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Chris Ault is the winningest coach in Nevada's history. He is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. His third turn roaming the sidelines for the Wolf Pack wasn't supposed to begin with the worst season (5-7) in his 20 years of coaching.
But that is what happened. The Pack were a bit undermanned most of the year, but there were several games in which Nevada snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. After six straight non-winning seasons, it was clear that the Pack still hadn't learned how to win.
"It showed us exactly where the program was at," Ault said. "We have to be more competitive. There is no question about it. It's got to happen. We have a tougher schedule. We have to be that much better. That is the challenge."
With the challenge ahead, Ault and his coaching staff went about making some schematic changes in the offseason on both sides of the ball.
A new "pistol" formation on offense -- where the quarterback is not under center but not quite in a full shotgun either -- is supposed to open the running game while creating more time to work in the passing game.
The Pack will employ multiple fronts on defense -- the team can operate in a 3-4 and a 4-3 -- in an effort to create more movement. "It was all to match our personnel better," Ault said. "And to match what we'll have the next few years."
Quarterback Jeff Rowe was nearly always under center in 2004, but that will change this year. The pistol has the quarterback about three steps behind center, allowing Nevada to still use its full rushing offense, and giving Rowe an easier time in his drops and more time to throw.
When Rowe does throw the ball, he will have a talented corps of receivers to throw to. Nichiren Flowers is the top returning pass-catcher in the conference and has a unique blend of speed and size that will get him a look at the next level.
B.J. Mitchell is a tough inside runner with a career average of 4.6 yards per carry. Robert Hubbard, a junior college transfer who redshirted last year, can hit another gear after turning the corner.
The Pack is going to use multiple sets -- running a 4-3 and 3-4 but always attacking. The main cog in the new scheme is J.J. Milan, a three-year starter at end who will spend plenty of time lining up on his feet on the edge instead of in a three-point stance.
Milan heads up a talented front that includes fellow senior Craig Bailey and junior Charles Wilson at end. The line will be asked to control the front to allow growth from a linebacking corps that has some talent but is largely unproven. Linebacker Jeremy Engstrom had a strong freshman campaign with 97 tackles, but he is coming off offseason elbow surgery.
The secondary is deeper -- good news for a team that had just four available defensive backs in its season finale. Making an immediate impact will be junior college corner Joey Garcia, a one-time UCLA Bruin. He'll join Kevin Stanley, Paul Pratt and Nick Hawthrone to form a talented, but still not deep, secondary.
The only specialist with a sure job is punter Justin Bergendahl. The Pack do not have a kicker on scholarship to replace four-year starter Damon Fine and will pick from a handful of walk-ons. All of the return spots are open.
Nevada has a good chance to improve on that 5-7 record from last year. Its three non-conference games are all possible victories. But Fresno State and Boise State are immensely talented, and this will not be the year that the Pack finally breaks through and contends for the WAC title. A winning record and an outside chance at a bowl bid, however, are realistic, provided the Pack answer some of their key questions. Rowe will need time to throw behind a rebuilt offensive line. But if he gets it, he has a talented group of receivers as targets. If the Pack can shore up things on defense, then Nevada has a chance at a winning campaign, something Ault is a little more used to.