A few days after Nevada's regular-season finale loss to UNLV, Wolf Pack coach Jay Norvell cleaned house on defense, firing three of his four defensive assistant coaches.
Among those removed from their jobs were defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and secondary coach David Lockwood, the two most veteran members of the staff outside of Norvell.
Replacing them in the reboot of Nevada's defense are Brian Ward, formerly the defensive coordinator at Syracuse, as well as Freddie Banks to coach the cornerbacks and Ronnie Wheat to coach the safeties. During his appearance on NSN Daily on Wednesday, Norvell explained how the Wolf Pack's defense will be different under the new regime, which returns only defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.
"Coached in a lot of big games, plays a style of defense that I want," Norvell said of hiring Ward, who was fired by the Orange in November. "We're going to be a little more multiple, play a little more four down, but we're going to be more aggressive in our coverage schemes. I want to play man coverage. I think that's the hardest thing to do. The best coaches I've ever coached against are Bill Belichick and Nick Saban and those guys play incredibly tough man-to-man coverage and we want to do more of that. That's what Brian does. Freddie Banks is our corners coach. That's what he teaches."
Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme was built on designed blitzes with primarily zone coverage behind that. At Syracuse, Ward ran a Tampa 2 defense, which can be used with man coverage or zone coverage in the secondary. Clearly, Norvell wants to play more man-to-man defense, a noticeable change from his first three seasons at Nevada in which the Wolf Pack ranked 121st, 78th and 100th (out of 130 FBS teams) in pass efficiency defense.
"Going through this process, I interviewed a lot of people," Norvell said. "We want to play a certain way. I just believe it's difficult to play against people who are unique and we're going to put a unique style of defense and offense on the field that people don't see every week, and we're going to make it tough to prepare for us. After being here three years at Nevada, I could really put this staff together the way that I want with the vision I wanted. We're excited about this season and the future. I think we can really make another jump with this roster."
One of the reasons Norvell made the changes at defense was to increase his staff's recruiting aggressiveness and willingness to put younger players on the field. Norvell raved about Wheat, who was a defensive analyst for LSU prior to his move to Reno.
"He's a brilliant young coach from LSU," Norvell said. "He was their lead analyst and had about 20 guys working underneath him. He was (defensive coordinator Dave) Aranda's right-hand man and coached linebackers and worked with the secondary. Great recruiter. Intelligently knowledge coach."
Norvell said last month he thinks Nevada has more young talent on defense than offense. He was frustrated some of those younger players didn't get a chance to play very many snaps last season, although many of them will be pressed into action with the offseason departures of veterans like Gabriel Sewell, Lucas Weber and Daniel Brown, among others.
"We need great coaches who have been in big games, who can coach in big games who can put the right scheme on the field, but we also need coaches who can recruit and develop these kids," Norvell said. "You have to love them up and develop them. It's two-fold."
The Wolf Pack, which went 7-6 last season and played in its second bowl game in as many seasons, is going through its "Eight Weeks of Grit" winter conditioning program. The team is expected to begin spring camp, which includes a maximum of 15 practices, in late March.
"This time of year we really challenge our players' commitment," Norvell said. "Our leadership council is in full force. It's funny because a lot of those guys were babies and now they're leaders. Dom Peterson and Chris Green, who is going to be a senior, and Elijah Cooks and obviously Carson (Strong). Those guys are our leaders now. We've spent a lot of time talking about leadership. We've cleared out half of our locker room, and we're challenging our guys to be committed. We've numbered our lockers and the guy in locker No. 1 in our program will be the most committed and most compelled player in our locker room.
"We're going through the Eight Weeks of Grit to really show who the most committed, who the toughest-minded guy is, who the most committed is. It's like Kobe Bryant said: It's a sacrifice if you want to be great. If you want to be different, it's a sacrifice. We don't want to be like anybody else. We don't want to run the same offense as everybody else. We don't want to run the same defense. We don't want to practice the same. We want to be different. To be different, you've got to sacrifice. We're challenging our players and coaches to do that. It's just a special time of year. There's no fan fare right now. Guys are getting up at 5 in the morning and running and lifting and this where we find out if they really want to pay the price."
You can watch Norvell's full interview below.