2008 Blue Ribbon Preview: UNLV

COACH AND PROGRAM

When UNLV introduced Mike Sanford as its ninth head coach in December 2004, he was lauded as “one of college football’s leading offensive minds” based largely on his success at Utah as Urban Meyer’s innovative offensive coordinator.

Sanford, 53, still has a great offensive mind, but it’s wins that matter and those have been too few and too far between during his tenure with the Rebels.

Injuries and inexperience at quarterback have repeatedly derailed his efforts to implement the explosive spread attack that helped the Utes go 21-2 in 2003-04 (and helped Meyer’s Florida Gators claim a BCS championship in 2006). With just six wins since taking over for John Robinson, the 2008 season is likely Sanford’s last roll of the dice in Las Vegas.

The Rebels return nine starters and 26 lettermen on an offense that had too many stalled drives and too many empty trips to the red zone in 2007. They ranked last in the Mountain West in scoring (18.2 points per game) and red-zone success (70.3 percent) and finished eighth in first downs and total offense (353.2 yards per game).

With playmakers at running back and receiver and two quarterbacks with starting experience, the Rebels have the tools for a turnaround.

An overhaul on defense began with the staff. Sanford promoted linebackers coach Dennis Therrell to defensive coordinator to replace Kurt Barber and Vic Shealy, who split those duties last fall. Barber resigned, but Shealy stayed on as assistant head coach and safeties coach. Therrell has plenty of problems to solve, but stopping the run and getting into the backfield are the top priorities. UNLV ranked 117th in the country in tackles for loss and surrendered 183.6 rushing yards per game, including 309 by Air Force, 279 by Colorado State and 251 by TCU. The Rebels will still use a four-man front, but Therrell is willing to gamble and wants his linebackers and safeties to become more disruptive in the ground game.

“Defensively, I think we’ll be a different team next season with [his] attacking, aggressive style,” Sanford said.

To help motivate players this spring, the coaching staff borrowed a page from Nebraska’s Blackshirts and started a new tradition by awarding a black jersey to the most outstanding performer from the previous day’s practice session.

UNLV opens Aug. 30 at home against Utah State. The Rebels closed out last season with an eight-game losing streak.

“We ended on a very disappointing note,” Sanford said. “However, we were getting better and becoming more competitive. We played a lot of young guys, but we no longer have a young football team. Now it’s time for us to get results.”

QUARTERBACKS

Ah, the rites of spring. For a fourth consecutive season, UNLV finished spring practice without deciding which quarterback will pull the trigger in the shotgun spread on opening day.


Sophomores Omar Clayton (6-1, 200) and Travis Dixon (6-1, 190) appeared more comfortable running the offense this spring, but neither delivered a knockout punch. Clayton has a slight edge in passing ability and Dixon is a more dangerous runner, although both have above-average mobility.

“I think both of them did some good things in the spring, but we are going to carry that competition over into fall camp,” Sanford said. “We’ll make a decision after about seven- to nine days of camp and have a starter. The good thing is that we will have two guys that can play and have started games, which is a real plus.”

Clayton was sharp in the spring game, completing 9-of-11 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. He converted all four third-down chances. Dixon was 3-of-6 for 101 yards, including an 89-yard touchdown connection.

Last season, the two signal-callers helped the team register its highest passing completion percentage (54.8) since 1990 and combined for 503 rushing yards. Clayton was 58-of-95 for 618 yards and four touchdowns. In his first start against Colorado State, he recorded the first 300-100 game ever by a UNLV quarterback; he was 23-of-36 for 304 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 19 times for 135 yards.

Dixon completed 159-of-299 passes for 1,873 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He became the first freshman ever to lead the Rebels to a season-opening win (at Utah State), but was replaced by Clayton after seven starts. Dixon had three 200-yard passing games, including one against Wisconsin, and one 100-yard rushing effort.

Adding depth are redshirt freshman Mike Clausen (6-2, 200), last year’s prized recruit, and senior Dack Ishii (6-2, 220), a Tennessee transfer who saw mop-up duty last season. Former USC transfer and 2006 starter Rocky Hinds is still enrolled, but not part of the team because of injuries. He’s torn the ACL in his right knee three times, including the first week of fall camp in 2007.

RUNNING BACKS

Players representing 99.9 percent of the team’s rushing total (1,687 of 1,688 yards) return, a nice office warming present for new position coach Kenith Pope.

Pope succeeds Reggie Davis (now at Oregon State) after five years as the assistant head coach at Texas A&M, where he also tutored the Aggie running backs the last two seasons. After working with 268-pound Jorvorskie Lane in College Station, Pope now has another plus-sized pounder in the backfield with senior Frank Summers (5-10, 240).

Summers led the team with 928 rushing yards last season, the most by a Rebel since 2004 and the 13th-highest total in school history. He had for 100-yard games, including 190 in the upset against Utah and 187 against San Diego State. He was also fourth on the squad with 23 catches for 252 yards.

Conditioning remains a concern, though. Frank “The Tank” was running on fumes late in the season, scoring just one rushing touchdown in the last six games and gaining just 63 yards on the ground in his last two contests.

“Obviously we have very big expectations for Frank,” Sanford said. “He’s a big, physical, bruising back. He really catches the ball well and we’re going to find ways of including him in our passing game more.”

Look for the Rebels to spread the carries around to help conserve Summers for the stretch run. There are several qualified candidates.

Sophomore Channing Trotter (5-9, 195) has climbed to No. 2 on the depth chart after seeing limited action (10 carries, 47 yards) last season. Junior Chris Brogdon (5-7, 215) is another powerful runner between the tackles and speedy senior David Peeples (5-9, 200) is a former starter who was limited last fall by a concussion and a foot injury.

“We feel that it’s an improved position,” Sanford said. “David is a senior who has been frustrated with some injuries, but we fully expect him to compete for carries. Channing is very quick, very fast. He had some opportunities to shine last year, and that will help him this season. Chris also has shown flashes, but he needs to be more consistent.”

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

One of the conference’s top receiver tandems leads a deep and experienced unit. Seven of the eight players on the two-deep chart are juniors or seniors. If the Rebels can ever find a quarterback to deliver the long ball, these veteran playmakers could stretch defenses beyond the breaking point.

Junior Ryan Wolfe (6-1, 205) was first-team all-conference and freshman of the year in 2006 and honorable mention in 2007. His career-high 66 catches last season ranked third in the conference, and he recorded two 100-yard efforts, with 10 receptions for 164 yards at Air Force and 11 for 135 yards vs. Colorado State. With a bigger target on his back, he scored just twice and saw his yards per catch plummet from 16.6 in 2006 to 11.9.

Senior Casey Flair (6-1, 195) has the nation’s second-longest reception streak (35 games) and needs 34 catches to become the school’s all-time leader. He caught 54 passes for 622 yards last season, including a 10-catch, 121-yard game against Wisconsin and a 10-catch, 121-yard outing at Wyoming.

“We expect another big season out of them both,” Sanford said. “We’ve got to have a good balance to our run and pass games. We need to get the ball to our receivers more to make bigger plays down the field.”

Other projected starters are juniors Rodelin Anthony (6-5, 220) and Jerriman Robinson (6-1, 185). Anthony is an ideal red-zone target who led the Rebels in yards per reception (15.8) in 2007 and was the first offensive player to earn the coveted black jersey in spring practice. Robinson was a nice surprise last season after transferring from Texas Southern and has breakout potential. Seniors Renan Saint Preux (6-1, 185) and Gerold Rodriguez (5-10, 175), junior Justin Marvel (6-0, 195) and sophomore walk on Tate Knutson (5-10, 175) are in the rotation.

Saint Preux didn’t have a catch last year but demonstrated impressive acrobatic skills this spring and earned a black jersey. He had three catches and a touchdown in a scrimmage and four receptions for 57 yards and a score in the spring game.

Rodriguez, an Arizona transfer, is a quick, capable backup. Marvel missed most of the last two seasons with injuries, but he capped a nice spring with three catches for 81 yards in the spring game.

Tight end is mainly a blocking position in this offense, and senior Ryan Worthen (5-11, 255) looks like a reliable replacement for Chris Butler.

UNLV shifted redshirt freshman Austin Harrington (6-3, 230) from the defensive line and signed freshman Alex Young (6-4, 235) of Central Catholic High in Modesto, Calif., to add depth. Young hauled in 31 balls for 440 yards and six touchdowns last season.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Sophomore left tackle Matt Murphy (6-4, 300) is the leader of a unit that loses only one starter yet will have a much different look in 2008 with players shuffling positions.

“The offensive line is more experienced and the most talented group we’ve had here,” Sanford said. “What we have to do is figure out who our best five players are and get them on the field in the fall.”

Murphy is a next-level talent who earned first-team freshman All-America and honorable mention all-conference honors in 2007. Senior Johan Asiata (6-4, 315), who sat out this spring with a shoulder injury, moves from right tackle to left guard and will battle titanic sophomore Ramsey Feagai (6-2, 360) for the starting slot.

Sophomore John Gianninoto (6-3, 285) missed part of the spring with mononucleosis and an enlarged spleen, but he has the edge at center over senior Siosifa Moala (6-1, 360). That allows junior Joe Hawley (6-3, 295) to move from center to his more natural home at right guard. Sophomore Evan Marchal (6-6, 295) worked out with the first unit at right tackle this spring with senior incumbent Richie Plunkett (6-6, 290) rehabbing a back injury.

Reserves include senior Mario Jeberaeel (6-4, 285), sophomore Mike Donato (6-3, 305) and freshman Yusef Rodgers (6-3, 275).

The Rebels must have better pass protection to give Sanford’s offense a chance to click. Although part of the blame falls on inexperienced quarterbacks who tried to scramble too much at times, UNLV allowed more sacks (32) than every team in the Mountain West except Colorado State (37) in 2007.

KICKERS

A top priority in August is finding a replacement for veteran kicker Sergio Aguayo, who made 17-of-22 field goals in 2007 and 48-of-69 as a four-year starter. He became just the ninth player in Mountain West history to eclipse 200 career points.

Junior Kyle Watson (5-9, 200) handled kickoffs last season and will attempt to hold off competition from sophomore Ben Jaekle (6-1, 165). Watson made the only successful field-goal attempt (36 yards) in the spring game.

DEFENSIVE LINE

New position coach Andre Patterson most recently spent two seasons coaching defensive linemen for the Denver Broncos (2005-06) and has worked in a similar capacity with the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots. Look for him to put a greater emphasis on stopping the run after UNLV allowed 183.6 rushing yards per game in 2007.

Senior Jacob Hales (6-5, 290) and sophomore Malo Taumua (6-0, 275) are returning starters at tackle. Taumua was the line’s most reliable run stuffer last fall with 36 stops, 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Hales, who turns 26 in September, considered giving up the game after tallying 36 tackles and three sacks last season, but he wound up as the unofficial MVP of spring drills. He earned the black jersey in four of the 15 workouts, easily the most on the squad.

“I don’t want to hang it up until somebody tells me I’ve got to,” Hales told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The Rebels did lose one lineman early, with 2007 sack leader Jeremy Geathers forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL draft. He wasn’t selected and signed a free-agent deal with the New Orleans Saints.

The projected starters at defensive end are senior Thor Pili (6-3, 275) and mid-year transfer Heivaha Mafi (6-1, 255) of Laney (Calif.) College, the same program that produced Summers. Pili is a former prep All-American who began his career at Oregon. He notched 12 tackles off the bench last season. Mafi is a speed rusher who originally committed to Kansas State. He could play a hybrid role with the Rebels.

“Mafi is a high-energy, highly enthusiastic guy with a fast motor,” Sanford said. “He fits the defensive end position that we are going to use, which is a combo end/outside linebacker spot.”

The tackle rotation includes sophomores Isaako Aaitui (6-3, 300) and Tim High (6-2, 310) and junior Perry Eppenger (6-3, 295). Despite his size, Aaitui has the quickness to line up on the outside, too.

Others in the mix at defensive end include sophomores Daniel Mareko (6-2, 230) and transfers Preston Brooks (6-2, 260) from Washington State and George Fa’avae (6-2, 260) from Idaho. Junior Luke Plante (6-3, 260) missed all of last season after injuring his left knee in fall camp.

LINEBACKERS

The Rebels lost Beau Bell, the 2007 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and a fourth-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, but Sanford insists the overall unit is stronger than last season. Bell led the Mountain West with 126 tackles and five forced fumbles and intercepted four balls. He also weighed in at 245 pounds, heavier than any other player in this undersized linebacker corps.

Juniors Starr Fuimaono (5-11, 215) and Jason Beauchamp (6-3, 215) are the starters on the outside, with junior Jimmy Miller (5-11, 230) and sophomore Ronnie Paulo (6-1, 230) competing for the No. 1 spot in the middle.

Fuimaono finished third on the team in tackles (68) despite missing three games with a shoulder injury that also kept him out of action this spring. Beauchamp showed off his sideline-to-sideline speed last season with 43 tackles. Miller appeared in nine games last season after transferring from Mississippi State (he was also recruited by Penn State, Florida State and Alabama). Paulo is a Vegas native who saw action in eight games as a freshman.

“It really hurt us when Starr got hurt, which shows how good he can be,” Sanford said. “We also expect big things of Jason Beauchamp as a junior. It’s an unproven group, but the good news is that there’s a lot of quality players.”

Two future stars are waiting in the wings. Redshirt freshman Bryce Saldi (6-3, 210) is a terrific pass rusher out of prep powerhouse Southlake Carroll (Texas) High. He registered 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior. Gray-shirt freshman Nate Carter (6-2, 230) impressed the staff with his offseason strength and conditioning work and will play 20 or more snaps per game, Therrell says. The Las Vegas High product was first-team all-state in 2006 after tallying 109 tackles.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

A solid secondary is deep at cornerback despite the loss of playmaker Mil’Von James (19 pass breakups), but there are concerns at safety with the graduation of Tony Cade and the transfer of sophomore Shane Horton to USC.

Cade and Horton had a combined 12 starts and 91 tackles in 2007. Tackling, range and speed are this unit’s strengths, but the overall lack of size could create mismatch nightmares against the league’s bigger receivers.

Sophomore Quinton Pointer (5-9, 185) and senior Geoffery Howard (5-10, 195) are the starting corners. Pointer, possibly the toughest pound-for-pound player on the team, had 50 tackles and two interceptions in eight starts last season. Howard made four starts and tallied 27 tackles, four breakups and a pick.

Reserves are speedy redshirt freshman Will Chandler (5-11, 180), senior Lorenzo Bursey, Jr. (5-8, 175), junior Lafayette Fletcher (5-8, 180) and sophomore Nehemiah Mundy (6-0, 165). Bursey is a converted receiver who caught 13 passes for 114 yards in 2007.

Junior safety Daryl Forte (5-11, 185) is a tenacious two-year starter who ranked second on the team a year ago with 94 tackles. He’ll be a steadying influence in the middle as UNLV breaks in sophomore Rico Thomas (5-11, 180).

Inexperienced juniors Michael Johnson (5-11, 210) and Earl Barnes (5-9, 190) are also in the mix.

PUNTERS

The Rebels are scouring the junior-college ranks this summer to locate a replacement for Brian Pacheco, who averaged 42.1 yards on 63 punts last season. He landed 20 inside the 20-yard line and had only five touchbacks.

Walk on transfer Zach Davis (5-11, 170), a junior from Arizona Western College, was the only punter on the roster this spring.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Junior Kamu Kapanui (6-0, 245) returns as the deep snapper and Casey Flair is an experienced holder, but the rest of this department is a blank slate.

Flair was the Rebels’ only punt returner in 2007, averaging 8.4 yards on 14 attempts. On kickoffs, Rodriguez averaged 23.8 yards on 16 returns and Bursey averaged 19.6 yards on 24 returns. All could be replaced in 2008.

“We recruited with the return game in mind, so we’ll have a lot of choices,” Sanford said. In addition to the newcomers, look for Pointer and Trotter to see action as the Rebels try to inject some explosiveness into the return game.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Rebels
Unit Grade
Offense B-
Special teams D
Defense C-
Intangibles C-

Four deuces might be welcome across town at the World Series of Poker, but not here. The Rebels have drawn four consecutive deuces in the win column, compiling an awful 8-38 (.174) record since the start of the 2004 season. They are 17-49 (.258) in Mountain West play since joining the league in 1999 and have had one winning season since 1995.

With nine starters back on offense, an aggressive and improving defense and a favorable schedule that features seven home dates, the Rebels have to be better in 2008. Don’t they?

“We’ve all worked very hard to get this program in the position to become a consistent winner and we expect to get over the hump this year,” Sanford said.

The Rebels face seven teams that went bowling in 2007. The good news is they play back-to-back road games only once; the bad news is it’s in early September at revenge-driven Utah and Pac-10 contender Arizona State. UNLV blanked the Utes, 27-0, last season and Sanford and Summers threw fuel on the fire by telling reporters that Utah defenders were afraid to tackle “The Tank.”

If the Rebels can bank two victories against a nonconference schedule that also includes Utah State, Iowa State and Nevada, then take care of business against fellow Mountain West bottom-dwellers Colorado State, Wyoming and San Diego State — and do all of that while staying healthythey’re looking at a 4-8 or 5-7 season. If not, will the program shuffle the deck and start over with a new coach in 2009?  B

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