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UNLV football could be something special by the time the Raiders arrive

Tony Sanchez’s second year was stunted by injuries. What happens in a healthier year 3?

NCAA Football: Wyoming at UNLV Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 5 and has since been updated.

When you finish the year with a cornerback and a quarterback on your two-deep at wide receiver, you know you’re in a mulligan year.

Sometimes circumstances prevent you from learning anything about a program. Sometimes avoiding regression is an accomplishment in and of itself. Injuries detonate the depth chart, and you haven’t built the roster up yet enough to manage it.

That was the case for UNLV. Leading rusher Keith Whitely left in late August, around the time No. 2 receiver Kendal Keys was lost for the season with a knee injury. Receiver/punt returner Brandon Presley broke his foot in week 1. No. 1 receiver Devonte Boyd missed two games, and starting slot receiver Darren Woods Jr. missed six. Three quarterbacks took a majority of the snaps in four games each.

By the end of the season, Jericho Flowers — a cornerback who was struggling to recover his own place on the depth chart after injury — was a starting receiver, and quarterback Dalton Sneed (the second of the three four-game QBs) was listed as a second-string wideout.

Predictably, UNLV’s offensive performance went from “inconsistent with high upside” to “dead.” The Rebels finished with a 45-10 home dud at the hands of rival Nevada. (Flowers and Sneed caught a combined one of seven passes.)

In production, UNLV was almost exactly the same in 2016 as it was in 2015.

  • S&P+ rating: from minus-12.3 in 2015 to minus-11.5 in 2016
  • Avg. scoring margin: from minus-5.2 to minus-5.1
  • Offensive S&P+ ranking: from 90th to 87th
  • Defensive S&P+ ranking: from 114th to 116th
  • Special Teams S&P+ ranking: from 77th to 84th

Holding the fort was an accomplishment, at least on offense. Sanchez and old-hand coordinator Barney Cotton headed into fall camp with a starting lineup in mind. They only got about half of it on the field.

Freshmen like running back Charles Williams, receivers Mekhi Stevenson, Woods, and Flowers, and guard Justin Polu played larger roles than expected. They’re all back in 2017, as are Keys, Boyd, and the known quantities.

I always say injuries hurt in the present but can help in the future. That theory will get tested, because UNLV returns two starting quarterbacks and about four starting receivers. There’s reasonably high-upside youth everywhere, and a third quarterback, redshirt freshman Armani Rogers, might have the highest of all.

These are exciting times for football in Vegas. In a few years, UNLV will get to play in the Raiders’ stadium instead of cranky Sam Boyd Stadium, their across-town home for nearly 50 years.

Meanwhile, Sanchez — Vegas’ football king after dominance at nearby Bishop Gorman High School — appears to be making inroads in recruiting, development, and community relations. Injuries prevented us from seeing that last fall, and lord knows the defense will need to come around. But there’s reason for optimism for a program that has had very little.

There’s always been a debate regarding what a fully functional UNLV might be capable of. You’ve got access to California recruits, and you’ve got a recruiting draw: the city in which you reside. But the Rebels have been to four bowls in four decades, and the job has eaten otherwise successful coaches alive.

  • John Robinson, he of seven bowl wins and nine top-15 finishes at USC, went 28-42 there.
  • Mike Sanford needed only two years to turn Indiana State around but went 16-43 in five years in Vegas.
  • Bobby Hauck won 28 games in his last two years at Montana and 15 in five years at UNLV.

San Diego State had similar issues, though. The Aztecs, with even closer proximity to recruits and the world’s most perfect climate, bowled just twice between 1987 and 2009. But under Brady Hoke and Rocky Long, they have bowled for seven straight years; in 2015-16, they went 22-6. A combination of commitment and good hires can turn any sleeping giant into a giant.

Is something similar possible in the desert? It feels like we might find out.


2016 in review

2016 UNLV statistical profile.

The fluctuating two-deep meant fluctuation on the field, at least on offense.

On defense, the Rebels were awful for three weeks (adjusting for opponent) before settling into a nice rhythm of just being bad.

  • First 3 games (1-2): Avg. percentile performance: 31% (55% offense, 9% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UNLV 5.7, Opp 5.5
  • Next 4 games (2-2): Avg. percentile performance: 42% (55% offense, 43% defense) | Avg. yards per play: UNLV 6.2, Opp 5.7
  • Last 5 games (1-4): Avg. percentile performance: 27% (35% offense, 35% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.2, UNLV 5.9

Random eggs aside — a 44-21 loss to CMU, a 26-7, lucky-it-was-that-close loss to SDSU — UNLV showed upside in beating Jackson State by 50 and Fresno State by 25, winning at Hawaii, and knocking off Wyoming in overtime. But it became harder to maintain form.

It goes without saying that the goal for 2017 is taking advantage of better depth and maintaining upside for longer. The Rebels add both last year’s injured players and redshirted members of a 2016 recruiting class that ranked third in the MWC per 247Sports. That should assure upside. Now we just have to find out about consistency.


Offense

UNLV offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

I don’t always love the thought of adding veterans in the coordinator roles, at least when it’s guys who have had lots of ups and downs on their résumé. Typically, at a program of UNLV’s stature, that means a guy who just failed at a power-conference job. (See: San Jose State’s Ron Caragher hiring Al Borges in 2015.)

Sanchez did that on both sides of the ball, bringing in former Iowa State and Nebraska offensive coordinator Barney Cotton and former [basically half the Pac-12] defensive coordinator Kent Baer.

In Sanchez’s case, though, it addressed a weakness. As impressive as Sanchez’s record was — 120-26 overall in 11 seasons at Bishop Gorman and San Ramon (Cal.) California High — he hadn’t coached college since he was a student assistant at alma mater New Mexico State in 1996. Adding some college veteranosity probably wasn’t the worst idea.

Considering the imploding depth chart, he pulled the strings as well as anyone could in 2016. He was able to craft a steady run game despite the passing game. UNLV ranked 50th in Rushing S&P+, divvying most carries out to freshmen and sophomores.

Charles Williams was steady and efficient (40 percent of his carries gained at least five yards), and Lexington Thomas was inefficient but a bolt of lightning in the open field. The two rushed for 1,405 yards and 11 touchdowns, and the quarterbacks threw in 1,000 rushing yards between them. While everybody was getting hurt around them, the line remained steady: the same five guys started every game up front.

Williams, Thomas, two of three quarterbacks, and four of five linemen all return. This is excellent news. Barring a run of injury up front (knock on wood), this should again be a top-50 run game.

Fresno State v UNLV
Charles Williams
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It stands to reason, then, that simple stability in the passing game could do wonders for the Rebels. Find a quarterback and a few receivers, keep them on the field for most of the year, and voila! Armani Rogers was the story of the spring, affirming a lot of the potential recruiting services said he had. He was one of the stars of the 2016 recruiting haul, and his two-touchdown spring game performance sustained buzz.

If Rogers wins the job, that will say something. Johnny Stanton was inefficient as a passer in September before getting hurt, but he averaged 13.5 yards per completion and 6.6 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Kurt Palandech replicated Stanton’s passing numbers (despite having fewer and fewer receivers at his disposal) and averaged 9.1 yards per carry. Neither are all-world QBs, but if Rogers fends them off, that suggests a reasonably high level of play.

The QB of choice will have options at his disposal. Devonte Boyd is a solid No. 1 target; he averaged 16.6 yards per catch with a 50 percent success rate last year. Kendal Keys, meanwhile, was becoming a go-to guy late in 2015, and Brandon Presley has flashed potential in practice, but both watched 2016 from the sideline.

Presley had a standout spring, and with Boyd and Keys still limited, sophomores Allan Cui and Elijah Trosclair did decent work in the spring, too. If three-star sophomore Mekhi Stevenson is able to generate a bit more consistency, that’s a nice set of options. And if another three-star youngster like Andre Collins Jr. or tight end Giovanni Fauolo is ready to contribute, that’s even better.

There are lots ifs here, but the passing game needs only be competent for the run game to drive a pretty exciting UNLV attack. The bar is not high.

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Jose State
Devonte Boyd
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

UNLV defensive radar

It’s a lot easier to talk yourself into the offense’s upside than the defense’s.

Despite a comparative lack of injury, Kent Baer’s defense didn’t end up showing just a whole lot to be excited about. And the unit that did — an ultra-aggressive secondary — must now replace three of its top four tacklers.

Baer makes Cotton look like a youngster. This will be his 45th year in coaching. He has served as defensive coordinator at Utah State, Idaho, Cal, Arizona State, Stanford, Notre Dame, Washington, San Jose State, and Colorado. He got his first big breaks under Bruce Snyder at Cal and Arizona State; Snyder coached his last game 17 years ago.

More recently, Baer was a successful member of Mike MacIntyre’s crew. In 2012, he was leading a top-40 defense at SJSU. But things weren’t going well with MacIntyre at Colorado, and he took a large pay cut to be a part of Sanchez’s staff.

It hasn’t gone any better in Vegas, and he’s got even more work to do this fall. From a low-upside defense, UNLV must replace not only the defensive backs mentioned above but also four of the top five linemen and each of the top three linebackers.

Granted, losing a bunch of contributors from a bad defense is only so much of a concern, but replacing them with a bunch of redshirt freshmen doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

NCAA Football: Jackson State at UNLV
Bailey Laolagi
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the known quantities for Baer’s 2017 defense:

  • Nose tackle Mike Hughes Jr. The 315-pounder led a slightly banged-up line in tackles and made 3.5 stops behind the line.
  • Cornerback Darius Mouton. The junior defensed 13 passes last year.
  • [Update: seven-game Syracuse starting safety Chauncey Scissum transfers in, eligible in 2017.]

That’s pretty much it. Maybe you count tackle Jason Fao or end Mark Finau (bit players for a couple of years), and juniors like safeties Tim Hough and Dalton Baker, linebacker Bailey Laolagi, and tackle Salanoa-Alo Wily were in the rotation last year. Still, it’s possible that JUCO transfers could end up starting at end (Roger Mann), tackle (Bruce Hester Jr.), and linebacker (Jacob Rominger), and 2016 signees will be littering the two-deep.

There’s maybe hope for 2018 here; at most, UNLV will be starting about four seniors, and I highly doubt it’s that many. And the redshirt freshmen entering the mix — ends Jamal Holloway and Rodney Jones, linebackers David Tate Jr. and Cameron Carr, corner Tykenzie Daniels — appear to have nice upside. But wow, is Baer starting from scratch here. UNLV will be involved in quite a few shootouts this fall.

NCAA Football: UNLV at UCLA
Darius Mouton
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

At least there was Evan Pantels. UNLV’s overall special teams unit had almost nothing to offer, ranking 104th or worse in punt, kickoff, punt return, and kick return success rate. Mekhi Stevenson’s 10 punt returns generated minus-five yards. This was a bad unit. But Pantels gave the Rebels at least one bright spot. He nailed all of his PATs and all 11 field goals under 40 yards.

Pantels wasn’t nearly effective in the kickoff or punting departments. But he at least assured that the Rebels would get some points out of any drive that crossed the opponent’s 25 or so. And Brandon Presley’s return might help the return game as much as it help the receiving corps.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Howard NR 32.7 97%
9-Sep at Idaho 119 -1.7 46%
23-Sep at Ohio State 2 -41.6 1%
30-Sep San Jose State 105 0.1 50%
7-Oct San Diego State 52 -14.6 20%
14-Oct at Air Force 116 -2.9 43%
21-Oct Utah State 73 -8.9 30%
28-Oct at Fresno State 115 -3.0 43%
4-Nov Hawaii 109 0.8 52%
11-Nov BYU 46 -15.5 19%
18-Nov at New Mexico 110 -3.9 41%
25-Nov at Nevada 117 -2.7 44%
Projected S&P+ Rk 118
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 68 / 129
Projected wins 4.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -11.5 (110)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 90 / 102
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 6.9
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (90%, 41%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-1.2)

There isn’t a “Yeah, but injuries” clause in the S&P+ projections; it is unforgiving in that regard. So a year in which you are particularly crushed by injury and attrition (and you probably underachieve your projections) sets up a year in which you are healthy and overachieve.

That’s what Sanchez is banking on, anyway. UNLV is projected 118th thanks to the combination of stagnant on-field performance, shaky 2017 recruiting ratings (Sanchez signed only 18 guys, and UNLV ranked 12th in the MWC), and a total lack of returning pieces on defense.

With a schedule that features eight opponents projected 105th or worse, though, the Rebels won’t have to overachieve by that much to get into bowl conversations. And while the No. 129 projection for the defense is incredibly justifiable, I think the offense could achieve at a level higher than its No. 68 projection.

It’s easy to get starry-eyed at the thought of an Armani Rogers-Charles Williams backfield, especially when it’s fronted by one of the conference’s better lines. And it’s easy to get excited about the potential of the receiving corps if it stays even somewhat healthy. This could be a really fun offense. It’s going to have to be for the Rebels to bowl.

Be prepared for shootouts. I’m pretty confident in what this program could become over the next couple of years, but the defense is going to hold the Rebels back for at least one more year.


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