’t have to talk about to his Division I-A, Football Championship Series team, especially on opening night.
“I agree with him,” senior defensive end Ryan Coulson said. “We didn’t play to our ability. We were just a little lackluster.”
After eight months of everyone telling them how bad they are, how they are the reason why the Pack keeps turning in good-but-certainly-not-Boise-like six- to eight-win seasons, this Pack defense should have come out Thursday night and separated half a dozen Eastern Washington players from their Justin Bieber haircuts.
But that didn’t happen. They played the good host and made it comfortable enough to allow the red-clad Eagles to pile up 24 points and 432 total yards of offense. The Eagles gained 6.4 yards per play, the exact same number the Pack defense allowed a year ago.
The lines of communication have apparently broken down in Camp Ault. Are the players tuning out their Hall of Fame coach? Or do they simply ignore any message that doesn’t appear on their cell phone? Maybe Ault should offer last year’s defensive statistics as another app for their iPhone. Hey, it’s worth a try.
“It’s a combination of things,” Ault said. “It’s a matter of our defensive coaches …”
Let’s stop Ault right there.
Wasn’t this supposed to be the start of a new, old era at Nevada on defense? Didn’t former Pack linebacker Andy Buh join the coaching staff as the defensive coordinator last winter? Didn’t former Pack secondary coach Mike Bradeson return to Northern Nevada to coach the Pack defensive backs? Weren’t these guys going to instill that no excuses, take no prisoners style of Nevada football that we grew to love in the 1980s and ’90s?
You mean to tell us that Buh and Bradeson couldn’t even motivate their defense after spring football, after a month of summer practices to at least come out on opening night and play like their pants were on fire?
That’s exactly what Ault told us Thursday night.
The more things continue to change on this Pack defense every off-season (in addition to victories, it seems like Ault has had 207 defensive coordinators in his 26 seasons as head coach), the more they stay the same when the bell rings in the fall.
Ault agreed that there might be a leadership problem on this defense. There is only so much, after all, that coaches like Buh and Bradeson can do to motivate a bunch of 18-22 year-olds. This is an age group, don’t forget, that has been taught to believe that anyone who hasn’t posted a dozen pictures of themselves on Facebook shown shirtless, on a beach with a honey on each arm, clearly lacks the minimum requirement of self confidence to motivate a Golden Retriever to fetch a stick.
Sometimes motivation has to come from your peers.
“That’s something we have to look at,” Ault said. “We do have a lot of young people on this defense who haven’t played on this level before. Leadership has to come from the kids who have played for you in the past. Now, there were some guys on the sideline who were saying things, trying to get everyone going. But you can talk all you want. You have to do it on the field.”
Ault, the guess here, is through talking.
The Division I-AA, Football Bowl Subdivision section of the Wolf Pack schedule is over. The “championship” part of the Football Championship Subdivision title the Pack has under its name is now in session.
The talking part of coaching and motivation is also over. That didn’t work. It is now time for action. Expect starters to lose jobs, expect highly-touted recruits to turn into what-happened-to-that-guy? busts if things don’t change in a hurry on his Pack defense.
“We’ll be OK,” said Coulson, who also admitted the Pack simply lined up incorrectly on more than one occasion Thursday night. “That was a little first-game jitters sort of thing. That was the first time a lot of us got some experience out there. We’ll continue to work hard and get better.”
You know what? Believe him. Let’s not be so quick to shovel dirt on this Pack defense. The two areas (effort and tackling) that gave Ault nightmares are areas that can quickly be corrected. Those wet-behind-the-ears Bishop Manogue Miners got the message pretty quickly, winning a state title in Ault’s second year across the railroad tracks from Nevada in 1970.
This Pack defense will get it. You don’t get to a Division I-A football program without effort and passion and without the ability to execute a tackle you first learned as a 65-pounder at 9-years-old.
Expect this defense to come out Saturday night at Mackay Stadium against Colorado State with their pants, hair, ears and jockstraps on fire. When you question a player’s effort, as Ault did, you question his character, what’s in his heart, his very essence of being a football player.
That’s how you motivate a football player. Ault knows that as well as anyone. Consider the lines of communication on the Pack defense now officially open.