Nevada football: The Union (O-line) has unbreakable bond
Nevada’s offensive linemen tradition — nicknamed The Union — was summed up during a warm September practice at Wolf Pack Park.
Head coach Jay Norvell blew the final whistle to end an 80-degree practice in full pads and helmets. Following a team speech, dozens of players swarmed the sidelines and headed toward the exit gate.
Most of the field was empty, excluding the Gatorade cups and towels scattered across the turf. But looking out at midfield, five members of the offensive line remained huddled in a circle with arms linked on one knee.
The huddle broke with smiles, hugs, laughs and fist bumps from each player. It’s those crucial components that form The Union, an offensive line unit tradition that’s lasted for decades at Nevada.
Their friendship on and off the field has formed an unbreakable bond between them.
“It’s like a brotherhood,” left tackle Jake Nelson said. “This is a family to me. We’re spending all day together. Whether it’s watching film, eating or training, we always do it together which is really special to be apart of.”
Along with their communication on the field, the companionship with each member has increased their chemistry as a group. It’s a contagious message that spreads from players to coaches.
“Being a part of The Union means everything to me,” center Nate Edwards said. “They’re my brothers. When you see one of us, you’ll usually see two, three or five of us. It’s so important to build that chemistry and it’s helped for sure.”
Nelson suffered a season-ending broken arm injury against Hawaii on Sept. 30 at Mackay Stadium. Prior to the injury, the senior left tackle anchored the offensive line with 30-straight starts. He was awarded All-Mountain West honors last season and was placed on the Outland Trophy watch list this season.
His veteran experience influenced the rest of the group, even if he’s off the field.
“It’s important for me to lead by example and be that vocal presence,” Nelson said earlier this season. “Knowing that I’m going to be gone after this, I need to set the foundation for the rest of the guys so we can carry on this tradition.”
Before his tenure at Nevada, Nelson competed in track and field at San Juan Hills High School in San Juan Capistrano, California. His athletic traits helps him get to the opposing defense’s second level.
“That athleticism from track and field really helps me bounce between both sports,” he said. “It helps me get to that next level and open some lanes.”
Despite road bumps throughout the year, members of The Union have a next-man-up mentality. Nelson’s injury paved the way for new faces to contribute in the trenches.
Left guard Miles Beach moved outside to help fill the void at left tackle. Jermain Ledbetter plugged into left guard. Junior Tyler Orsini and sophomore Gray Davis each had their first starts of the year against Wyoming.
No matter whose under center, the Wolf Pack have plenty of depth on the line.
“There’s always going to be competition and guys are still fighting for spots,” offensive line coach Angus McClure said earlier this season. “We have a lot of depth and rotated guys which I think is healthy this time of year. …. We may be a bit more stable with our personnel as the season progresses, but right now it’s finding the best pieces on the field at the right time.”
Changing positions is nothing new for Beach. The redshirt junior made a permanent switch to offensive line after playing tight end in 2017. He had 10 starts on the offensive line last season and has been a focal point of the offensive line.
“Some guys need to make those adjustments,” McClure said. “They need to be a schematic fit in order to compete for a spot and some of our players have made those adjustments.”
At the center position, Edwards wasn’t sure he’d start this season. The junior primarily served with the special teams unit in 2018 and didn’t make a single start on the offensive line.
Six months later, he’s front and center of the Wolf Pack offense. His adjustments and calls at the line of scrimmage keeps the rest of the offense on the same page.
“It can make or break a play if I don’t communicate with them,” he said. “I’m not only responsible for myself, but I’m responsible for four other guys on the line. If I don’t readjust something, it can bust a play for us and it’d all be my fault. So it’s important for me to prepare.”
A Reno native, Edwards didn’t make a long trip to suit up for the Wolf Pack. He played football at Galena High School, just 11 miles away from the university. His father, Tony Edwards, was also a member of The Union in the 1980s.
Through hard work and dedication, Nate Edwards has kept his local roots intact.
“There’s a lot of kids growing up who could play for this great university, and I’m lucky to be a part of it,” he said. “The guys who get the shot deserve the shot and I’m just grateful to be in this position.”
On the opposite side of the line, sophomore right guard Aaron Frost is the youngest member of the group. He cracked the starting lineup after making two starts as a true freshman last year.
Several members of The Union have worked with Frost on the field. It’s helped his progression thus far.
“They’ve really helped me work on some things to better us as a unit,” he said. “One guy can’t do everything and the guys have showed me that. … These guys are older than me so I just try to learn from them.”
Right tackle Nate Brown rounds out the unit. The junior tackle started all 13 games last season and has remained a mainstay on the offensive line this year. In high school, Brown helped lead the Tracy Bulldogs to a San Joaquin Athletic Association championship in 2013.
It may take time to adjust to new offensive schemes, but members of The Union mesh together over time. With new faces comes new personality traits that each player latches onto and they develop lifetime friendships in the process.
Nelson will make sure to keep in touch with each member of the offensive line when he departs from the Wolf Pack.
“Whatever happens down the road, they will always be my friends and brothers,” he said. “I’ll always check in on them.”
The Union has built a stable tradition on fundamental success, and this year’s unit is no different. Each player puts in the extra work needed to develop chemistry as a unit. That same energy carries off the field to form a bond like no other.
McClure and the Nevada coaching staff has found a recipe for success, and the tradition will continue its historic legacy.
“We always look at character first and we’re bringing in top-character guys,” he said. “It’s nice to see when you have a formula in recruiting and it’s able to come together when they all get along. It’s a special group and tradition that we pass on.”
— Isaiah Burrows
Next Up: Nevada, 4-4, returns to Mackay Stadium on Saturday to face the New Mexico Lobos. Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. The Wolf Pack are coming off back-to-back losses to Utah State and Wyoming. New Mexico is 2-6 overall and 0-4 in conference.
ABOUT Isaiah Burrows
Tahoe Onstage sportswriter Isaiah Burrows also is a general assignment reporter for CarsonNow.org, an online news source in Carson City. He is a journalism major at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he writes sports for the Sagebrush student newspaper. He is the Reno Aces beat writer for Tahoe Onstage.