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Every Nevada game might be a high-scoring thriller. That just feels right, doesn’t it?

Jay Norvell’s first Wolf Pack team made late strides on offense. The defense? Not so much.

Nevada v Boise State Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images

We only learn so much about a coach in his first season, but at the very least, we know this: Jay Norvell arrested the slide.

Nevada had pulled off the wrong kind of impressive feat when it brought Norvell to town a year ago: the Wolf Pack had managed to regress for six straight years. With Chris Ault on the sideline and Colin Kaepernick behind center, they peaked at 36th in S&P+ in 2010. They then fell to 50th, then 78th, then 81st, then 84th, then 95th, then 124th.

It’s hard to pull that off — you have to start pretty high so you can end that low, and most teams don’t change that much — but they did it. Kaepernick left, then Ault followed a couple of years later, and four years under Brian Polian produced few memorable moments.

When the program brought Norvell to town, I was conflicted, about both Norvell’s capabilities and the Wolf Pack.

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.

A year later, we don’t know much more about Norvell than we did before. But there might be reason for optimism. After a half-season of dreck, Norvell’s Wolf Pack made progress.

  • First 5 games (0-5): Avg. score: Opp 37, Pack 20 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.9, Pack 4.8 | Avg. percentile performance: 25% (30% offense, 28% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-7.8 points per game
  • Last 7 games (3-4): Avg. score: Pack 34, Opp 32 | Avg. yards per play: Pack 6.7, Opp 6.3 | Avg. percentile performance: 43% (60% offense, 33% defense) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-11.7 points per game

After losing to Idaho State and getting their doors blown off by Washington State and Fresno State in September, the Pack rallied, beating Hawaii, nearly upsetting Colorado State in Fort Collins, crushing SJSU, and knocking off rival UNLV to prevent the Rebels from bowl eligibility. That’s a satisfying way to go 3-9, even if it involved growth on only one side of the ball.

Nevada was a drastically better team at the end of November than the end of September. That’s what you want to see, though it would be more encouraging if Norvell had pulled off this improvement while overseeing a massive youth movement. Instead, the Pack bring a senior quarterback and a senior-heavy defense into action in 2018. That should mean further improvement this fall, but it could also mean a step backwards a year later.

For now, focus on a new streak: consecutive years of improvement.

Offense

2017 Nevada offensive radar

Norvell brought in a Mumme and Timmy Chang. How was I not supposed to love that? Chang threw for 17,000 yards as Hawaii quarterback in the early-2000s and came aboard as receivers coach after three seasons as coordinator at Jackson State and Emory & Henry. Coordinator Matt Mumme, meanwhile, is the scraggly-haired son of scraggly-haired air raid inventor Hal.

When star running back James Butler took a grad transfer to Iowa late in the summer, Nevada became what you would hope a Norvell-Mumme-Chang offense would become. The Wolf Pack spread defenses out (32nd in percentage of solo tackles forced), sped things up (29th in adjusted pace), and threw a lot (121st in standard downs run rate).

It took a while to become good at throwing, mind you, but there was progress.

Ty Gangi started the first two games of the year and struggled, which meant auditions for both freshman Kaymen Cureton and Alabama transfer David Cornwell. Neither thrived, and Cornwell left the team after throwing for just 97 yards and three picks against Wazzu. That means another chance for Gangi, and he mostly took advantage.

  • Assorted Nevada QBs, first 5 games: 53% completion rate, 10.5 yards per completion, 4.8% INT rate, 106.4 passer rating
  • Gangi, last 7 games: 64% completion rate, 12.5 yards per completion, 2.4% INT rate, 151.6 passer rating

Gangi had one last awful performance, throwing three picks against Boise State, but in the other six games of that late stretch, he had 18 TDs to three INTs.

Gangi loses only one of his top six targets, too. Granted, it was No. 1 guy Wyatt Demps, but but the averages for the top three receivers — Demps, slot man McLane Mannix, and Brendan O’Leary-Orange — were similar, and O’Leary-Orange’s improvement was pretty closely correlated to Gangi’s. The 6’4 junior-to-be from Toronto had just eight catches in the first six games and 31 in the final six, including 11 for 214 against San Diego State.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Colorado State
Brendan O’Leary-Orange
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This is an exciting receiving corps. Beyond Mannix and O’Leary-Orange, Gangi’s got two other decent possession options in Andrew Celis, Trevion Armstrong, and running back Kelton Moore, plus the fruits of recruiting.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Norvell has been successful at wooing receivers. Mannix was a three-star freshman last year, and Norvell brought in three more in this class. Plus, Armstrong was a mid-three-star holdover from the Polian era. He was cast a slot receiver last year, but at 6’3, 220, he’s stout enough to move naturally to Demps’ empty Z-receiver spot unless fellow sophomore Elijah Cooks beats him to it.

Nevada combined a solid number of big pass plays (19th in passing IsoPPP) with minimal sacks (13th in Adj. Sack Rate). That’s a rare combination. The former could continue with the return of O’Leary-Orange, Mannix, and company, but it might be fair to worry about the latter. All-conference left tackle (and four-year starter) Austin Corbett is gone, as are basically 1.5 other starters. Norvell brought in a couple of JUCOs (including 325-pound JUCO Jermaine Ledbetter), but a drop-off up front would be problematic.

The line was an outright strength. Nevada also ranked 25th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), as well, despite most of the carries going to sophomores. But perhaps an improving RB corps can offset regression up front. Not only do juniors Moore and Jaxson Kincaide return, but Norvell also brought in some ringers: Toa Taua was one of the stars of the 2018 recruiting class (one that, per the 247Sports Composite, ranked third in the conference), and Oklahoma product and human bowling ball Devonte Lee’s highlight film is a masterpiece.

This is an exciting collection of weapons, one that should produce a top-50 offense in 2018. Gangi, Celis, and center Sean Krepsz are the only seniors, too, so if a QB successor emerges — a pretty significant “if” — this won’t be Nevada’s last top-50 offense.

Defense

2017 Nevada defensive radar

I also loved Norvell’s hire of Jeff Casteel as defensive coordinator. Casteel might have lost his fastball compared to his peak at WVU in the late-2000s, but the idea of bringing a unique defense (Casteel’s 3-3-5) to pair with an explosive offense isn’t the worst I’ve heard of.

Of course, the 3-3-5 is less rare in the MWC than in other conferences thanks to the presence of Rocky Long’s consistently awesome defense at San Diego State (plus Bob Davie’s far less successful version at New Mexico). And while Casteel probably still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, they’re probably personnel-dependent. Despite decent experience, he didn’t have the personnel last year.

Nevada hasn’t had a decent defense since 2011, and it didn’t have one last fall. Casteel’s first defense was basically an extreme bend-don’t-break unit that bent far too much to succeed.

2017 Nevada defensive efficiency & explosiveness

Nevada was decent at both big-play prevention (66th in IsoPPP) and keeping opponents out of the end zone (66th in points per scoring opportunity allowed), but that only matters so much when you are an outright sieve (125th in success rate). The run defense wasn’t great, but the pass defense particularly woeful, allowing a 67 percent completion rate and a 158.3 passer rating.

It’s hard to guarantee improvement there, at least from anything other than an “it can’t get worse” perspective. There will likely be three seniors in the starting lineup — safeties Dameon Baber and Asauni Rufus and corner Ahki Muhammad — and both Rufus and sophomore Nephi Sewell are decent play-makers (combined: 10 tackles for loss, seven passes defensed, four forced fumbles).

But Muhammad is one of only three known CBs after some attrition. This was enough of a concern that a couple of reserve WRs (senior basketball part-timer Justin Brent and sophomore Berdale Robins) are evidently switching to defense. Never a great sign.

NCAA Football: San Diego State at Nevada
Asauni Rufus
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

There’s at least a little more reason for optimism up front. Granted, there’s be even more if linebackers Austin Paulhus and Travis Wilson (combined: 21 TFLs and 19 percent of Nevada’s 2017 havoc plays) weren’t gone. But end Malik Reed is one of the best pass rushers in the conference (eight of his 10 TFLs were sacks), and end Korey Rush is a nice run-stuffing complement. Plus, Norvell forced the issue by giving Casteel four JUCO linemen — including three-star tackles Kevin Scott and Tristan Nichols — to add to the rotation.

The linebacking corps is super young, but at least it’s stocked with star athletes — junior Gabriel Sewell, sophomores Lawson Hall, D.J. Powe, Mar’Quette Jackson, and Austin Arnold, and redshirt freshman Lamin Touray are all former three-star recruits, and incoming freshman Josiah Bradley was the gem of the 2018 class.

Nevada hasn’t ranked better than 91st in Def. S&P+ in any of the last six seasons and has ranked worse than 120th in each of the last two. Casteel’s got more to work with up front, but that pass defense is still a massive concern.

NCAA Football: Nevada at San Diego State
Malik Reed (90)
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Good news: pretty much everyone’s back from last year’s special teams unit.

Bad news: the unit wasn’t very good.

Slightly less bad news: the unit was dragged down by awful punting and punt returns, and honestly, there probably won’t be a ton of either one of those in 2018.

Place-kicker Spencer Pettit is reliable under 40 yards, kick coverage was excellent, and Nevada has a couple of potentially high-end kick returners in Daiyan Henley and Blake Wright. Those are probably the most important pieces for a team with a problematic D.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Portland State NR 34.3 98%
8-Sep at Vanderbilt 75 -9.2 30%
15-Sep Oregon State 110 4.5 60%
22-Sep at Toledo 49 -14.2 21%
29-Sep at Air Force 112 0.0 50%
6-Oct Fresno State 44 -10.1 28%
13-Oct Boise State 26 -15.2 19%
20-Oct at Hawaii 122 4.0 59%
27-Oct San Diego State 55 -7.8 33%
10-Nov Colorado State 95 0.8 52%
17-Nov at San Jose State 129 8.9 70%
24-Nov at UNLV 105 -1.8 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 101
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 68 / 117
Projected wins 5.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.5 (101)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 98 / 98
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / -0.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 73% (75%, 70%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.0 (-1.0)

This is going to be a points-heavy year in Reno, but Nevada’s got a pretty good arsenal.

Plus, the schedule might help. Granted, there are five opponents projected 75th or better in S&P+, and Nevada is projected just 101st, but the other seven games are extremely winnable, and the Pack are a projected favorite in six.

Maybe the Pack don’t eke out a bowl bid this year, but they could come close enough to sustain last year’s late gains. We’ll worry about the whole “losing your QB and much of your defense after 2018” thing after 2018.

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