On the eve of the first practice of the season for the 2019 Nevada football team, third-year coach Jay Norvell showed his team an old cartoon and a picture of a tree.
The cartoon was Walt Disney's The Tortoise and the Hare, released in 1935. The message was simple: slow and steady wins the race.
And before his players took the field a little after 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, he showed them a photo of a tree.
“A huge oak tree and the roots going way down in the ground," Norvell said. "The tree had no fruit on it and we’re just working on the roots right now and the foundation and we’ll see the fruit bearing five or six or seven months from now. That’s the way we want to handle it.”
Spring football is the second of four phases Nevada will go through before its season opener against Purdue on Aug. 30. The first phase was winter conditioning (the Wolf Pack's "Eight Weeks of Grit"). This second phase is 15 spring practices. Then comes summer conditioning and lastly fall camp, which starts in late July.
“You can’t cheat the steps," Norvell said. "You have to do a great job in every part of the year. We just finished up winter training and now it’s the first day of spring practice. We’re not starting a season today and we’re not playing a bowl game today. We’re starting spring practice. It’s important to stay focused on each phase. We put such a high premium on fundamentals around here. We put a high premium of being a team of action and not words. We don’t want to talk about it. We want to be about it. We want our leadership to show that, and we’ve done a great job with that. We just want to take every step at a time the way it comes and do a great job.”
After a 3-9 campaign in his first season and 8-5 record in year two, Norvell is dreaming bigger. He wants Nevada to be a team that plays in a New Year's Six bowl, a goal that will only be met if the Wolf Pack is the best of the 60-plus FBS teams in the Group of 5 conferences. It's a place the Wolf Pack has never reached before but one that he thinks is achievable.
The Wolf Pack made big gains last season, reaching a bowl for a first time since 2015 and hitting eight victories for the first time since 2010. But there are plenty of question marks entering this season, as many teams around the nation face in the spring. For Nevada, those questions include:
* Who will win starting quarterback job?
* Who will replace McLane Mannix as the team's go-to receiver?
* How will Nevada's offensive line look after losing three starters?
* Who replaces the pass-rushing lost after the departure of Malik Reed and Korey Rush?
* How will the secondary fare after losing three safeties who combined for 110 starts?
The answer to those questions started to form during Nevada's first practice Tuesday, with Cristian Solano, a senior, taking first-team reps at quarterback. The quarterbacks were not available to speak with the media after the first practice, but each had their bright spots.
With only 11 starters back, Nevada has to replace half of its starting roster. But Norvell believes his team is up for the challenge after a long winter-conditioning period that pushed back the start of spring ball.
“We’re much more physical, we’re bigger and we’re more athletic," Norvell said. "That was one of the things that was a measuring stick for us in the bowl game (a 16-13 overtime win over Arkansas State). We played against a very athletic team and a team that was very quick and strong and physical and it kind of gives you the measure of where you have to be at if you’re going to play bowl teams. If you're going to be a consistent bowl team, you have to be strong and physical. We’ve made a lot of progress in the offseason. That’s one of the reasons we pushed practice back to get eight weeks of winter training so we can get bigger and stronger and our strength coaches did a tremendous job.”
Almost all of Nevada's roster is now comprised of players Norvell has recruited and he is pleased with the culture that's in place.
“I like my football team," Norvell said. "I really do. I like the way we work. I like our leadership. I like our understanding of what we’re trying to do. There’s not a lot of nonsense with these kids right now, and that’s what I like about them. You basically get what you do on the practice field. We’ll get on the field what we do in practice. We’ve been working really hard around here to be a blue-collar football team where we have to earn what you get and it’s starting to show in the personality of our football team. I like my team and I like the way we work and now we just have to continue to improve every day and take those strides that we need to take every day.”
The practice schedule
Nevada will practice Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for each of the next five weeks before culminating spring camp with the Silver & Blue Scrimmage on April 27 at Mackay Stadium.
“I love that we’re doing it like we did at Oklahoma where we practice a day and meet a day, we practice a day and meet a day," Norvell said. "There’s great teaching and the meetings are almost as important as the practices are because of the teaching involved. It’s the most basic element of football. We get to teach at the most basic elements and really focus on fundamentals. This is where we teach guys how to play.”
An injury update
A handful of key Wolf Pack players didn't take part in Nevada's first practice. They included: RB Devonte Lee, LB Lucas Weber, DE Sam Hammond, CB E.J. Muhammad and CB Daniel Brown. Hammond was on crutches and both Muhammad and Brown had shoulder surgery. Those three are expected to miss most of, if not all of, spring camp.
“Sam Hammond is out and we’ve had a couple of guys with shoulder surgeries, our defensive backs, we have a couple of cornerbacks," Norvell said. "Overall we’re in pretty good shape.”
Vai Taua rewarded
Former Nevada star Vai Taua was elevated to running backs coach this week after two years with the Wolf Pack in other roles.
Taua was Nevada's assistant director of player personnel and recruiting last season and a special teams analyst for the Wolf Pack the year before. He also spent two seasons at UCLA as a quality control coach and a season at East Los Angeles College. This is his first full-time FBS assistant position.
“I’m kind of old school," Norvell said. "I love when guys have to take the steps and work their way to be a full-time coach. Vai’s been an analyst, he’s worked in recruiting, he’s worked on special teams and has basically done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s got great experience as a player, both at the college level and the professional level.”