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Nevada Football: Top takeaways from Ken Wilson’s introductory press conference

Syndication: Reno Gazette Journal Andy Barron/RGJ / USA TODAY NETWORK

“Silver and Blue dreams: They do come true.”

Those eight words were uttered by new Nevada head coach Ken Wilson at his introductory press conference Friday. Wilson’s hiring was made official earlier Friday morning, officially replacing Jay Norvell, who darted to in-conference foe Colorado State on a five-year, $9 million deal.

Wilson is Nevada’s third straight head coaching hire without any previous head coaching experience. The former Oregon’s co-defensive coordinator also worked at Nevada from 1989-2012 as a defensive assistant (1989-1998, 2004-12) and as an athletic administrative assistant (1999-2003) — mostly alongside legendary Nevada head coach Chris Ault.

“We all bleed a little bit blue. I think of us just bleed it a little bit more. And we’re going to get everybody to believe that much blue. Now my family and myself, we bleed true blue,” Wilson said. “This is our dream community. This is our dream university. This is our dream area. Just so happy to be home.”

He spent six seasons (2013-18) as a linebackers coach at Washington State while spending his last three seasons at Oregon, earning the co-defensive coordinator title in 2021. Wilson noted that Ault, who’s played a considerable role as an advisor to athletic director Doug Knuth in Nevada’s last two head coaching hires (Norvell, Wilson), hired him as a 22-year-old in 1989 with a $9,000 annual salary. Wilson said it was the “greatest decision” he’s ever made in his life.

Now Wilson, 57, will be tasked with leading the Wolf Pack, who will be coming off four straight bowl appearances. Here are my top three takeaways from Wilson’s emotional press conference on Tuesday:

1. It’s not unlikely the offense moves away from the Air Raid:

Perhaps the most intriguing unknown with Wilson’s hire was what the offensive philosophy would look like.

The Wolf Pack operated in the Air Raid over the last five seasons under Jay Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme, son of Air Raid pioneer Hal Mumme. Behind signal caller Carson Strong and a bevy of dynamic skill position threats — most notably Romeo Doubs and Cole Turner — they ranked No. 4 in the nation in passing in 2021 and No. 12 in 2020.

All three — known as the “Three Amigos” — are likely going to be declaring for the 2022 NFL Draft, held in April. Norvell’s departure adds to the surrounding questions about what the offense will look like next season.

“We’re going to be an attacking offense,” Wilson said when asked what his offensive philosophy will look like. “We will be a multi-personnel, multi-formation, multi-play offense. We’re going to be able to run the ball, pass the ball and we’re going to be aggressive at all times. We’re going to be able to challenge you with our looks and our personnel (groupings) and I think when we announce the staff, people will be excited what we can do what that staff has.”

Wilson coached with Ault, the inventor the Pistol offense, for the better part of two decades, albeit as a defensive assistant. But he still got to witness some of the program’s most productive offenses with Ault, Jeff Horton and Jeff Tisdel, as well as Mike Leach’s air raid attack at Washington State and Mario Cristobal’s offense at Oregon.

“First of all, we’re going to be able to run the ball and help the defense. Obviously, I’m a defensive coach,” Wilson added. “But we’re going to be able to throw it. When I started at Nevada, we were the Air Wolf, we were the Pistol, we were the Union. We were able to do a lot of different things to win football games. We want to take our personnel and we’re going to build it and we’re going to win football games.”

Norvell talked ad-nauseum about being more balanced than traditional air-raid attacks, but the Wolf Pack’s lack of a consistent run game (plus bad pass protection) led to the nation’s second worst rushing attack (73.8 ypg) with the third-fewest yards per carry (2.9 ypc) in 2021.

The Union will have to improve if it wants the ground game to be successful. But certain questions will linger throughout the offseason up until fall: Do we see the resurrection of the Pistol? Or will it get mixed in? Will Nevada operate more under center?

It’ll be easier to determine once the coaching staff and roster is fully put together, but for now, we’ll see...

2. First order of the recruiting business: Keep the roster together

College football is in the midst of the early signing period for 2022 recruits with national signing day on Dec. 15, so nailing this hire as quickly as possible was crucial.

But like it typically goes with a new coach getting hired, players from the previous roster enter the transfer portal and explore their options.

That continuing trend didn’t stop with Nevada. Since Norvell’s shocking departure on Monday, over a dozen players have entered the transfer portal. The list includes offensive linemen Jacob Gardner and Gray Davis; Elijah Cooks, Nevada’s most productive receiver in 2019 whose last two seasons have been cut short due to injuries, entered with one more year of eligibility; Three of Nevada’s top six pass catchers — Tory Horton, Justin Lockhart and Melquan Stovall — all entered the portal; Linebackers Daiyan Henley, one of the conference’s most productive linebackers, and Lamin Touray did, too.

That doesn’t even include freshman quarterback Clay Millen, Strong’s potential heir apparent and Nevada’s fifth-highest rated recruit ever, per’s recruiting tracker.

Wilson’s seeking to retain its 2022 core, which is already depleted with the graduation of 30-plus seniors.

“The first people you always have to recruit are the players in your program,” Wilson said. “So we have to do a great job of building the trust with the players in this program. We have to give them a vision and show them that we can develop them, as a staff, to the best of their abilities. That’s our first job.”

Since Wilson’s a defensive-minded coach — atypical from the Wolf Pack’s previous head coaches — the fact that a majority of the players entering the portal are on offense makes sense. That doesn’t mean none of them will return, however, but it’s going to be an uphill claim to retain most of the players given the complete staff overhaul (on offense) and a potential systematic shift (as noted above). If he can, mark that down as a win heading into 2022. But it’s not going to be easy.

3. Wilson is content with Nevada’s resources

It’s no secret that a reason Norvell left was due to Nevada’s resources — or lack thereof — compared to Colorado State’s. The Rams have a recently-built $220 million stadium (which can hold up to 41,000 people), an indoor practice facility and a $26 million football budget.

While it has undergone renovations, Mackay Stadium (holds up to 27,000) isn’t a state-of-the-art stadium; Nevada doesn’t have an indoor practice facility, despite battling constant smoke during fire season and suboptimal conditions in the winter; the football program also operates on a budget below $11 million, the third-lowest mark in the Mountain West.

Wilson, who’s more than familiar with its resources after spending over two decades in Northern Nevada, doesn’t see it as an issue.

“I don’t make excuses. Our program doesn’t make excuses,” he said. “We have great resources here. We’ve been given great resources here. We’ve been given the things we need to be a championship program.

“Winners find a way and we will find a way to every day to win in this program, put a great product, great student athletes and take care of our football team.”

Watch Wilson’s full press conference here.