Blue Ribbon Preview UNLV

COACH AND PROGRAM

Don’t let us tell you what UNLV needs to do entering the third year of head coach Mike Sanford’s tenure. The headline across the top of the team’s spring football outlook, a university publication, tells the story: “Rebels Say It’s Time For Results.”UNLV has won a total of six games the last three seasons and has had one just one winning season since 1994, going 8-5 in 2000. But Sanford, who is 4-19 in two years, unfortunately, doesn’t receive special dispensation for previous problems.

Sanford arrived at UNLV with a reputation as an offensive guru, a byproduct of his work in turning Utah’s offense from the league’s worst in 2002 to one of the nation’s best the following two seasons. Sanford brought the spread attack with him to Las Vegas but, because of injuries and a lack of personnel, hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success.

The Rebels return seven starters on each side of the ball from last season’s 2-10 team. UNLV won its first and last game of the season but in between there wasn’t much to celebrate. Eight of the team’s 10 losses were by at least 14 points and six were by more than 20 points.

“We have to be able to turn that corner this year,” Sanford said. “We have not done that. It’s time to get over the hump. Last year we were a better team than we were the year before, but it didn’t show up on our record.”

Any improvement UNLV made in 2006 didn’t show up on the won-loss ledger largely because it ranked 109th out of 119 Division I-A teams and last in the MWC in scoring defense, surrendering 31.8 points per game. The Rebels were equally bad against the run (161.4) yards per game and the pass (22.5.9 ypg), finishing eighth in the league against each.

The defense’s problems were exacerbated by an offense that ranked 112th in the nation in turnover margin (-.92) and was last in the conference in red zone efficiency, scoring on only 28-of-42 trips inside opponents’ 20-yard line. It was difficult for the defense to get stops under the best of circumstances. Throw in five interceptions returned for a touchdown, among 29 turnovers, and it’s not hard to see why the Rebels went 10 games between victories.

UNLV, which has a 16-42 all-time record in MWC play, hasn’t won on the road since Oct. 8, 2004 at BYU in John Robinson’s last season. So there is considerable work to be done if the 2007 Rebels are going to “turn the corner” Sanford was referring to.

The list of trouble spots for UNLV is long, but the team isn’t devoid of hope. Todd Berry, a former head coach at Army and Illinois State, is the team’s new offensive coordinator, taking over for Noah Brindise, who resigned to go into private business in Florida. Berry will have talent to work with, but protecting the ball will be a primary concern.

Defensively, there is no where to go but up.

Complicating UNLV’s efforts to improve is a very difficult schedule. The Rebels will play seven bowl teams from a year ago, including Wisconsin, a preseason top-10 team, and Hawaii, though both games are at home.

QUARTERBACKS

The Rebels’ shotgun spread attack will be directed by junior Rocky Hinds (6-5, 220), whose first action on the college level produced mixed results. Great expectations have followed Hinds since his days as a national top 100 recruits at Saint Bernard High School in Los Angeles and his signing with USC in 2004.

Inside the Mountain West

But Hinds’ is a cautionary tale. He suffered a torn ACL as a senior in high school and transferred out of USC after one season, choosing UNLV over Texas. After sitting out 2005 per NCAA transfer rules, Hinds made his long-awaited debut last season only to suffer a partially torn ACL in a 16-10 loss at Iowa State in game two.Hinds proved his toughness, not missing a game because of the injury, and he threw for 2,148 yards and eight touchdowns. But those numbers were offset by 13 interceptions.

“I think part of it was the injury, but part of it was he hasn’t played much football in a while,” Sanford said of Hinds’ interceptions. “Inexperience was a key. Even though he played with an injured knee, I think it was good for him to get that experience, and it will be a real plus for him this year. It’s important for Rocky to have a great year and be a guy that protects the football.”

Hinds provided everyone a glimpse of his immense talent with a 26-of-34, 351-yard, two-touchdown performance in the season finale against Air Force. Now he has to play with consistency and prove he is a good decision maker. Hinds’ ability to make better decisions will not only result in fewer turnovers but should help the team’s red zone offense, which produced touchdowns on just 22-of-42 trips inside the 20.

Hinds, who had to sit out spring practice after surgery to repair his ACL, completed 54 percent of his passes last season, so accuracy is another area marked for improvement. Hinds recovery from the surgery was going well through the early part of summer and he was expected to be 100 percent for the start of August practice.

The injury to Hinds allowed redshirt freshman quarterback Travis Dixon (6-1, 190) to clearly assert himself as the No. 2 quarterback in spring practice. Dixon, a 2004 signee who gray-shirted and didn’t enroll in school until January of 2005, is extremely athletic. He capped the spring with an 11-of-21, 124-yard performance in the spring game and led his team on a game-winning 75-yard drive.

Senior Jarrod Jackson (6-1, 205) and junior Dack Ishii (6-2, 220) aren’t likely to see playing time barring major injury problems.

RUNNING BACKS

There is reason for optimism on the offensive side of the ball, but the UNLV running game must improve significantly if that hope is to be realized. The Rebels averaged an anemic 89.5 yards per game on the ground and 3.1 yards per carry last season. They were 106th in the nation in rushing, a number that must rise to relieve pressure from an erratic passing game.Junior David Peeples (5-9, 205) is the returning starter at tailback after gaining 519 yards and scoring a team-leading seven touchdowns. Peeples had UNLV’s only 100-yard rushing game of the season, gaining 106 against Nevada, but he gained more than 50 yards just three times.

Peeples sat out the spring with a shoulder injury, opening the door for mid-year junior college transfer Frank Summers (5-10, 240). A former California signee, the junior rushed for school-record 1,515 at Laney College, earning junior college All-America honors. He also set school records for carries in a game (48), a season (254) and single-game rushing yards (280).

Summers is a bruising runner and was impressive in the spring. He will compete for the starting job on even terms with Peeples in preseason practice.

Nebraska transfer Ronnie Smith, who rushed for 138 yards on 34 carries returns, as do sophomores Lafayette Fletcher (5-8, 180) and Chris Brogdon (5-7, 210). Brogdon, who had six carries for 26 yards in 2006, has the inside track on the third spot.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

For all of UNLV’s problems last season, wide receiver wasn’t one of them, and the Rebels are returning the players responsible for 96 percent of last year’s receptions.Leading the way is sophomore Ryan Wolfe (6-1, 205), who was sensational last season. Wolfe, the MWC Freshman of the Year and a first team all-conference selection, led the league in receiving with 911 yards on 55 catches. Wolfe, who gray-shirted in 2005 and enrolled in school in January of 2006, earned first-team freshman All-America honors.

“I knew he was good from our spring, but he surpassed what I expected him to be,” Sanford said. “He is a very productive, very smart player. He is just one of those guys that has a knack for making plays. I expect him to get better and better.”

Wolfe had three 100-yard games, including a 176-yard, two-touchdown performance against New Mexico, and he was unquestionably the team’s big play threat. Two of his five touchdowns were from more than 70 yards and he had a reception for at least 38 yards in five games.

The presence of second team all-conference selection Casey Flair (6-1, 190), a junior, presents opponents with a difficult decision. Wolfe is the big-play threat, but Flair, who led the team with 67 catches for 816 yards and four touchdowns, was the go-to receiver in tight spots.

Flair, a former walk-on from Alaska, has caught a pass in every game he has played at UNLV and ranked 21st in the nation, averaging 4.3 catches per game last season. Flair sat out the spring with a shoulder injury but will be 100 percent come August.

Wolfe and Flair are hardly the only two productive receivers returning this fall. Senior Aaron Straiten (6-2, 195) and a healthy Justin Marvel (6-0, 180) could battle for the third receiver spot. Straiten, a highly touted junior college receiver, got more comfortable as last season went along. He finished with 22 catches for 249 yards and three touchdowns. After not gaining more than 24 yards in the first 10 games, Straiten caught seven passes for 133 yards in the final two games, raising expectations.

Marvel battled shoulder injuries his first two years, but if he can stay healthy, he could be a significant contributor.

Junior Renan Saint Preux (6-1, 185) and sophomore Rodelin Anthony (6-5, 220) will contribute as well. Anthony, who caught 17 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, is difficult for smaller cornerbacks to handle because of his size.

Sophomore transfers Lorenzo Bursey (5-8, 175), from Washington State, and Gerold Rodriguez (5-10, 175), formerly of Arizona, hope to make an impact.

If Hinds can stay healthy and improve his accuracy, he will have a deep and talented receiving corps at his disposal.

The tight-end position isn’t prominently featured in the spread offense, but senior Chris Butler (6-3, 245) returns. The Rebels say they plan to use more traditional tight end sets, which could allow Butler to exceed the five catches for 56 yards he had in 2006. Junior Ryan Worthen (5-11, 250), who has yet to catch a pass, will back him up.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Sanford likes the talent level along the offensive line, but UNLV enters the season with a very inexperienced bunch, returning just five players that lettered in 2006. A host of new faces will see the field in the fall, and that may not be a bad thing, because the Rebels need to do a better job blocking, particularly in the run game.But UNLV will have to work to develop depth. The Rebels started the same five offensive linemen in all 12 games last season, a run of good fortune that might be difficult to match.

The interior of the UNLV line should be solid with the return of senior guards Tim Goins (6-4, 295) and Mike McKiski (6-6, 310), both of whom started last season. McKiski is returning for his third season as the starter at right guard, while Goins is returning for his second on the left side.

Sophomore Perry Eppenger (6-3, 315) and freshman Ramsey Feagai (6-2, 360) enjoyed strong springs, and will be the primary reserves at the guard spots. Eppenger, who played in seven games along the defensive line in 2006, has made a quick transition to the offensive line.

The Rebels will be breaking in a new center in sophomore Joe Hawley (6-3, 280), but his coaches think he’s a rising star. Hawley, who played some at guard last season, will be backed up by gray-shirt freshman John Gianninoto (6-3, 275).

The line’s biggest questions are on the perimeter. Sophomore Richie Plunkett (6-6, 290), a transfer from Colorado State, and junior Johan Asiata (6-4, 325) secured the tackle positions in the spring, but neither has played a down for the Rebels. Plunkett, whose father Art was a former UNLV star in the late 1970s and played in the NFL, has the pedigree and attitude to be a standout right tackle.

Asiata redshirted in 2006 after transferring from Yuba College, and Sanford believes he is ready to protect Hinds’ blind side. Junior Mario Jeberaeel (6-4, 265) and redshirt freshman Evan Marchal (6-6, 295) will be the top tackle reserves.

KICKERS

The Rebels have one of the MWC’s best kickers in senior Sergio Aguayo (6-1, 200), but there are questions about his health. Aguayo tore the ACL and MCL in his kicking leg in the season opener against Idaho State in 2006 but elected not to have immediate surgery.The injury cost Aguayo two games and quite a bit in accuracy — he was 8-of-16 on field goals and missed two extra points — but he made a 52-yarder and confirmed his toughness. Five of Aguayo’s misses last season came against San Diego State.

He underwent reconstructive surgery after last season and is expected to be 100 percent for his senior campaign. Assuming he is healthy, Aguayo will likely resemble the kicker he was in 2005 when he made 12-of-16 field goals, including a pair of game-winners in the closing seconds.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The Rebels were last in the MWC in total defense last season, allowing 387 yards per game, and improvement in 2007 will need to be led by what they expect to be a strong defensive line. In an acknowledgment of the line’s strength, UNLV is eschewing its multiple fronts-defense of years past to employ a more traditional 4-3.Defensive end Jeremy Geathers (6-2, 245), a junior, leads a unit that returns three starters and had a respectable 24 sacks a season ago.

Geathers, the son of 13-year NFL veteran Jumpy Geathers, the nephew of former NFLer Robert Geathers, Sr., and the cousin of current Cincinnati Bengal Robert Geathers, Jr., enjoyed a strong first season at UNLV. Geathers enrolled in school in January of 2006 after transferring from Butler County (Kansas) Community College and stepped immediately into the starting lineup. He was one of UNLV’s top defensive playmakers, leading the team with 5.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.

Geathers, a second-team All-MWC selection, needs to become a more complete and consistent player, but he makes things happen.

Starting at the other defensive end spot will be junior Thor Pili (6-3, 265), who enrolled in January after transferring from Snow College in Utah. Pili, who spent two years at Oregon before transferring, had a strong spring.

Junior transfers Larry Dennis (6-2, 265) from Compton (Calif.) Community College, and Luke Plante (6-4, 245) from Chaffey (Calif.) College are expected to make an impact upon their arrival on campus. Plante, a first-team junior college All-American, had 14.5 sacks last season. Dennis was no less impressive, wracking up 82 tackles and 11 sacks at Compton.

Freshmen Daniel Mareko (6-2, 225) and Isaako Aaitui (6-3, 260) will provide depth at end.

Junior Jacob Hales (6-5, 290) and senior Elton Shackelford (6-2, 270) are expected to man the tackle positions. Hales, who started six of the final seven games last season, emerged as a leader in the spring. He finished last season with 23 tackles but the Rebels believe he is a potential all-conference player. Shackelford didn’t join the team until camp was already underway last August but came on at the end of the season, finishing with 25 tackles. With a year of experience, Shackelford should be better.

Senior Faauo Faga (6-2, 260) started five games in 2006 and will give UNLV quality depth in the middle. Freshmen Tim High (6-2, 320) and Maolo Taumau (6-0, 295) will look to carve out a place for themselves in the rotation as well.

“I think we have some guys that are pass rushers and good run defenders that should help us,” Sanford said. “The big thing we have to be able to do is control the run game and put enough pressure on the passer to help our cornerbacks and safeties.”

LINEBACKERS

The line may be the deepest and strongest component of the UNLV defense, but its greatest talent is senior linebacker Beau Bell (6-3, 245). The Butkus Award watch list member is a legitimate NFL prospect and a difference maker for a team that needs all of them it can get. But he must stay healthy.Bell, the weakside linebacker, appeared destined to be the MWC’s leading tackler in 2006 until a sprained ankle ended his season in the seventh game. Despite missing the final five games, Bell was still second on the team in tackles (76), tackles for loss (nine) and sacks (four).

He was a second-team All-MWC selection as a sophomore, despite being bothered early in the season with a groin problem, so injuries have been a hassle for the would-be star. Bell is a potentially dominant player for the Rebels — he had at least 11 tackles in five of the seven games he played in 2006.

“He’s very important to our defense,” Sanford said. “He is a key. He’s had a lot of lower leg problems. We are going to try and have him get his weight down a little this year be-cause he’s got real thin legs. We thought he might have gotten too big [last year]. We would like him to be a little lighter and a little faster.”

Sophomore Jason Beauchamp (6-3, 215) is expected to be Bell’s primary backup. Beauchamp started six games last season and was third on the team with 69 tackles, including three sacks. Beauchamp might start the game on the bench, but he will see significant action. Senior Adrian Bradley (5-11, 225) will have a tough time getting on the field.

The battle for the starting spot in the middle will carry into August. Senior Bradley Niles (6-0, 245), who had 38 tackles in eight games last season, his first at UNLV after transferring from Gavilan (Calif.) College, showed promise and is the most experienced candidate. He will have to fend off a challenge from Mississippi State transfer Jimmy Miller (5-11, 240), a sophomore.

Sophomore Starr Fuimaono (5-11, 210) will be the starter at the new star linebacker position, which will place a lot of emphasis on speed. Fuimaono played well as a freshman, finishing with 29 tackles. He appears to have a bright future, but UNLV will need him to begin shining this season.

Pushing Fuimaono will be junior KC Asiodu (6-3, 240), who started six games and had 35 tackles a season ago, but is coming off of hip surgery. Sophomore Wiselet Rouzard (5-9, 195) also hopes to earn playing time.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

UNLV’s pass defense wasn’t good last season, and that’s with Eric Wright, who left early for the NFL draft and was selected in the second round by the Cleveland Browns. The Rebels surrendered 2,711 yards passing, 21 touchdowns and more big plays than they care to remember.Improvement in the pass defense won’t be entirely the responsibility of the secondary — the defensive line is going to have to put a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks — but it’s where the lion’s share of it will reside. The first order of business will be eliminating big plays. The Rebels surrendered 10 touchdown passes that went for more than 20 yards, including a pair of 70-plus yarders.

Despite those numbers, Sanford says he is confident his starting safeties, senior Tony Cade (6-2, 205) and sophomore Daryl Forte (5-10, 185), will be solid.

“After the line, the position I feel best about on our defense are the safeties,” Sanford said. “We’re really set there.”

A transfer from Oklahoma, Cade started four games and finished with 43 tackles. Forte started eight times as a freshman and finished with 37 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. Forte is a talented young player that should justify Sanford’s confidence. Sophomore Michael Johnson (5-11, 200) and freshman Rico Thomas (5-10, 175) are second on the depth chart.

There is greater uncertainty at the cornerback spots. Senior Mil’Von James (6-0, 210) is a returning starter. He had 55 tackles and broke up three passes a season ago but needs to play with greater consistency.

Junior Geoff Howard (5-10, 185), a mid-year transfer from Grossmont (Calif.) College, showed enough in spring practice to earn the staring job at the other cornerback position. Sanford said Howard, who intercepted three passes at Grossmont last season, was the team’s best cover corner in the spring. Senior Solomon Smart (6-0, 185), who has seen limited playing time throughout his career, will try to earn a more prominent role.

Sanford even broached the possibility of a couple of freshman defensive backs playing, specifically three-star prospect Nehemiah Mundy (6-1, 180), a standout at Culver City (Calif.) High School, and Rico Thomas (5-10, 175), both of whom enrolled in January.

PUNTERS

All-conference punter Kip Facer and his 45.2 yards-per-punt average are attempting to make an NFL roster, leaving a big special teams hole to fill, but senior Brian Pacheco’s (5-9, 190) resume suggests he will be an adequate replacement.A former junior college All-American, Pacheco averaged 46 yards per punt as a sophomore at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College in 2004. A 2004 signee, Pacheco was the first scholarship punter signed since 1999. He red-shirted in 2005 and didn’t punt in 2006, so he hasn’t played in game conditions in nearly three years entering the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS

With Wright off to the NFL, kickoff return duties will fall to Ronnie Smith, who averaged 22.6 yards per return on 14 returns. Mil’Von James, who averaged 18 yards on 11 re-turns, will be the secondary returner.The Rebels are in great shape with Casey Flair, who averaged 12.8 yards per return, fielding punts. On the other hand, UNLV’s punt coverage team was miserable, allowing opponents an average of 15.8 yards per return. The Rebels were last in the league in kickoff coverage as well, in part because they had only 10 touchbacks. For a team with a suspect defense, those numbers have to improve.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Rebels

UNLV’s offense will be improved, assuming Plunkett and Asiata, can anchor the edges. Hinds’ career has been star-crossed, but his potential is obvious. He must take better care of the ball, but a year of experience will help greatly, and with Wolfe and Flair he should have plenty of open targets. The Rebels will move the ball through the air; the bigger question will be whether they can grind out yards on the ground. The ability to run the ball would reduce the risks Hinds has to take passing and help keep the defense off the field.While there are reasons to believe the offense will be better, the same can’t be said of the defense. The Rebels had one of the worst pass defenses in the nation with Wright, one the first cornerbacks drafted in 2007. Even if the defensive line puts significantly more pressure on the quarterback and Bell stays healthy, it’s still hard to imagine enough improvement to approach .500.

UNLV’s quest to win more than two games for the first since 2003 won’t be helped by a schedule that features non-conference games against Wisconsin and Hawaii, though both are at home. If the Rebels can win at Utah State in the season opener, they will have a chance to improve on their win total, but asking for bowl eligibility or even a middle-of-the-pack MWC finish is probably too much.

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