Before Nevada football spring camp began, coach Jay Norvell highlighted his defensive line as one area that needed to improve for the Wolf Pack to get to a championship level.
Now that Nevada is at the end of spring camp, how does Norvell feel about the group?
"We've really shown a tremendous improvement," Norvell said while raving about his defensive line this week.
The Wolf Pack returned all of its notable defensive linemen from last season's 7-2 campaign. That included two all-conference players in defensive tackle Dom Peterson and defensive end Sam Hammond, who has been limited this spring as he returns from offseason knee surgery. Despite that talent, Nevada's defensive line was not overwhelming in 2020. It was a little above average.
The unit ranked sixth among 12 Mountain West teams in rushing yards allowed per game (138.1) and yards allowed per carry (4.0) and had only 15 sacks in eight regular-season games before exploding for eight in a bowl win over Tulane, the most for the program since 2003. Norvell wants to see that kind of pass rush game in and game out this season.
"I was disappointed that with the talent we had last year I thought we'd have more of an impact effecting the game with our pass rush," Norvell said. "And we have this spring. I just love what we're doing in terms of getting our guys up the field. I love how we're effecting the quarterback in the pocket. We need to get more tip balls. We need to get more sacks. And I just believe that you change the game with your defensive pressure, with your defensive front. That's the advantage of being in a four-down front. I think we have a much better understanding of our techniques. I think we have multiple players capable of rushing the passer."
Nevada switched from a three-man front base defense to a four-man front base defense last season while swapping out coordinator Jeff Casteel for Brian Ward. Norvell said it takes some time to adjust to a new scheme and he's seen major progress from his defensive front this offseason. Ward, who coached linebackers last season, is now coaching defensive tackles with Jackie Shipp coaching defensive ends. That tag-team coaching situation shows the emphasis Norvell has put on improving the front.
"We have a really good feel now," Norvell said. "We had been a three-down team for our first three years here at Nevada and made a conscious effort to go to four down. There's just different techniques, and it took a little bit of time for our guys to understand that. But we have real competition, we have athletic ability, we have savvy and experience in that room of defensive linemen. We've really put an emphasis on it. Coach Shipp and Coach Ward are both working with those guys, and I just think we're really improving our pass rush."
While listing the players who have made the biggest gains from the end of last season to now, Norvell named several on the defensive line, including walk-ons Daniel Grzesiak and Jack Powers; veterans Tristan Nichols and Kameron Toomer; youngsters Breylon Garcia and Teivis Tuioti; and transfers Chace Davis and Chris Whittaker. Those guys are in addition to returning starters Hammond, Peterson and Zak Mahannah (Toomer also started last year).
"We've got tremendous depth at the defensive line, and I'm really, really excited about what we can be there and the competition that we have," Norvell said.
Norvell also said he was impressed with the play at linebacker ("Daiyan Henley has made tremendous strides in understanding the position. He came here as a wide receiver and might be the most athletic kid on our team. He's had a great spring.") and among his defensive backs ("The secondary is really changing for us. We have depth and athletic ability for the first time at safety, and that's exciting."), but everything starts up front. And Nevada could have its best and deepest defensive line of Norvell's five-year tenure entering its second season in Ward's system.
"I really believe understanding those techniques, working on their speed moves getting up the field and getting those natural rushes has helped our football team with the way they've been able to work the last 15 practices this spring," Norvell said.
You can watch Jay Norvell's full press conference from this week below.