"The Union" is key to the Nervada offense
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO – Chris Ault wanted to give his offensive line an identity.
“It was 1983, our first championship year,” said the Nevada Wolf Pack head coach, referring to the school’s first Big Sky Conference title team. “I wanted to find a way to give the offensive line some credit. You know, the quarterbacks, receivers, those guys get all the credit. The offensive line gets nothing. I just wanted to find a way to motivate those guys. So I came up with a name for them, something they could call their own.”
The Union was born.
“At first it was just some little name that nobody really paid much attention to,” Ault said. “But it didn’t take long for it to become a serious deal. It was great. Those guys really took it to heart. It gave them something to rally around.”
It was all about motivation.
“I just thought, ‘Boy, if we could get these guys motivated, we’ll be something,'” Ault said. “It’s tough to motivate a group like that. They don’t get many rewards. But, now, with the Union, that group is the easiest to motivate on the entire team. I never worry about those guys. They motivate themselves.”
The first Union started with charter members such as All-Americans Jim Werbeckes and Derek Kennard, who went on to play 11 seasons in the NFL, and All-Conference player Greg Rea. Kennard and Rea are on the Pack’s All-Century Team.
The current Union is led by starters John Bender, Steve Haley (now injured), Jeff Meads, Chris Barker, Jose Acuna and Jeff Nady. That group is the biggest reason why the Wolf Pack is enjoying its first 3-0 start since 1991 and why this team led the nation in rushing last year and is fifth this year.
“Everything we do is because of those guys,” Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick said recently. “Those guys work so hard. They are so dedicated. They’re working hard in the off-season, in practice and during the games. They make this offense work.”
The Union, though, just might be the toughest fraternity to get into on campus.
“It’s not automatic that you get in,” said Pack offensive line coach Cameron Norcross, himself a former member of the Union (1997-99). “You don’t just step on campus and immediately become a member. You have to earn it. And it takes a while for those guys to bring you into their circle. You have to be worthy.”
The new Pack offensive linemen, though, are given every chance to succeed and every opportunity to get their Union card.
“When I came here I felt like I belonged because all of the older guys were great to me,” said Barker, who red-shirted his first year (2008) and became a full-time starter in 2009. “The veteran guys took me in and made me feel a part of it.”
But you still have to pay your Union dues.
“It’s about working hard and dedicating yourself to this team,” Norcross said. “It’s about buying into what we’re doing. But it’s also about working hard when nobody is watching you.”
Norcross always notices when a Pack player earns his Union membership.
“They just get a swagger,” he said. “You can see it, just by the way they carry themselves. It’s a confidence that comes with knowing you are part of something special.”
It’s also a lifetime membership.
“Shahriar Pourdanesh (Pack offensive linemen from 1989-92) came down for the game (against Cal last Friday) and he visited with us, came into the locker room before the game,” Ault said. “You know the first thing he said? He said, ‘Where’s the Union room? Where is it?’ That’s how special it is to those guys.”
Pourdanesh played five years in the NFL and was a member of the last Pack team to open the year 3-0.
“When our linemen met Shar Pourdanesh and got to talk to him, they wanted to go out and play well just for him because he’s a member of the Union,” Norcross said. “They didn’t want to let him down. That’s what it means to be a part of this.”
The current Union is a blend of experience and youth. Barker and Bender each started all 13 games last year. Haley started eight times last year and Acuna had one start. Meads (five games) and Nady (three games) only played in reserve roles. But, in the truest sense of the Union, the new guys have stepped into a void and are helping to carry the offense.
“When one man goes down, the next man picks up the flag and steps up,” said Ault, specifically referring to Nady stepping in for an injured Haley Saturday at Brigham Young.
“That’s how we do it.”
They also do it with speed, strength and smarts.
“You have to be able to run and you have to be in shape,” Ault said. “You won’t find any guys around here with big bellies sticking out.”
Bender is the big boy of the bunch at 6-foot-8, 325 pounds. But Barker is also 6-4, 305, Nady is 6-7, 285 and Meads is 6-3, 290.
“We have pretty good size but we’re not the biggest line around,” Norcross said. “We do it with speed and strength and intelligence. And they all compete. You don’t play for this group if you’re not willing to compete on every single play. We always have five guys out there who will compete regardless of the situation.”
Barker was even more specific.
“We want to be the most physical team in the nation,” Barker said. “We’re just a physical and mean bunch of guys.”
Ault’s Pistol offense requires its offensive linemen to block more than one player on most plays.
“We have a lot of combination blocks,” Ault said. “You block the guy in front of you and then go find a linebacker. That’s why you have to be able to run.”
And you have to be in shape. The Pistol has run 225 plays for 1,681 yards this year in just three games. The Union also has allowed just one sack in 86 passing attempts this year.
“You have to be able to get to those linebackers,” Barker said. “That’s how you get the big plays.”
Vai Taua, who will leave Nevada as one of the top running backs in school history after this season, never hesitates to praise the linemen in front of him.
“I’ve said it before,” Taua said after last week’s 52-31 victory over Cal. “It’s all about our offensive line. Those guys are pushing people out of the way. I’m going five yards before anybody touches me.”
“A big part of this is that we have great guys behind us,” said Norcross, returning the favor to Kaepernick, Taua and friends. “They make us look better than we really are.”
The Union, though, knows how important they are to the overall success of this Pack team.
“If we perform well, the whole team will perform well,” Barker said. “That’s how we think. We try to lead the team. It’s like we always say, ‘We’re always the guys who are leading the train down the track.'”