RENO, Nev. (AP) - With expectations as high as they've ever been, Nevada coach Chris Ault figures to have a pretty good idea how good this year's Wolf Pack team could be by the time it finally plays its first home game the fourth week of the season.
Picked by the league's coaches to finish second to Boise State in the Western Athletic Conference, Nevada has seven starters back on offense led by junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick and junior running back Vai Taua.
Kaepernick is the WAC's preseason pick for offensive player of the year. Last season he became only the fifth player in NCAA history to pass for more than 1,000 yards and run for more than 2,000 yards. Taua ran for 1,512 yards last season.
They open the season Labor Day weekend with arguably the biggest game in school history at Notre Dame in a nationally televised contest. Nevada has a bye week after facing the Irish then plays at Colorado State before hosting the Missouri Tigers on Sept. 25 on ESPN.
"I expect us to be a good football team," said Ault, the school's winningest coach, who enters his 25th season with a record of 198-91-1. "The tests will come early. Those first four weeks will dictate the character of this football team."
Junior defensive ends Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped are among the eight starters back on a defense whom Ault says must play better if the Wolf Pack is to live up to its billing as the biggest threat to dethrone the defending champion Broncos.
The two ends combined for 21.5 quarterback sacks as sophomores, but Nevada's pass defense ranked last out of 119 schools.
"We were a poor defense last year and we have a lot of room for improvement. We just haven't had the right chemistry on defense," Ault said. "My priority as head coach this season is to put a personality on this defense."
Ault said the defense should follow Kaepernick's example on offense.
"He's not afraid to go up to anybody on this football team, including the kicker, and get in their grill. We need that on defense, too," he said.
Moch, a second-team all-WAC pick a year ago, said "last year is in the past. It's all about the future now."
Basped, a first-team all-WAC selection last year, said the defense has to "be a lot tougher."
"We can't have any mental breakdowns. When something bad happens, we can't play the blame game," he said.
Kaepernick and Taua said high expectations are warranted.
"This is the best talent we've had since I've been here," said Taua, who scored 18 touchdowns and averaged 118 yards rushing per game as an all-WAC first-teamer a year ago. "Our chemistry is great. This summer we all played flag football together so we've already worked on our chemistry."
"The sky is the limit for this team," added Kaepernick. "We're not going to Notre Dame just to be competitive and keep it close. We're going there to win."
Nevada's biggest concern on offense is wide receiver, where junior Chris Wellington is the only one returning who has more than one career catch.
"It's a talented group but we have to see how talented they are," Ault said.
The Wolf Pack get back Luke Lippincott, a former starting running back who has been granted a sixth year of eligibility due to a medical hardship. He has rushed for nearly 2,000 yards in his career and led the WAC in rushing in 2007. But he suffered a torn ACL in the second game of the 2008 season and had to sit out the rest of the year.
Lippincott said his knee is in good shape and that the competition with Taua for playing time has made both of them better.
"I just want to make plays," he said. "I don't know how many carries I'm going to get. But that doesn't matter. I know I'm going to get the ball and I just want to show leadership and I just want to win."