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1. Why not?
My first impression of UNLV's hire of local high school coaching legend Tony Sanchez: hiring high school coaches doesn't work! Why in the world would they think it could?
My second impression: well, nothing ELSE has worked, so why not?
In 1986, the program hired Wayne Nunnely, a UNLV grad and four-year Rebel assistant with loads of California connections. He went 11-11 in his first two years, then 8-14, and he was done. In 1989, the Rebels hired one of the hottest young assistants in the country, 34-year-old Notre Dame offensive coordinator Jim Strong. He went 17-27. In 1994, they hired Nevada head coach Jeff Horton, who had spent time on Strong's staff. He went 7-5, then 6-39.
In 1999, instead of another unproven young coach, UNLV brought in former USC and L.A. Rams coach John Robinson. He went 8-5 in his second year and 17-29 thereafter. So they brought in another star assistant in 2005: Mike Sanford, Urban Meyer's offensive coordinator at Utah. He went 16-43.
"Hmm, we haven't tried a successful FCS coach in a while," they said. So they brought in Bobby Hauck, who was 80-17 with three FCS title appearances in seven seasons at Montana. He went 15-49, and almost half of those wins came in one season.
Since Harvey Hyde was fired in 1985 for winning with ineligible players and trying to pull off a "Jerry Tarkanian, but football" routine, this program hasn't found its footing. Hiring young and old coaches, with local and national backgrounds, the Rebels have been to three bowls and finished .500 or better five times since 1987 and has won two games eight times in the last 11 years.
There will always be perceived potential for a program this close to California and in a city with what I will call a natural recruiting draw. But you cannot win this infrequently without serious program dysfunction. And you might as well turn to a local.
"We are delighted to welcome Tony Sanchez as the head football coach at UNLV," Kunzer-Murphy said. "We aren't changing the coach of our program today, we are changing our program. In Las Vegas, we aren't afraid to take a bold approach to responding to challenges and this qualifies. We have been talking about changing the entire culture of this program and that's what today's announcement signifies. With the support of the University and of our community, we are confident Tony Sanchez is the right person to change the culture of UNLV Football. Having already become a big part of this city, he has first-hand knowledge of the challenges facing Rebel Football while also recognizing and embracing the tremendous opportunities that exist in this unique community to help us make a lasting change."
That sounds sensible. And if you're going to fail, you might as well be creative.
Sanchez comes from about 20 miles away, where he built Bishop Gorman Catholic into one of high school football's most recognizable names. He has sent four-star talent to Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Miami, Nebraska, and Duke, and a former Gorman quarterback (Anu Solomon) just led Arizona to the Pac-12 South title as a redshirt freshman.
In six seasons, Sanchez went 85-5 with six Class 4A state titles. He's still young (41), he's energetic, and technically he's got college experience (one year as a graduate assistant at alma mater New Mexico State before moving up the high school ranks).
To say the least, the cautionary tales against hiring a head coach straight from a high school -- the Gerry Fausts, the Todd Dodges -- are more noteworthy than whatever successes may exist. The skill sets are different; they are two different genres of music.
2014 Schedule & Results
|Record: 2-11 | Adj. Record: 0-13 | Final F/+ Rk: 118|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|27-Sep||at San Diego State||76||17-34||L||20%||-19.6||3%|
|4-Oct||at San Jose State||116||10-33||L||8%||-32.1||4%|
|25-Oct||at Utah State||52||20-34||L||29%||-12.8||7%|
|Points Per Game||21.9||107||38.5||116|
2. An impossibly awful start
In last year's UNLV preview, I tried to show optimism. UNLV returned some fun skill position talent and had a late-season hot streak in 2013. But the "streak" was just three games -- a possible [dons sunglasses] Mirage -- and any semblance of program momentum was cut short by bowl sanctions. In attempting to build a winner, Bobby Hauck crafted a roster that failed the NCAA's APR standards dramatically.
And with nothing to play for in 2014, the team began about as poorly as possible. And things only improved to a slight degree.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 18% (average score: Opp 39, UNLV 17)
- Average Percentile Performance (next 6 games): 28% (average score: Opp 37, UNLV 26)
With the writing on the wall, Hauck resigned before a season-ending dud against Nevada, prompting the Vegas Seven's Matt Jacob to ask, "Can anyone be a winner here?"
Whoever gets the gig, you can be assured of two things: 1) He will be a huge underdog to halt the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of losing that has come to define UNLV football for 30 years, and 2) he’ll most certainly share the optimism Hauck displayed to me at that coffeehouse in 2010: "Coaches around the country, we look at other programs and kind of gauge what goes on there," he said that summer morning. "And one of the questions that a lot of guys in my profession always asked was, ‘Why can’t you win at UNLV.’ And I’m one of those guys who asked the same question. Now I’m going to get the chance to find out."
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||37.8%||107||Succ. Rt. +||90.5||108|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||28.9||47||Def. FP+||102.0||44|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||3.9||103||Redzone S&P+||85.3||112|
|Q1 Rk||82||1st Down Rk||88|
|Q2 Rk||114||2nd Down Rk||68|
|Q3 Rk||98||3rd Down Rk||123|
3. A Barney Cotton offense
Sanchez said "Why not here?" things when his hire was made official. And if you can win big at Kansas State, if you can craft a mid-major power out of a former community college, as Boise State did, then you can win anywhere with the right hire.
It will take a while to find out if Sanchez is that guy, but his early hires suggest he knows what he's getting into.
Sanchez crafted a staff with as much college experience as possible, especially near the top. He brought on four-decade coaching veteran Kent Baer as his defensive coordinator and three-decade veteran Barney Cotton as his offensive coordinator. Cotton brought offensive line coach John Garrison from Nebraska, and Baer brought safeties coach Andy Larussa from Colorado. Sanchez snared defensive line coach Joe Seumalo after a nearly 10-year stint with Oregon.
Sanchez's staff is full of both experienced assistants and, in guys like Seumalo, high-caliber recruiters. Or at least, guys who have been good enough at their current jobs to have been hired in the same jobs at big-time schools.
The downside is that very few have ever worked together. And it's going to be difficult to figure out identity.
The recent Nebraska offenses with which Cotton was associated were run-first attacks with mobile quarterbacks and a pretty high tempo. Blake Decker, UNLV's primary 2014 quarterback, proved efficient, if not explosive, on the ground. He also took quite a few more risks than recent Nebraska quarterbacks have, in part because he probably had to.
That comes with the territory when your receiving corps consists of freshmen (Devonte Boyd and Kendal Keys combined for 145 targets) and a major all-or-nothing threat like Devante Davis (18.2 yards per catch with a paltry 44 percent catch rate). With Davis gone, Cotton might be able to wire a little more conservatism into Decker's decision-making.
Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Blake Decker||6'2, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7533||231||401||2886||15||18||57.6%||34||7.8%||6.2|
|Kevin Thomson||6'1, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7744|
|Kurt Palandech||6'1, 190||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7685|
|Dalton Sneed||6'0, 180||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7973|
|Keith Whitely||RB||5'9, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8115||118||504||2||4.3||4.5||32.2%||2||1|
|Blake Decker||QB||6'2, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7533||113||566||5||5.0||2.9||46.9%||3||1|
|George Naufahu||RB||6'0, 215||Sr.||NR||NR||52||210||1||4.0||2.4||32.7%||0||0|
|David Greene||RB||6'0, 210||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8000||3||14||0||4.7||2.5||33.3%||0||0|
|Jamal Overton||RB||5'9, 205||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||NR|
|Xzaviar Campbell||RB||5'11, 220||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785|
|Lexington Thomas||RB||5'9, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7733|
4. Got enough backs?
If UNLV's offense ends up resembling Nebraska's, that means plenty of opportunities for running backs. Nebraska backs averaged 33 carries per game over the last two seasons, and while there are interesting prospects from a "former three-star recruit" perspective, none have done much damage.
Keith Whitely looked strong early in 2014 -- in a five-game span from September 6 to October 4, he rushed 55 times for 298 yards (5.4 per carry); in the last six he rushed 39 times for 118 yards (3.0). His explosiveness numbers were average, and his efficiency was poor.
Former Rivals three-stars David Greene and Jamal Overton have combined for three carries and 14 yards. Sanchez signed a couple of incoming freshmen and could turn to them if nothing works out among the upperclassmen, but you never want to count on that.
If the running game can establish itself, it does appear there are high-caliber receiving options in the play-action game. Devonte Boyd was as steady as Devante Davis wasn't, combining a 64 percent catch rate with a solid average of 15.2 yards per catch. If the safeties are distracted, he could put up huge numbers. And at the very least, fellow sophomore Kendal Keys survived and had some bright moments -- two catches for 57 yards against NIU, two for 34 against Hawaii.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Devonte Boyd||WR||6'1, 175||So.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||100||64||973||64.0%||21.6%||66.0%||9.7||199||9.7||98.1|
|Kendal Keys||WR||6'3, 200||So.||2 stars||0.8539||45||24||310||53.3%||9.7%||60.0%||6.9||9||7.0||31.3|
|Anthony Williams||WR||5'11, 190||Sr.||2 stars||0.7200||39||24||234||61.5%||8.4%||48.7%||6.0||-59||6.1||23.6|
|Keith Whitely||RB||5'9, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8115||28||23||193||82.1%||6.0%||39.3%||6.9||-74||7.1||19.5|
|George Naufahu||RB||6'0, 215||Sr.||NR||NR||6||3||5||50.0%||1.3%||83.3%||0.8||-33||0.6||0.5|
|Jake Phillips||TE||6'6, 255||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||5||5||67||100.0%||1.1%||40.0%||13.4||11||12.7||6.8|
|Andrew Price||TE||6'6, 250||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793||5||1||14||20.0%||1.1%||60.0%||2.8||-3||2.7||1.4|
|Antonio Zepeda||TE||6'6, 265||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7683|
|Brandon Presley||WR||6'0, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7933|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|Brett Boyko||LG||42||2014 2nd All-MWC|
|Ron Scoggins||RG||6'3, 335||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8065||25|
|Nick Gstrein||RG||6'4, 295||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13|
|Eric Noone||LG||6'2, 300||Jr.||NR||NR||6|
|Kyle Saxelid||LT||6'7, 270||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7594||5|
|Patrick Carroll||LT||6'5, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7000||0|
|J'Ondray Sanders||C||6'5, 270||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||0|
|Will Kreitler||OL||6'0, 290||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7652|
|Justin Polu||OL||6'4, 310||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8389|
|Alex Neale||OL||6'3, 290||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8083|
5. An ill-timed rebuild up front
Nothing does a new coach more of a favor than inheriting a steady offensive line. The odds are good that any new guy coming in after the previous coach failed is going to have some changes in mind for the offense, but if he can count on steady blocking, he's got a chance.
Unfortunately, a line that was decent (20th in Stuff Rate, 29th in passing downs sack rate) must replace three players who had combined for 119 career starts, including four-year starting center Robert Waterman and all-conference guard Brett Boyko. There are experienced options on the interior, but a youngster like three-star freshman Justin Polu might have a chance to make an immediate impact at tackle. Cotton and John Garrison have a decent track record as line coaches, but it might take them a while to find traction.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.5%||115||Succ. Rt. +||83.7||122|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.6||79||Off. FP+||100.0||65|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.7||94||Redzone S&P+||88.1||111|
|Q1 Rk||120||1st Down Rk||125|
|Q2 Rk||109||2nd Down Rk||126|
|Q3 Rk||123||3rd Down Rk||112|
6. A Kent Baer defense
Stick in any one profession for long enough, and you're going to rack up your share of successes and failures. That's certainly been the case for Kent Baer, who has now served as a coordinator for 8 percent of all current FBS teams (not to mention 42 percent of Pac-12 teams and 21 percent of Mountain West teams): Utah State (1983-85), Idaho (1986), California (1987-91), Arizona State (1992-94), Stanford (1999-2001), Notre Dame (2002-04), Washington (2005-07), San Jose State (2010-12), Colorado (2013-14), and now UNLV.
Baer has served under Bruce Snyder, Ty Willingham, and Mike MacIntyre. He was named a Broyles Award finalist after his 2002 Notre Dame defense allowed 16.7 points per game and prompted a 10-1 start, and his 2012 SJSU defense ranked a healthy 32nd in Def. S&P+.
Of course, his Colorado defenses ranked 98th and 101st. That's why he was available.
Baer's Colorado defenses wanted to be aggressive but didn't have enough athletes. They recorded 55 tackles for loss (115h in FBS) and 49 passes defensed (89th), resulting in a dreadful Havoc Rate of 13.1 percent (105th). And while UNLV was better in the TFLs department, some of that was due to a defensive line that must now be rebuilt. Technically, Baer did improve the Colorado defense -- it ranked 117th in Def. S&P+ the year before he arrived -- and he will probably do the same for the Rebels. But the bar's really low.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Sonny Sanitoa||DT||6'3, 260||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13||29.0||3.4%||4.0||2.5||0||1||1||0|
|Dominic Baldwin||DE||6'5, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7752||12||18.0||2.1%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Najee Johnson||DE||6'4, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593||12||13.0||1.5%||1.0||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Mike Hughes Jr.||DT||6'3, 300||So.||NR||0.8007||7||10.5||1.2%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Antonio Zepeda||DL||6'6, 265||So.||2 stars||0.7683||13||3.5||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Tuli Fakauho||DL||6'1, 300||Sr.||NR||NR||11||2.0||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joseph Salazar||DE||6'4, 210||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|Mark Finau||DE||6'3, 230||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7619|
|Salanoa-Alo Wily||DT||6'0, 290||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8196|
7. An ill-timed rebuild up front, part 2
UNLV linebackers could be awesome. Tau Lotulelei is an all-conference candidate (though the MWC does not lack for linebackers), and every contributing LB from last year returns. Plus, three-star JUCO transfer Ryan McAllenan could force his way into the rotation. Sanchez said a lot of nice words about the linebackers during spring ball, so he sees the same.
But linebackers can only do damage if the line does its job. And of last year's seven leading tacklers up front, only two return: reserve end Dominic Baldwin and undersized tackle Sonny Sanitoa. And while the 2015 recruiting class can potentially address needs at running back, offensive line, and defensive back, there don't appear to be surefire early contributors up front. Players like sophomore Mike Hughes Jr. and JUCO transfer Mark Finau almost won't have a choice but to make early plays.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Tau Lotulelei||WLB||6'1, 220||Jr.||NR||NR||13||72.5||8.6%||10.5||3.0||0||0||2||0|
|Ryan McAleenan||MLB||6'2, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8300||13||52.0||6.2%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Matt Lea||SLB||5'10, 210||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7800||13||42.0||5.0%||3.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Trent Langham||SLB||6'2, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7800||13||26.0||3.1%||0.5||0.5||0||1||0||0|
|Iggy Porchia||MLB||6'2, 225||Jr.||NR||NR||9||23.0||2.7%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Marc Philippi||WLB||5'10, 220||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.7600||12||23.0||2.7%||1.0||0.0||1||0||0||0|
|Nicolai Bornand||LB||6'1, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||7||2.0||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Elexious Perkins II||LB||6'0, 210||Sr.||2 stars||0.7593|
|Ryan McAleenan||LB||6'2, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8300|
|Bailey Laolagi||LB||6'1, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7983|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Peni Vea||SS||6'1, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7000||12||72.0||8.5%||7.5||3.5||1||2||1||0|
|Kenny Keys||FS||6'4, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||13||44.5||5.3%||3||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|Blake Richmond||SS||6'3, 190||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7519||13||28.5||3.4%||0||0||0||2||1||0|
|Torry McTyer||CB||6'0, 180||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8179||13||25.5||3.0%||2||0||0||2||0||0|
|Brandon Baker||CB||6'1, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8300||12||17.0||2.0%||0||0||1||1||1||0|
|Troy Hawthorne||FS||6'3, 210||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7400||13||7.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jonavaughn Williams||DB||6'0, 190||Jr.||NR||0.8117||6||4.5||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kimble Jensen||DB||6'0, 205||Sr.||NR||NR||11||4.0||0.5%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Fred Wilson||DB||6'0, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7000||12||2.0||0.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Dominique Fenstermacher||DB||5'10, 170||RSFr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8181|
|Jay'Onn Myles||CB||5'8, 175||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8507|
|Darius Mouton||DB||5'10, 170||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8051|
|Javin White||DB||6'3, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7917|
8. Options for attacking
The line is an immense concern, but if it is only a partial liability, then Baer could have pieces in the back seven, namely big-play safeties Peni Vea and Kenny Keys (combined: 10.5 tackles for loss, five passes defensed). Losing corner Kenneth Penny hurts, as he was the only decent on-the-ball defender in the secondary. But Vea in particular is a hell of a blitzer when asked to do so. And newcomers like star recruit Jay'Onn Myles (a JUCO transfer from Pierce College) and former star recruit Dominique Fenstermacher (who redshirted in 2014) could make a difference.
This won't be a spectacular secondary, but it also won't be the defense's biggest weakness.
|Logan Yunker||6'2, 200||Sr.||81||40.5||4||27||30||70.4%|
|Nicolai Bornand||6'1, 225||Jr.||3||44.7||0||1||0||33.3%|
|Nicolai Bornand||6'1, 225||Jr.||31||59.3||8||3||25.8%|
|Jonathan Leiva||5'11, 175||Sr.||25||50.2||1||1||4.0%|
|Jonathan Leiva||5'11, 175||Sr.||32-33||8-11||72.7%||3-6||50.0%|
|Nicolai Bornand||6'1, 225||Jr.||0-0||1-1||100.0%||3-5||60.0%|
|Keith Whitely||PR||5'9, 185||Jr.||5||0.0||0|
|Special Teams F/+||52|
|Field Goal Efficiency||97|
|Punt Return Efficiency||83|
|Kick Return Efficiency||62|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||126|
9. A good set of legs
Special teams was a strength for UNLV, and while since-departed return man Marcus Sullivan was one reason, the biggest reasons were the legs: Jonathan Leiva at place-kicker, Leiva and Nicolai Bornand on kickoffs, and, in particular, Logan Yunker at punter. Yunker's return alone should assure UNLV of decent results.
We'll just have to see how much inefficiencies on offense and defense undo the damage he does.
2015 Schedule & Projection Factors
|5-Sep||at Northern Illinois||69|
|10-Oct||San Jose State||116|
|17-Oct||at Fresno State||102|
|14-Nov||at Colorado State||49|
|21-Nov||San Diego State||76|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-34.0% (120)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||108 / 105|
|2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-8 / -4.7|
|2014 TO Luck/Game||-1.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||11 (6, 5)|
|2014 Second-order wins (difference)||2.8 (-0.8)|
10. I have no idea if this will work
UNLV's not going to be very good. The Rebels have experience at quarterback, potential at receiver, a strong linebacker, a couple of solid safeties, and a mountain of unknowns. Plus, very few members of Sanchez's staff have ever worked together. This all screams "Year Zero!" to say the least.
But the Sanchez hire wasn't about 2015. It was about making the next three decades better than the last three decades. When you've gone 2-11 so many times that they should just call it "pulling a UNLV," you can afford to think long-term, and that's what Sanchez symbolizes.
Still, he'll have to win at some point, and there's no telling how likely that is. Sanchez made smart hires and managed to put a combination of coaching veterans, high-upside recruiters, and familiar faces (like QBs coach Ron O'Dell, whom he brought from Gorman), and his first signing class was decent (seventh in the MWC, according to the 247Sports Composite). Now he'll need a few more.
Las Vegas isn't a patient town, but Sanchez will probably get more patience than others would.