The top five questions surrounding the Nevada Wolf Pack football team as it prepares to open the 2013 season Saturday night at UCLA . . .
1. Can Brian Polian coach?
Brian Polian can recruit. He did it at big-time programs and he did it at Nevada this past January. Brian Polian is a salesman. Brian Polian can energize a stagnant college football community. We've already seen it happen. Brian Polian is confident, determined, knows all the coaching cliches and is even creative enough to invent some of his own. But can he coach? Can he win football games? He's spent his entire career telling players what they want to hear. Can he now get tough with them? Can he get tough with his assistant coaches, many of which are his friends? We'll start to find out on Saturday.
What we think: Coaching is the last thing a head coach needs to do in college football these days. That's why they have assistants and coordinators. Head coaches now are merely the face of the football program. They are salesmen, motivators and watchdogs. It is their job to make sure the community, the administration and the players believe in their message. Polian has definitely done that so far. Chris Ault's last two seasons were disappointments because Ault somehow lost the ability to motivate his team in the important games and the community overall. The players stopped listening to him and the fans stopped buying into his sales pitch. That's not going to happen to Polian for at least another 27 years.
2. Can the Wolf Pack build a competitive defense?
The Pack defense was awful last year. They seemingly couldn't stop anyone with the game on the line. In the important games their pass rush disappeared, the secondary fell to the ground in the fetal position and nobody but Albert Rosette was tackling anybody. If that happens again this year, Polian's first season as head coach will be a disaster and we'll be looking at a 5-7 season at best.
What we think: The defense has to be better this year. It simply cannot get any worse. New defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton has seemingly simplified things. All he seems to require of his defense is that they all run to the ball and tackle the guy carrying it. If that happens, well, things will improve. A year ago, the Pack defense seemed confused, out of position and tentative all season long. There will be no excuses for that to happen this year and if it does, well, the depth chart will change every week. But don't expect miracles overnight. This defense, especially the back seven, is very young and they will likely experience a lot of growing pains. A lot of them are still learning the sport, let alone their position.
3. Can the Wolf Pack replace Stefphon Jefferson?
Jefferson carried the ball an eye-opening 375 times last year and gained 1,883 yards and scored 24 touchdowns he also caught 22 passes for another 170 yards and another touchdown. That's 397 touches for 2,053 yards and 25 touchdowns. Good luck replacing all that production. Jefferson, for some reason known only to him, left the Pack after his junior year to pursue his NFL dream. So the Pack is left with Don Jackson and Kendall Brock in the backfield. The two have combined for 105 rushing yards (all by Brock) in their Division I careers. Jefferson had more than that (147) after one game last year.
What we think: The Pack isn't even going to try to replace Jefferson. Oh, they will still run the ball. So they say. But no back is going to get anywhere close to 375 carries and 1,883 yards, let alone 25 touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich loves to throw the ball. He will use the run only as a rest period for Cody Fajardo's right arm and to give the receivers a breather. Jackson and Brock don't have to be Jefferson or Vai Taua or Frank Hawkins or even Brandon Fragger or Jason Frierson. All they have to do is hold onto the football (something Jefferson struggled with) and be enough of a threat so that opposing defenses respect them. They should be good enough to do that.
4. Is the Wolf Pack in a rebuilding mode or is the program ready to win big now?
Depending on who you talk to, Chris Ault either left the cupboard well stocked with supplies or he left nothing but crumbs. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. The offense is definitely well stocked. Ault's last Wolf Pack quarterback, Cody Fajardo, is a great place to start. You could team Fajardo up with 10 guys you find at Meadowood Mall and you could score points. But Fajardo is also joined by veteran receivers Brandon Wimberly, Aaron Bradley and Richy Turner as well as offensive tackle Joel Bitonio. The defense is another story. That cupboard door is falling off its hinges. They aren't exactly crumbs, but they are clearly a bunch of ingredients that have yet to be blended together.
What we think: The Pack isn't in a complete rebuilding mode but they are rebuilding more than they will admit. Polian still has to try to win with Ault's roster for the most part. And, don't forget, Ault himself didn't win all that much with his own players the last two years. Make no mistake, this is not Polian's team yet. If you can believe the depth chart, none of the starters on offense or defense were brought to the program by Polian, including new running back Don Jackson who committed to Nevada when Ault was still head coach. So give Polian time to build his model of what he believes a college football roster should look like.
5. How long will the Polian honeymoon last?
Chris Ault turned in his best season, and the best season in the history of the Nevada Wolf Pack program, when he went 13-1 and finished No. 11 in the nation in 2010. That honeymoon lasted until about halftime of the first game in 2011. Historically, Wolf Pack honeymoons have fallen into the weekend at Lake Tahoe variety and not the cruise across the Atlantic category. Pack fans normally don't have much patience for honeymoons.
What we think: Northern Nevada was ready for this coaching change. Few Pack fans were happy when Ault came back for a third time in 2004 and even fewer were sorry to see him go after last season. Oh, sure, Pack fans got excited in 2010 but that excitement really only lasted from Anthony Martinez's field goal in overtime on Nov. 26, 2010 through the bowl game on Jan. 9, 2011. Polian's honeymoon will last a bit longer, at least until he starts to lose Mountain West games in bunches. Until then, he'll be fine. He has been welcomed with open arms like no other new Pack coach since Ault in 1976. He's new, fresh, young and full of changes. You know, all the things Ault wasn't anymore. The Polian Party will definitely last a while, at least until the Fremont cannon is painted red.