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What should modern Nevada Wolf Pack football look like?

And is Jay Norvell the guy to pull it off?

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

This preview was originally published March 31 and has since been updated.

As late as the late-1950s, Reno was the capital of the gambling world. Las Vegas was barely even a place when Nevada legalized gambling in the 1930s, and for a while Reno was just about the only place you could get a good divorce.

Las Vegas overtook its sibling to the north, but Reno has long realized you need to be known for something. You'd prefer for that something to be good, but giving people a reason to know your name is a pathway to success.

Reno’s football team seemed to understand this, too. In the 25 years since the Wolf Pack joined FBS, they have done a better job of making themselves synonymous with something than most of their mid-major brethren. And it came from someone with Reno in his blood.

Chris Ault was a Nevada grad and got his first head coaching gig at Reno Bishop Manogue High in the late-1960s. After three years as a UNLV assistant, he took the Nevada job at age 29 and reached six I-AA semifinals and a championship game before leading the Pack up to I-A. He won a Big West title and retired to life as an athletic director.

When his handpicked successor, Jeff Horton, left for UNLV after one year, Ault returned, went 18-5 with a couple more conference titles, and retired again. And when Nevada managed only one winning record between 1997 and 2003, Ault returned yet again.

In his third stint, Ault figured out Nevada's schtick: he altered the shotgun by bringing the quarterback closer to the center and allowing for the running back to get a downhill start.

It sounds simple, but the simplest tweaks are the most powerful. It's how the T became the wishbone and how the modern spread became as dangerous on the ground as it was through the air. Its impact has become universal at this point, even in the NFL, and Ault’s and Nevada’s names will always be synonymous with the pistol.

Nevada's also becoming known for cratering when Ault leaves. Neither Jeff Tisdel nor Chris Tormey could replicate Ault's success at the turn of the century, and when Ault retired after taking the Pack to eight consecutive bowls and averaging eight wins per year, Brian Polian struggled.

Technically, the win total wasn't that bad. Polian engineered two 7-6 seasons (which is all Ault was able to accomplish in his final two seasons), and the Pack fell to only 5-7 last year. Sure, you’d like more, but it’s not like he was going 1-11.

Still, the peripherals weren’t just bad; they were awful. From 36th in S&P+ in 2010, Nevada had already fallen to 50th then 78th in Ault’s last two years. And in Polian’s four seasons, they fell further, from 81st to 84th to 95th to, in 2016, 124th.

During a 3-7 start, Nevada barely beat Cal Poly and was lucky to face two of FBS’ worst teams (Buffalo and Fresno State) at home. They lost to other bad teams (Purdue, San Jose State) by a little and to better teams (Notre Dame, San Diego State) by a lot. The offense would establish a rhythm and then fall apart. The defense had the same downs without as many ups.

Nevada rallied, pulling off an unlikely win over Utah State and finishing with an out-of-nowhere brilliant performance against UNLV. But the day after the season ended, the school and coach agreed to a “mutual parting.”

I guess the surprising part is that Ault, still only 70 (five years older than Nick Saban!), didn’t come back for another encore. He is busy in Italy, leading Rhinos Milano to glory.

Nevada is rebranding. Or trying to, at least. The Pack have regressed offensively for four straight years, and they did an interesting job of bringing in a coach not only experienced with the spread but versed in a more power-based version of it.

Norvell has had full coaching careers of both successes and failures. The former Iowa defensive back and graduate assistant — here’s yet another branch of the Hayden Fry tree — was a Bill Callahan assistant with the Oakland Raiders and Nebraska Cornhuskers, and after failing to save Karl Dorrell’s tenure at UCLA (the Bruins ranked 83rd in Off. S&P+ in his lone year as coordinator), he landed on Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma staff. He was a pro-style influence of sorts for Kevin Wilson’s dominant OU offenses, then he shared co-coordinator duties with Josh Heupel.

Norvell landed at Texas in 2015 for Charlie Strong’s first attempt at rebranding his offense, and when that failed, he ended up as Todd Graham’s passing game coordinator and receivers coach.

In the last four seasons, Norvell has only once been tied to a good offense (OU ranked 17th in Off. S&P+ in 2014). But at age 54, his experience finally led to him landing a head gig. And I’ll be honest: though I was a little lukewarm on this hire, I love a lot of Norvell’s assistant hires.

Norvell takes over a job that simultaneously has a high and low bar. Nevada was one of the worst in FBS last year, so there’s almost nowhere to go but up. But the specter of Ault still looms.

2016 in review

2016 Nevada statistical profile.

Nevada was fifth-worst in FBS according to S&P+; that seems odd for a 5-7 team, but what did the Pack in was the downside.

For half the season, they were a normal, below-average MWC team. In terms of percentile performances, they were between 22 and 47 percent in five games, and they peaked at 74 percent against UNLV.

When they were bad, however, they were horrendous. They were in the first percentile against Hawaii, fourth against SDSU, sixth against Purdue, eighth against Notre Dame, 13th against Cal Poly, and 15th against Utah State.

S&P+ tries to glean from 12 games how you might do over a longer period of time. They were semi-efficient on offense but with no big-play threats. They prevented big plays on defense but were woefully inefficient. They had hints of pistol proficiency but couldn’t pass and couldn’t stop the opponent from either running or passing.

The defense was young, at least. That offers hope. But not only is the offense going to be rebranded, the passing game is going to be rebuilt.


Nevada offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Nevada was pretty good at not moving backward; the Pack ranked 26th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and first in power success rate, and with running back James Butler and a couple of reasonably mobile quarterbacks (Tyler Stewart and Ty Gangi), the Wolf Pack were able to carve out small chunks.

The problems came whenever that didn’t work. Stewart completed 63 percent of his passes, but they didn’t go anywhere. Gangi was less efficient, more error prone, and more explosive. And despite the school’s pistol reputation, the Pack didn’t run as much as they should have, aiming instead for balance that didn’t really pay off. And efficiency only means so much if you’re not also bringing big plays.

Nevada offensive efficiency & explosiveness

But that’s in the past. Gangi does return, and he has a decent chance of starting the season on the first string. But he’ll get a pretty stiff push from both junior Hunter Fralick (a former three-star recruit) and Alabama transfer David Cornwell (a former blue-chipper).

More importantly, he’s got a different offense to learn.

What’s the quickest way for a new head coach to endear himself to the football blogger crowd? Hire a Mumme! Hal’s son Matt will run Norvell’s offense after four years as Division III LaGrange’s head coach. Mumme’s got the air raid in his blood, and he’s been in charge of prolific lower-level offenses.

Mummes want to throw, but by far the most proven entity on the offense is Butler [update: bad news, as Butler’s transferred to Iowa]. The stocky senior averaged 5.1 yards per carry and caught 37 balls for 381 yards; he is a one-man efficiency offense, and one way or another, you figure he gets a lot of touches. Despite his 5’9 stature, he carries 210 pounds and carried about 25 intended touches (carries and targets) per game last year.

Who else will touch the ball? Hard to say. Leading receiver Wyatt Demps is back after an up-and-down season as Nevada’s No. 1 receiver, but he’s the only returnee among last year’s top five receivers.

There appears to be potential in the slot. Andrew Celis caught 23 passes for 318 yards, and while junior Ahki Muhammad caught only six of 15 passes (awful for a slot receiver), those six catches gained 98 yards. And in minimal opportunities, sophomore Victor Gonzalez and junior tight end Brandon Scott thrived. If they can maintain decent averages with a higher sample size, maybe the passing game can click.

A lot will depend on the line. All-conference left tackle Austin Corbett is back, and that’s a good place to start, but three linemen who had combined for 85 career starts are gone. Junior guards Sean Krepsz and Daren Echeveria have combined for 12 career starts, and that’s pretty much it. It was enough of an area of concern for Norvell to sign a couple of JUCOs.

NCAA Football: Nevada at UNLV
Andrew Celis and a convoy
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports


Nevada defensive radar

Nevada’s defense was good at one thing: avoiding 20-yard passes. I mean, that’s a plus, but offenses were almost literally allowed to do whatever else they wanted. And that led to a No. 124 overall Def. S&P+ ranking.

Norvell’s hire of Mumme is fun even if Mumme hasn’t really proven himself at the FBS level. Norvell’s new defensive coordinator, on the other hand, has.

Jeff Casteel has nearly 25 years of coordinator experience, 14 at the power-conference level. His West Virginia defenses, under Rich Rodriguez and Bill Stewart, were criminally underrated — ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2007, fifth in 2010 — though when he reunited with Rodriguez at Arizona, things didn’t go as well. The Wildcats did rank 38th in 2013 and 49th in 2014, but they cratered with youth and injuries in 2015, falling to 112th.

If his first Nevada defense were to rank 112th, it would represent improvement. The Pack had by far the least efficient defense in the MWC.

Nevada defensive efficiency & explosiveness

One thing is for certain: we know the 3-3-5 can work in the Mountain West. San Diego State’s Rocky Long has been proving that for years. Casteel’s 3-3 stack has always been unique, even if Casteel downplays that (“Football is football.”). Regardless, he’s got work to do.

First things first: force opponents to throw. Granted, the Pack weren’t good at defending the pass, but opponents didn’t even worry about trying — they ran 75 percent of the time on standard downs and 50 percent on passing downs, both the most in the country. Basically, Nevada’s inability to stop the run turned every opponent into Air Force or New Mexico.

That will happen when your front seven is loaded with freshmen (tackle Hausia Sekona, linebacker Gabriel Sewell) and sophomores (ends Malik Reed, Jordan Silva, and Jarid Joseph, tackles Korey Rush and Kalei Meyer). Nevada didn’t have enough natural talent (or size) to offset a lack of experience. Opponents were allowed to remain one-dimensional, and you’re never going to stop anybody if you can’t force them to Plan B.

Experience won’t be an issue this fall. The top nine tacklers on the line and three of the top four at linebacker return. Sewell did manage 5.5 tackles for loss, and Reed had five sacks, so there’s a little bit of disruptive talent here. But unless bigger players like Rush or senior reserve tackles Nakita Lealao or Jarius McDade break through, opponents might still be able to push the Pack around.

Assuming Casteel’s base defense is his 3-3 stack, that will require three safeties on the field a good percentage of the time. No worries! The trio of junors Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber and senior Jaden Sawyer could thrive. They combined for 10 tackles for loss and 14 passes defensed, and that was on a defense that never faced passes. Losing corner Elijah Mitchell hurts, but there are experienced options. Plus, Norvell signed two JUCO defensive backs, one of whom (Vosean Crumble) was a mid-three-star recruit.

This wasn’t a good pass defense last year, but if the Pack can put opponents in must-pass situations, they might to do some damage.

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Nevada
Jaden Sawyer
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Aside from Brent Zuzo’s kickoffs, Nevada didn’t really have a special teams strength. Alex Boy was a pretty solid punter (43.7-yard average), but when he kicked a returnable ball, the coverage unit would suffer breakdowns.

Not that that matters — both Zuzo and Boy are gone. So is return man Elijah Mitchell. Norvell’s first special teams unit features sophomore kicker Spencer Pettit (who was fine but wasn’t asked to do much) and an all-or-nothing punt returner in Andrew Celis. Other than that, it’s unknowns.

2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Northwestern 37 -22.0 10%
9-Sep Toledo 59 -13.7 21%
16-Sep Idaho State NR 29.0 95%
23-Sep at Washington State 40 -21.6 11%
30-Sep at Fresno State 115 -2.8 44%
7-Oct Hawaii 109 1.0 52%
14-Oct at Colorado State 43 -20.6 12%
21-Oct Air Force 116 2.3 55%
4-Nov at Boise State 29 -24.2 8%
11-Nov San Jose State 105 0.4 51%
18-Nov at San Diego State 52 -19.4 13%
25-Nov UNLV 118 2.7 56%
Projected S&P+ Rk 117
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 104 / 111
Projected wins 4.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -17.2 (124)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 107 / 97
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 4.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +0.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 71% (61%, 81%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 4.5 (0.5)

Any time a coach inherits a team that was this bad, I try to avoid setting any kind of bar. S&P+ projects Nevada 117th and says the Pack will win about four games, and that sounds about right.

I do like the hires Norvell has made, and if some green receivers find a rhythm (and in small sample sizes, they’ve suggested they can), this offense could improve quite a bit. And by virtue of a solid coordinator hire and the “they can’t get much worse” theorem, the defense could take a step or two forward. Nevada was a top-100 team as recently as 2015, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see them return.

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